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Sustainable Brand
Differentiation for Professional
Development of a
differentiated, tough-
Technical Qualifications and Experience
The most basic...
Technical skills and
subject matter expertise
are simp...
As a generality—and
this is definitely not a
the other or that one project manager is
technically s...
What do we mean by the terms “experience”
and “transfo...
Communication and
Empathy are
and there ar...
Creating a great
experience for your
client is difficu...
John Wooden, the
legendary basketball
coach, said “Fa...
To Be or Not To Be
understood the how
and personal activities, it’s easy for one to put
1. Pine, B. Joseph and Gilmore, James H....
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Brand Differentiation for Professional Services Firms FINAL


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Brand Differentiation for Professional Services Firms FINAL

  1. 1. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 1 Sustainable Brand Differentiation for Professional Services FirmsDavid S. Harrison “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou Professional Services Firms often desire to brand themselves as having subject matter/technical expertise beyond thatof their competitors. This is difficult to prove, difficult to sustain and difficult for clients to translate into a hard benefit. A sustainable approach to brand differentiation involves a focus on clientexperience and transformation. A great experience leaves the clientsaying “I really enjoyed working with that firm; I feel very good aboutthe project.” A transformational experience results in the clientsaying “They did a great job; Ilearned a lot and I feel really good about myself.” he first article in this series dealt specifically with the concept of brand convergence and how it can create very strong, positive branding in specific market spaces. Examples were provided showing how brand convergence can create loyal customers and how lack of convergence can lead to the demise of a firm. The second article in this series will explore the concept of brand differentiators for professional services firms. The article postulates that there exist specific branding elements that can create a suite of positive, highly valued differentiators for a professional services firm that will keep their clients coming back for more. These elements exist within the context of service delivery and they are not “objective” insofar as one could not say that any of the differentiating elements pertain to technical superiority of the firm or the people providing the service; nor do they relate to firm experience or individual qualifications. Rather, the differentiators that can set a firm apart are all subjective and clearly demonstrated within the confines of service delivery. Brand Differentiation A company’s brand is simply what the consumer of that company’s products or services feels about the company’s offerings. Notwithstanding the seeming objectivity of a comment that a particular brand of laundry soap cleans ones clothes better—it’s really nothing more than a feeling. You can say, “I feel that Brand X is better than Brand Y.” Rarely, if ever, can you unequivocally “know” this to be true. This applies to both products and services –you can say the same thing about a dentist, engineer, accountant, or management consultant. The objective facts normally are not available to most consumers of both products and services. A consumer’s feelings about a product are often evoked by a logo, trademark, jingle or catchy billboard. This is generally not true for most professional services firms. Yes, a global accounting firm has a logo that is recognizable, but it likely does nothing more than cause a client, or potential client, to note that the logo represents a company. For professional services firms, overwhelmingly, brand feelings are evoked by the firms’ people. You can verify this by simply asking your client what they think your company’s brand is—they’ll say it’s the people. If the people are the brand, then personal brand matters; and, as we discussed in the first article, the convergence of the corporate brand and personal brand can be very positive for your company’s image with your clients. Your personal brand is your reputation in the market—how you are perceived by clients, peers, supervisors and subordinates. The goal is for the brand to be something of great value to your clients that can only be offered by your firm—as perceived by your clients. Would it not be a positive thing for you to show up for a meeting with your client and know that they will perceive you to be doing T
