How to differentiate your professional services firm

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Differentiating your firm from the competition – It is one of the most difficult tasks in professional services and yet one of the most important.

The perceived reality in the minds of many clients is that all accountants/lawyers/consultants offer pretty much the same services, in the same markets with the same outputs. When you see the examples below from real proposal documents, it’s easy to see why this view is held.

So how can you make your firm stand out from the competition in the minds of your current and prospective clients?

The key for professional services firms is to understand that difference is in the mind of the beholder; it is a function of the buyer, not the professional services firm. Not “why we are different” but what is different about us from the client’s perspective.

Psychological research shows that the key triggers of persuasion take place in the receiver of the message (the client), whereas persuaders (professional services firms) typically account for less than 10% of the effect.

Consider the following critical questions: What is most important to this prospective client at this time? What is unique about their situation? Do you understand the prospective client’s context? Have you framed their situation? What are their values and future goals? What stories could you tell that directly relate to them? Which behaviours are and will be critical to them? How will you demonstrate those behaviours?

Only once you have the answers to these questions can you start to realign your experience and put together a proposal.

Too often however, professional services firms try to formulate a ‘differentiation statement’ that in fact has completely the opposite effect and makes everyone look the same.

What’s more, as every client is unique, so your proposal needs to be different every single time – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

For many years we have analysed the ‘unique’ proposals offered by professional services firms and found that there is actually very little ‘unique’ about them.

Below are some real examples of quotes taken from client proposals that we have seen over the last few years from many ‘different’ firms across the professional services spectrum.

The common responses found in client proposals can be put into 3 categories:

1. All about us (the professional services firm):

Often found under the section “why we are different” these differentiating factors could legitimately be claimed by every other professional services firm:

  • Sector experts
  • A unique approach
  • Our team / Our experience / Our solution
  • Much more than just…
  • Deep functional expertise
  • Large scale operations transformation experience
  • Long track record
  • Deep experience
  • We cover a broad range of strategic, operational and tactical topics
  • Functional depth
  • Additional services expertise

2. Surely that goes without saying?

Promising that you will do exactly what the client would reasonably expect from any services provider will not separate you from the crowd:

  • “Partner-led” service
  • Client sensitivity
  • Will prioritise quick wins
  • Strong on analysis and implementation
  • Objective and independent view
  • A sense of urgency and pragmatism
  • Ensure deliverables
  • Readily available and accessible
  • Collaborative approach
  • Improved business outcomes
  • Focus on quick wins and strategic impacts
  • Best practice advice
  • Leading industry insights
  • Top practice thinking
  • Objective advice
  • Will develop deliverables
  • Proven methodology
  • Willingness to partner
  • Focus on delivering results
  • Improved efficiency and effectiveness
  • Well-defined objectives
  • Will deliver tangible value to clients

3. Flowery jargon – what does that actually mean?

Attempting to impress the buyer with long phrases, clichés or punchy sound bites will often have the opposite effect, particularly when it is simply a different way of saying exactly the same as everyone else:

  • We have multiple operational levers
  • Will create step change margin improvement
  • We will team with your management
  • Free up your time to leave you to focus on what you do best – running your business
  • Rapid diagnostic to identify improvement
  • Comprehensive profit improvement program
  • Complete set of levers
  • Thought partnership
  • Will facilitate success of process
  • Will drive engagement
  • Collaborative working style
  • Robust toolkits
  • Unique tools for speed and effectiveness

Client’s values, self-image and future goals

Clearly you need to demonstrate that you have the knowledge and credibility to do the work but how can you illustrate this to the client in a way that is unique and links with their own values, self-image and future goals?

As Seth Godin suggests: “Cross out every sentence that could have been written by someone else, every box check, every predictable reference. Now, insert yourself. Your truth and your version of what happens next.”

Next time you are responding to a client opportunity, take a risk. Be original. Be relevant. Don’t allow your response to be filed away with the rest and ignored:

1. Tell the client’s story – engage them rationally and emotionally. Give the client a compelling vision of the future (not ‘wheel-in the coffin’). Create a “Hero’s Journey” story where the client plays the role of the hero.

2. Illustrate a clearly defined, tangible benefits case – provide both financial (cost-savings) and non-financial metrics (increased productivity, culture change).

3. Demonstrate your belief in the success of the project by considering flexible fees arrangements.

4. Provide case studies that show how the client’s situation is similar to others you have encountered but different – client’s don’t want to hear that they are the same as others.

5. Offer ideas and an experience that gives the client security and optimism, not just a rational reason to choose you.

Changing approach will be hard for anyone working in professional services where time is a scare resource (duplicating previous proposals is the quickest option) and many are risk averse.

But what’s the worst that can happen?

Option 1: Take a risk. Get noticed. Stand out from the crowd. Give your firm a far better chance of winning.

Ok, you may still lose.


Option 2: Maintain the status quo. Look the same as everyone else.

You definitely lose.


Image by Flickr user Nan Palmero used under Creative Commons License.