By Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk
With apologies to Oscar Wilde…
Those of you that know me well have probably heard this before. But it doesn’t hurt to say it again.
Here’s the thing…historically, professional services firms have grown—some quite well—through referrals and word of mouth. If your trusted colleague said that ABC Partners was a good firm, then you’d probably check them out. But the economic downturn threw a big wrench in the works, and many firms have seen flat or declined revenues in recent years and are left wondering why.
But all is not lost. It’s more important than ever to differentiate your firm for your audiences. When funds are tight, your clients are going to shop around. And when one firm looks just like another, they will tend to go with the cheaper option, like it or not.
Here’s an example. John owns a small manufacturing company, and is looking for a new accounting firm. Both ABC Partners and XYZ Associates have been highly recommended. Here’s a bit of detail that John was able to glean from their Websites.
- ABC Partners is a full service accounting firm that has provided outstanding client service for more than 30 years. We are a trusted advisor for our clients. Our partners have outstanding expertise in tax, audit and other advisory services.
- XYZ Associates is a full service accounting firm that provides tax, audit and consulting services for the manufacturing, restaurant and real estate industries. We specifically hire those with experience working in each of these industries so they know how to provide the advice and services you need to run your company profitably and efficiently.
All things being equal, which would you choose if you are John? My bet is you’d give preference to XYZ since they state up front that they understand the manufacturing industry. John may even be willing to pay a bit more for their services, since he anticipates that they’ll be more efficient.
Specializing in industry niches is a great way for firms to differentiate, but it’s only one of many. Maybe you focus on start-ups and small businesses. Maybe you provide two hours of free consulting before engagements. Maybe you are the elite firm that only works with high net worth individuals and their families and estates.
Whatever it is, make sure you sound different than ABC Partners. Frankly, if you aren’t providing excellent client service on a consistent basis, you shouldn’t be in business in the first place—and probably won’t be for long. At this point and in this competitive market, that’s the bare minimum that you can say.
I realize it is hard to put a stake in the ground and say this is what sets you apart, but in the end it will pay off substantially.
I’ll close with an example from the retail world. Ten years ago, Walmart ruled the large box retailers, and it was nearly impossible for Target to compete on price. So they decided to let Walmart have that market and differentiated themselves in a major way. They changed their logo, branding and advertising to be much more hip and cool. They upgraded some of their products and focused on affordable, but chic, clothing and accessories. They insisted that their stores be clean, easy to navigate and staffed with friendly personnel. They targeted a younger market that cared about these types of things—often more than price—and watched their revenues soar. And this younger market still prefers to shop at Target even now that they are entering middle age and buying for their families. They set themselves apart from Walmart in a variety of ways, and it worked, and continues to do so.
And it can work for you too. Think about what sets you apart from other firms, and customer services can’t be one of them. Everyone says that to the point that it’s just noise now. What do you do differently? And if there’s nothing different about you, create a new service, go after a new market or start focusing on a particular type of business. And then shout it from the rooftops! You’ll be surprised at how effective this can be.
Remember, great is subjective; different is objective. Be different!