  2. 2. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 2 Development of a sustainable, differentiated, tough- to-copy brand that is highly valued by the market is the “holy grail” for professional services firms. a great job on your current project engagement and that this will lead to the next job…and the job after that? Is that possible? It is—and we are proposing a framework for this to happen with your client set. To develop the ongoing pipeline of work with your client, you need to have a market- perceived brand of providing greater value than your competitors. This is no revelation to anyone. It is the goal of every business enterprise to have a “higher value” brand differentiator. This differentiation will not be that you have better subject matter experts or more recent corporate experience. It definitely will not be that you can provide the same services at a lower cost. As we will show, technical brands cannot be reliably differentiated and, along with price points, can be easily emulated – or beaten. Our proposal is simple, true brand differentiation for professional services firms is subjective, not objective. We suggest that the subjective elements that make the difference can be characterized by the term “experience”—your firm can be reliably differentiated through the experience that you provide to your client. In our first paper, we presented a simple construct, as shown in Figure 1, for professional services progression of economic value as offered by Pine and Gilmore1 , who postulate that, the ability of a service provider to deliver a better experience for a client and the ability to make the service offering “transformational” will be highly differentiated, more valuable to the client and more relevant to their needs. They suggest that “experience” and “transformation” are the elements of market- perceived value that are very difficult for anyone to express objectively, but are routinely at the heart of the answer to this question: “Do we want to hire this firm?” Our proposal is simply that your clients’ experience with you is what differentiates your firm, and that this experience is much more subjective than objective. It can be summed up in how the client feels about your firm’s brand, which is embodied in the personal brands of your subject matter experts, technicalexperts, project managers, project analysts, engineers, accountants, corporate executives, administrative assistants, receptionists, parking lot attendants—pretty much anyone who has any amount of contact with your client. This experience is not about the quality of your technical products or the brilliance of your global subject matter expert (although these are necessary elements), rather experience comes from how you are perceived with respect to the following behaviors of your client facing personnel:  Responsiveness  Attention  Communication  Empathy What these behavioral elements really mean to your clients and how you can use these elements to create a positively differentiated experience are the subjects of this paper. We begin with an exploration of how a client might select a professional services firm in a competitive environment. This is followed by a discussion of why objective selection criteria are unsustainable as a positive differentiator. Finally, we present a discussion of our key subjective differentiators and mechanisms by which your firm can create and sustain these brand differentiators with your clients. How do Clients Select and Hire Professional Services Firms? The market sectors that employ professional services firms all have different selection processes. The selection process for Federal government work is different than that for state or local governments which is different from private enterprise clients. Different services are also selected in different ways. In some cases, it is possible to provide a definitive scope of services and selection can be based on the cost of these services or on a rate sheet. In other cases, scope is difficult to define and cost is less of a factor. Brand differentiation is the ability to be perceived as providing services, experience or transformation in a way that your competitors cannot emulate. We examine herein the sustainability of technical qualifications/experience and cost as objective differentiators.
  3. 3. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 3 Technical Qualifications and Experience The most basic criterion for hiring firm starts with a look at the firm’s primary business. If a client desires to hire an accounting firm, they most likely will find a firm that does accounting as their primary business line. The client might then make sure that the firm and its people are licensed to provide the type of services desired. The next step is the firm’s experience—where have they done this type of work before and what were the outcomes? A professional services firm will always put the most positive spin on their experience write-ups so clients may check with references to discuss specific projects. Interestingly, the question that is commonly asked during these reference checks is, “What was it like to work with this firm?” The client will check that the people proposed to do the actualwork have experience, expertise, the appropriate educational background and professional licensures (CPAs, licensed professional engineers and architects, lawyers admitted to the bar). These elements of qualifications and experience are the proverbial “bar”—in most cases, a firm needs to clear the bar that demonstrates firm and personnel experience and qualifications. You either have it – or you don’t. Beyond these basics, there are very specific nuances in the firms’ experience and the individual’s experience that may be of specific concern to a client. These nuances may include office locations, people locations, experience with that client, highly specific elements of experience (e.g. experience with a certain size or type of consumer products company), Figure 1 – Experience is the Key Differentiator Professional Services Firms often compete on the basis of cost or technical/subject matter superiority. Neither is a sustainable differentiator.
