Finding a differentiator for your professional services firm is not an easy task. Many firms struggle mightily only to come up with a differentiator that doesn't really differentiate them at all.
To be successful, a differentiator must meet three important criteria:
- It must be true. You can't simply make it up.
- It must be important to potential clients. If not, what's the point?
- It must be provable. If you can't demonstrate that it's true, it won't be believed.
The sad reality is that most differentiators fail on at least two of these criteria.
But take heart, there are many successful differentiators. Here are 21 that work for many professional services firms. And remember, you can have multiple differentiators - they can be combined to create a powerful competitive advantage.
1. Specialize in an industry
This is perhaps the easiest and most successful differentiator for most firms. Clients value the specialist in their industry. But be careful. If you try to specialize in too many industries, you'll lose credibility.
2. Specialize in serving a specific role within your client's organization
This role-based specialization is also quite successful, especially if combined with an industry focus. If you head IT at a law firm, it's comforting to know that your service provider specializes in helping people just like you.
3. Specialize in offering a particular service
This is also quite successful, especially if the service you specialize in is rare and hard to find. But beware - unique service offerings can quickly become mainstream. Witness Sarbanes-Oxley compliance or social media marketing as two recent examples.
4. Offer a truly unique technology or process
By truly unique, we don't mean your process that starts with assessment and ends with monitoring results and making adjustments, we mean an approach that is a whole different way of tackling the problem and offers a unique benefit to the client.
5. Focus on understanding a particular target audience
A key differentiator for some firms is their in-depth understanding of a particular audience. Your firm might specialize in marketing to Baby Boomer women, for example, your clients might be retirement planners, insurance companies, or clothing retailers.
6. Specialize in serving clients of a certain size
This is a common differentiator, although some folks don't think of it as such. Perhaps you work exclusively with the largest companies in the world. Contrast that with a firm that focuses on solo practitioners. Either firm could have a competitive advantage over the firm that serves clients of all sizes.
7. All of your staff shares a specific characteristic or credential
Everyone feels like they have a great team so it's tough to make that stick as a differentiator. But what if all of your programmers hold PhDs in Computer Science? That's both provable and meaningful to a potential client. Or perhaps all your project managers are PMPs. Not as distinctive, but also provable and relevant.
8. Specialize in clients that share a common characteristic
This differentiator is focused on a characteristic of your clients other than their industry or role. Let's say you provide accounting and tax services for expatriates. They might be from any country, in any industry or any corporate role, yet you'll have a competitive advantage.
9. Focus on solving a specific business challenge
Here, the spotlight is not on the client as much as on the nature of the business challenge they're facing. To work, it must be a challenge that is easily recognized and tough to solve without specialized skills and experience. Helping firms secure their first government contract is an example.
10. Have one or more individuals who are Visible Experts in their fields
This is a time-tested strategy that works very well. Having the country's top expert in your specialty is a very powerful competitive advantage. Many firms have been built on this differentiator alone - add multiple high visibility experts and you'll have a compelling and valuable brand.
11. Offer a unique business model
Everyone in your profession bills by the hour, but you offer a fixed fee. Voilà, a perfect differentiator is born. A unique business model can be both meaningful and easy to prove. But be watchful. If it works well, you're likely to accumulate imitators.
12. Have a specific geographic focus
This is a very traditional differentiator that's losing some of its punch as technology and common business practices are making geography less important. But take heart, it can still work in situations where local knowledge or face-to-face interaction are still seen as important by potential clients.
13. Offer access to a unique set of information not available elsewhere
Sometimes, access to certain information can be very valuable to potential clients. Do you have benchmarking data that no one else possesses? Some firms have built very valuable practices around proprietary data not easily duplicated.
14. Offer a unique set of contacts or relationships not easily accessible
While the previous differentiator focused on information, this one is focused on relationships. Public relations firms have long used relationships with reporters and editors as differentiators. What relationships can your firm bring to the table?
15. Do Business with a Distinctive Level of Service
In most cases, offering good client service is simply the price of entry - everyone does it, or claims to. To become a differentiator on this front, your level of service really has to truly stand out. Can it be done? Indeed, there are still some physicians who make house calls.
16. Distinguish yourself by the clients you have
Having an impressive client list is a plus for many firms. But what if you take it further? Some firms differentiate themselves based on their client list. For example, if your firm serves the higher education market and your clients are Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, you have a differentiator.
17. Focus on the size of your firm
'We are the largest [___]' - fill in the blank. Size sends a signal that you're doing something right in the minds of many potential clients. This combines nicely with a specialization to show both relevance (the specialty) as well as success (the largest). Find a niche and dominate it.
18. Emphasize your relationship with a parent firm or partner
A close relationship with a parent firm can be a limiter (potential clients may feel like you cannot be objective about other technologies for example). But for other potential clients, it can be a big asset. Who knows the ins and outs of the technology better? This same differentiator might also be applied to situations where your firm is a value-added partner rather than a subsidiary.
19. Focus on a notable signature accomplishment
Some firms can build a strong brand based on achieving a notable accomplishment - firms that invented a technology or solved a highly visible problem for a very well known client are good examples. This type of notoriety can be leveraged throughout an industry and over time.
20. Specialize in producing a unique or very valuable result
Similar to number 9, where you focus on a notable business challenge, this differentiator focuses on a valuable result. The key difference is that you may need to overcome multiple business challenges to produce the valuable result. For example, you might specialize in turning average growth clients into high growth firms. This could involve solving a wide range of business challenges, rather than a single one.
21. Look or act differently than all of your competitors
Most professional services firms tend to look and act a lot like their competitors. Why? Perhaps you have been in the industry for a long time. Or perhaps doing things differently feels risky. Well, a very different look and feel can be a powerful differentiator for this exact reason. Combine this with other differentiators and you have the makings of a robust competitive advantage.
There you have it, 21 differentiators that have proven to pass the three hurdles that every differentiator must clear. And remember, these can be combined in ways that make your firm unique in a way that no single differentiator can.
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