The Magic of Opinion
differentiate (/ˌdifəˈren(t)SHēˌāt/): to make or become different in the process of growth or development
A hard lesson I learned in life is the value of being myself. Through social conditioning I became a master in my earliest years at modifying my behavior to gain the approval of others. Folks like me are fortunate if and when we manage to gain an awareness that such approval, or at least its reward, is a myth. We may please others by taking certain action, but if we make pleasing others a priority at the expense of our authenticity, we inevitably rob ourselves and others of the unique gifts with which we are endowed. I’ve come to know that, for me, living a life of fulfillment means breaking the chains imposed by conditioning and accepting myself as I am. When we stop trying to be what we think others want us to be, we begin discovering treasure that was locked away when we were too young to remember.
Is there a lesson here we can take with us on our Monday morning commute to the office?
Business is human.
As is true for humans, the extent to which leaders in professional services practice authenticity impacts the foundation of our firms’ uniqueness. We, as leaders—whether owner, partner, or shareholder—help shape perceptions in the minds of our employees and the marketplace through not only the work we pursue and perform, but through how we talk about it. These perceptions, arguably the most important element of our brand, can be shallow, vague, and indistinguishable from our competitors, or they can be deep, precise and unique. The latter circumstances arise only when leaders successfully articulate their firm’s uniqueness underlying its pursuits. We cite such firms as examples of successful differentiation.
What it Means to be *Different* In Business
Throughout my marketing career I’ve seen the struggle that can ensue in the quest for differentiation. Only a small percentage of professional services firms ever succeed in articulating it. While many profess to be different, their claims are too often clichés that do nothing at all to express anything truly unique. Some common examples include:
- our integrity is beyond reproach…
- we have the best quality products…
- we offer the best customer care...
- we offer the best value...
Look, any of these claims may be true, but unfortunately 9 out of 10 of your competitors are going to be saying the same things. What’s unique about that?
Begin with the Basics.
If you want to differentiate your firm, you have to start with two simple and important decisions that ultimately describe your firm’s focus:
- Who are we going to serve?
- What are we going to do for them?
Depending on how well you answer these questions, you may have already gone a long way toward being different. If, for example, you say you want to help mid-size B2B accounting firms develop strategies for hiring top-notch business valuation experts, congratulations! You have successfully articulated a niche, or focus—a target market (mid-size B2B accounting firms) combined with a discipline (finding and hiring experts in business valuation)—that probably puts you into a relatively exclusive group of service providers. There may be any number of generalist recruiting firms that would say they can do what you do, but there’s a magic that happens when you hone in on performing a relatively narrow range of services and a specific segment of the market. That, in and of itself, is a topic for another day. But if you claim that you provide engineering services to government entities, you're playing in a vast ocean, and that message alone does nothing to effectively differentiate you.
Successfully articulating a narrow focus is a good start, but does not alone constitute a strong position. There are, according to some, a wide array of ways to further differentiate a firm. Here are the two most common approaches:
Where most firms go next to further articulate their uniqueness, beyond their target and their discipline, is by answering this question:
- How do we do what we do?
I think this approach toward differentiation can work, but only if there is something truly different here. Two problems can appear with a differentiation strategy dependent on "how". The obvious one is that many times there’s little difference between how professional services firms solve their clients' problems. Less obvious is that even when there are substantial differences, the differences don’t necessarily result in a better outcome. And finally, because the services delivered are often complex, trying to articulate differences in a compelling fashion can be challenging. Again, it can work, but your uniqueness here has to benefit the customer if it's going to be a useful differentiator.
Okay, so where to from here, then? Another question that some use to help differentiate themselves is this one:
- Why do we do what we do?
For better or worse, though, clients often don’t care about why your firm does what it does. It may be a great internal motivator for your team—and that’s a good thing—but in my experience “the why” seldom facilitates making a sale, no matter how unique or compelling it may be.
I Get It. It's Hard.
Okay, now differentiation is starting to look difficult. And it is difficult. If it weren’t, we’d all be doing a lot better job at it. But there is a way to differentiate your firm to positively impact the quality of your leads and your close ratio. It’s less prescriptive than the other questions explored, and it has to do with your point of view. Think about the work your firm does. Think about how your industry goes about solving problems. What is it that you believe to be true that others might disagree with? The more polarizing the better. Maybe you’ve been careful to keep it to yourself all these years because you don’t want to ruffle any feathers. Well guess what, you should start ruffling.
The Magic of Articulating your Point of View
Through articulating your professional point of view (ahem, opinion) and how it manifests in your work, you will immediately separate your firm from the pack. What’s more, you will find that your point of view will either be rejected or lauded. Perfect! This is what we want, as it serves as a compass to identify the client relationships that will fulfill us and generate the greatest returns for our efforts.
When firms are perceived as different, they get noticed. And nothing makes us more different than our opinions. Embracing and articulating those opinions—once we’ve established a meaningful focus—is the most powerful thing we can do to differentiate our firms.
At Digett we believe that professional services firms need to raise their expectations. We believe that for any number of reasons company leadership is not, most often, pursuing digital transformation, and that by introducing a framework and a roadmap we can help professional services firms not only create a bolder vision, but also implement new digital tactics strategically to grow the firm and improve the customer experience. Our uniqueness has evolved over time, and will continue to do so. But we have arguably differentiated ourselves, and we are determined to help others in professional services do the same.
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