  4. 4. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 4 Technical skills and subject matter expertise are simply an imperative for a professional service firm. These are required to get in the game; but something more is necessary to develop and maintain a sustainable competitive advantage. or number of successfulprojects completed within a specific time frame (e.g., the last five years). How might a client evaluate the technical qualifications of a firm and its people? Are there nuances of technical qualifications that are easy for a client making a selection to determine—probably not. What’s the difference between a firm that has successfully completed 60 similar projects or 30 similar projects—probably nothing. What’s the difference between an individual who has successfully completed 8 similar engagements and one who has completed 4 similar engagements—probably nothing. One could use these differences as a selection criterion— “they have more experience”—although, in the actually execution of the work, it probably makes no difference and most clients are sophisticated enough to understand this. Not only is it difficult to differentiate amongst firms, it is also difficult to differentiate amongst individuals. Is there a difference between the alumni of UCLA and USC, Michigan and Ohio State, Auburn and Alabama—no (unless you are an alumnus of one of these institutions, in which case the answer is yes). Does that mean a person who graduated with an accounting degree from one school is better that the other by virtue of the university from which they received their degree—it’s arguable (if you are a Trojan or Bruin), but common sense says there is no difference. Absent other objective criteria, a client will make a judgment based on the facts at hand and may determine that 60 projects are better than 30 or that one university is better than the other and make their selection on this basis. This is not intended to dismiss subject matter expertise or great technical skills as these are imperatives for any professional services firm. To perform at the highest level of service and to compete with the “best in the business,” every major professional services firm has plenty of great subject matter experts and technical wizards. There are times when having the best technical expert or the subject matter expert with the best blend of expertise and experience can win the work for your firm. There are also instances when a firm simply has a stronger technicalbrand in a specific area as compared to the competition. These instances, in general, are rare and to be able to rely on the greater expertise or experience of your people, that incremental “greater expertise” has to be clear to the client. If you use this expertise to help you win work to the extent that these individuals are too busy to do work, you will quickly discover that the market has figured this out and your technical advantage is gone. Some firms determine that they will come up with some new technical angle to differentiate themselves. This can work for a time, but is definitely not sustainable. Everything can be emulated. This means that technology, people, individual experience, corporate experience, etc. are all easily emulated and therefore not likely to be lasting differentiators. Your competitors can employ the same or similar technologies, hire the same or similar people and will likely have the same or similar types of corporate experience. There do exist instances when these technical angles can be differentiators—however, one could argue that this is not a sustainable business model as no one services firm can have a “corner” on people and experience—but the differentiation is likely to be short-lived. Business Week reports that a significant number of fake Apple Stores were discovered in Kunming, China selling Apple products in a retail environment that is almost indistinguishable from the real Apple retail stores2 . Do you think that your competitor cannot emulate your unique “environment”? There are articles in business literature every day that present some new technology or service offering that the “offeror” believes to be differentiated. These technologies or service offerings may, in fact, be different; but once they are presented into the market place they are easily emulated and the “first mover” loses their advantage. In fact, there exists a large volume of business literature that suggests that the second entrant into a market with a similar technology or service offering often takes advantage of mistakes made by the first mover and goes on to dominate the market. Does
  5. 5. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 5 As a generality—and this is definitely not a universality— professional services purchasers have difficulty discerning a real difference between service providers with respect to technical qualifications, experience and expertise. anyone remember Atari’s Pong game…or KayPro computers? Where is PalmOS today as compared with Google or Apple operating systems for cellular devices? There are many, many examples in the professional services arena of firms that, even though they were once market leaders and continually brought new ideas and services to market, now no longer exist—overtaken by the close followers who adapted their ideas and offerings subsequent to learning from the first movers’ mistakes. Cost Some professional services are viewed by purchasers of these services as a commodity. Purchases are then made on a lowest cost or best value basis—and since any “added” value outside of cost is very difficult to measure, cost for the specific service in question then becomes the focal point for the purchasing decision. Take for example, a firm that prices the cost of a services engagement 20% higher than their competition, but makes the claim that the client can save many times the value of this incremental 20% through the recommendations that the firm will make. Since this value is prospective, the client has no way to prove that these cost savings will actually accrue to them as a result of the firm’s efforts. Further, a branch of economics/psychology research called neuroeconomics shows that the “delayed gratification” of cost savings two or three years down the road cannot overcome the instant gratification of cost savings in the present. When presented with the option to receive sure benefit now or to delay gratification, test subjects act impulsively and take the immediate benefit3 . Cost is another differentiator that can easily be emulated. It is often used by clients to differentiate between service providers. For the service provider, cost is a slippery slope that has no end. Once you beat your competitor on price, someone else will come in and beat you in the next competition. If your competitor wins an assignment based on cost, what is to stop you or another firm from reducing the price of your offering in future competitive situations to match your competitor? The cost of a professional services firm offering is a function of the scope of work for the assignment, the hourly rates and labor classifications of the individuals assigned to the work, and overhead rate and profit that the service provider desires to make on the assignment. You can reconfigure your cost estimate any way you want—you can redefine the scope, assign lower cost personnelto the work, reduce your overhead rate, and work at little or no profit margin—whatever is required to win a cost competition if that is the desired outcome. With time, these cost competitions will drive service providers out of business as they produce work at or below their actual cost of service. That’s not a sustainable way of doing business—but it is a way to win cost competitions – until your business implodes. A civil engineering consulting firm (we’ll call them XYZ Engineering) that had lost a competitive procurement for a substantial infrastructure planning job queried the client as to why they had lost. They were told that the three firms that interviewed for the Project were technically equal and that two firms XYZ and another competitor (let’s call them ABC Engineering) had essentially equal costs. The client then deliberated on how they might make the selection and upon reviewing the costs proposals, determined that ABC would be a better choice. The basis upon which this decision was made was that ABC would provide more engineering person- hours on the project for the same price—the client talked themselves into the fact that one firm, ABC, executing a project at the same cost, but with more person- hours, was desirable to XYZ that could execute the project with fewer person hours (presumably meaning that more higher-level, more efficient personnel would be assigned to the project – a fact that escaped the clients’ deliberative processes). This type of convoluted decision making goes on every day when there are no real differentiators. It’s very difficult to determine that one firm is really technically superior to
  6. 6. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 6 the other or that one project manager is technically superior to another. The human mind needs a rationale for their decision making and when everything else is equal, will create that rationale whether or not it is rational. You can imagine the pride exhibited by the client person explaining this to the deflated and confused project manager from XYZ Engineering. They made something out of nothing—they made a decision based on a non-issue. It’s the vagaries of human nature —they needed an objective criterion and they created one post submittal because they were unable to differentiate based on the criteria that were created pre-submittal. Objective criteria such as technical expertise, technical experience and cost are often used to assess professionalservices firms in a competitive selection process. It is, in practice, very difficult to determine differences in technical expertise and experience. Cost, on its face, is a purely objective criterion. On deeper examination, it does not as a matter of course provide an objective evaluation of “value for money.” These criteria cannot be sustained as lasting competitive differentiators in any professional services market. You need to have experience and your costs must be competitive. Those two factors alone cannot provide sustainable differentiation for your firm—they really only get you in the game so that you can compete at another, higher level. Sustainable Differentiators— Experience and Transformation Technology and cost are objective differentiators that are unsustainable in the long term. Clients have difficulty seeing real differentiation in technology and experience, and cost is unsustainable for long term business viability. This leads to the basic question that is explored herein—what are the differentiators beyond cost, technology, and experience that can lead the client to “feel” that you and your firm are the right ones for their project—regardless of cost? These differentiators do exist. They are difficult to achieve, require a high level of brand convergence and are very difficult to maintain. Some authors on the business side of professional services firms have coined terms, such as “trusted advisor,” to designate service providers who have attained this status. The brand differentiators that will be discussed are something beyond a specific status level that can be attained by one individual. They represent the type of experience that the project team and the firm provide to the client. As such, these differentiators must be the product of a team effort and must be sustained by the team to truly provide the lasting “experience” that can make your firm and your project team a “must have” in your industry. FEELINGS, NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS Apple is a great example of experience and transformation. Their strongest products are the iPad, iPhone and iPod. There are strong competitors for each of these - - with the exception perhaps of the iPod. You can buy multiple different phone platforms that have similar performance characteristics to the iPhone such as an Android or a Blackberry. One could argue that there are strong differences - - there are - - but there are more similarities than differences such that the consumer normally makes a subjective choice between alternatives. Same thing with the iPad —many options in the market and lots of similarities amongst the options- - the selection is mostly subjective. An engineering colleague did a thorough evaluation of all of the tablet computers on the market and did NOT purchase an Apple because he found something else that does more than an iPad at a lower price. This guy is, however, definitely in the minority of tablet computer purchasers and his engineering analysis is not sufficient to change the thinking of most iPad owners who purchased the iPad because they felt it was a superior product. Apple can dominate the markets for iPads and iPhones because people feel better about these. That’s exactly the word that people use to describe why they purchased an Apple product over a lower priced, or more feature-laden product. We have queried a non-statistically valid number of iPhone users and asked why they purchased an iPhone over an Android or Blackberry - - in some cases they purchased an iPhone after owning an Android or Blackberry. Overwhelmingly, they “felt” that the iPhone was a superior product.
  7. 7. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 7 What do we mean by the terms “experience” and “transformation”. Experience refers to the “how” of the service engagement rather than the “what.” Your client will perceive something from the manner in which you provide services to them. These perceptions of experience include the video and music that you are subjected to while ensconced in the dentist’s chair, the manner in which a Project Manager communicates with her client counterpart, the free upgrades to business class that you get as a frequent flyer and simply getting the services provided to you on time, on budget and at the quality you desire. Experience can become stale if it is always the same (think about the dentist videos) and it can become a negative if you get a desired experience some times and not others (think about your air flight upgrades). Transformation refers to the personal growth of your client as a result of the interactions with your firm’s people during a service engagement. Transformative services often are educational, helping your client improve a desirable skill or learn how to use a new software tool to help them more effectively do their job. A great experience leads a client to say, “I feel great about XYZ Engineering and their project manager.” A transformative experience leads a client to say, “I feel great about myself.” For the purposes of this paper, we will use the term “experience” to encompass both experience and transformation. Figure 2 contains a simple matrix that we have developed to describe the value of client experience as a differentiator for a professional services firm. This matrix shows three distinct zones for selection of a professional services firm in a competitive selection process as a function of the type of selection criteria employed, the client perceived value of the firm’s offerings, and the level of brand convergence within the services firm. Hard Cost Zone – Selections are made based only on some element of cost such as rates, total cost, or overhead rate. The client perceives no value in any other aspect of the service firms’ offerings. Where there is a higher perceived value and higher brand convergence and costs appear to be competitive, “best value” may be the overriding selection criterion. Best Technical Zone – Experience and expertise matter. Selection decisions are made based on perceived best people, best technical expertise, or best subject matter experts. Where differences are hard to determine, the client that wants to use “technical” to make their selection will make up a criterion (e.g. ABC Engineering has done three more similar projects in our state than their closest competitor) by which they can justify their selection. Best Experience Zone – Firms that consistently provide a great experience for their clients end up in this zone. They have high client perceived value and high brand convergence. Clients will adjust their selection criteria to make sure that they get the firm and the people that they trust. Price is important, but not relevant to the final selection unless the firm that provides the best experience is perceived to offer an “unfair” price. The Dream Zone is the fourth area in this framework. In this zone, the client perceives that they get the best price along with the superior experience. The entryway into this zone is through the use of templated, reusable processes and systems; a subject outside the scope of this paper. As noted earlier in this paper, we propose that the secret ingredients to brand differentiation are Responsiveness, Attention, Communication and Empathy. In combination, these provide the key differentiators for the service provider. The source of these ingredients is your client set; ask them and they will tell you. The principal author has been engaged in client surveys for professional services firms dating back to 1986. These surveys have been in many forms—face to face interviews, telephone interviews, written forms, email forms, etc.
  8. 8. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 8 Communication and Empathy are Effective and there are hard numbers to prove this. Ho and Liu report hat a significant mitigating factor in whether patients decide to litigate after an adverse medical event is the physician’s apology6. A simple “I’m sorry” assuages the patient’s anger and is demonstrated to reduce both numbers of lawsuits and per case payments in lawsuits. They have been conducted by both internal personnel and outside consultants. They have all produced the same feedback from the clients of this particular professional services firm—summarized by these four terms:  Responsiveness  Attention  Communication  Empathy Responsiveness In its most basic form, responsiveness means meeting or beating an established schedule of delivery. The premise is that you do what you say you will do in the time that you say you will do it in. This is, in practice, very difficult to achieve because in most cases, delivery of a report, document, white paper, analysis, proposal, or any other type of technical document requires a team effort. If you, as the project manager, promise something to your client, you will be counting on many others to help you deliver. In 1988, the Rand Corporation published a report entitled “Understanding the Outcomes of Megaprojects”. 4 This report evaluated a significant number of large capital projects such as airports, chemicalplants, and hydropower facilities to determine what made these projects successful. They reported that a successfulproject met schedule, budget and quality parameters. Does the project do what it was intended to do—Quality. Was the project constructed for the amount of money it was estimated to cost – Budget. Was the project completed when it was promised – Schedule. As a provider of professional services, you should consider this your mantra – Quality, Budget, Schedule. Figure 2 – Professional Service Firm Engagement Framework
  9. 9. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 9 Creating a great experience for your client is difficult and may take you out of your comfort zone. Former Chicago Cubs Manager, Lou Piniella said it this way, “The toughest competitors know how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” You should also understand that your client expects a certain level of quality in the delivery of your services. They will tell you what this is (if you ask) and expect you to deliver. They expect you to meet budget and don’t really care if you make money or lose money on the assignment. Rather, the one area where you can really make a difference is schedule. This is critical and differentiating because most professional services firms struggle to meet schedules and most individuals in client facing roles make schedule-related promises that they simply can’t meet. Deliver what you say you will deliver when you say you will deliver it—and actually deliver it early if possible. That’s responsiveness. Attention Clients of professional services firms do not demand a large amount of attention. They are not expecting to be lavished with gifts, meals or tickets to sporting events. In fact, most public agencies now prohibit their personnel from accepting such gratuities and many private firms put a cap on what can be accepted from a service provider. Attention can be paid to your client in two ways: making sure that an executive-level person from your firm is meeting periodically with executive-level personnel of your client and by holding periodic face-to-face meetings with your client at their office location. For some types of professional services providers, this is a part of doing business. Management consultants and accountants often work in their clients’ offices and hold executive level meetings within the normal course of doing business. For many professional service providers, particularly in the engineering and technical services world, these practices are uncommon. Consider how you may use a common practice such as getting performance feedback as a way of paying attention and respect to your client. Perhaps you could engage the support of an executive in your firm to solicit performance feedback from the client as a means to actually secure the feedback and to build the executive level relationships. An engineering consulting firm engaged the CEO to come to a competitive project interview to make a corporate commitment—“our firm is fully committed to the success of this project.” The client, the general manager of a large public works agency, told the CEO that “everyone says this in the interview,” and that he, the client, would know this to be true if the CEO had visited with him even one time during the course of a three year project that had most recently been completed for this client by the CEO’s firm. Talk is cheap. Communication Your clients want information about the assignment that you are currently conducting for them. They want to know if there are any problems. They want to know how you are dealing with these problems. They want to know if you will deliver on time. They want to know if their personnel are providing timely information and support to your team. They simply want to be informed. More than this, they want this communication to come in a form that works for them. This could be a one page weekly report that is emailed to them or it could be a four-color, four-page report that is presented to their Board of Directors on a quarterly basis. It might be a weekly phone call or a weekly face-to-face meeting. Whatever it is, your client will tell you—you will likely need to ask them how they would like for you to communicate with them on the project. There’s more to this than a simple project update. Great communication means that you will speak with your client about project issues, and project delivery failures “sooner” rather than “later.” This is the real communications gap that most clients experience. Finally, confidentiality is a critical element of great communications. Be very carefulabout what you do with any sensitive information that your client may tell you. A project manager for an engineering consultant, when asked what had happened to cause the consulting firm to lose a project with a long term client said that a delivery problem on the most recent assignment had raised the client’s ire. When asked what she had done to rectify the problem, she stated, “Nothing; that
  10. 10. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 10 John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, said “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.” Preparation takes time and effort – the same time and effort that your competition may be unwilling to undertake. client is really mean and I don’t like to talk with him.” Aye, there’s the rub! Empathy Webster defines empathy as “understanding or entering into another’s feelings.”5 That’s exactly our intent with this word - -the ability to understand the feelings of your client. What do they feel will make them successful? What do they feel will make their department, company, city or governmental agency successful? What inspires them? What do they like, and more importantly dislike? What do they feel would be great project quality? What do they feel would be great project communications? It’s all about how your client FEELS. Your job is to spend time with your client, ask questions, be thoughtful, listen and try and determine how they feel so that you can execute your project in such a way as to make them feel great about you and your firm. Gaining a strong and accurate understanding about how your client “feels” takes time – it will not happen overnight. Empathy can be enhanced by some very specific behaviors and activities on the part of the service provider. The following suggestions will help support the development of strong, empathetic relationships between service provider and client personnel. Authenticity – Be who you are. You can tweak “you” a bit, but not too much. Lack of authenticity is always discovered. Clients want to deal with the real “you.” Energy – Your client will respond to your energy level – as long as it’s authentic. An appropriate, higher level of energy will almost always be welcomed. Interest – The client will talk with you as long as your body language conveys interest in what they are saying. Your demonstrated high level of interest is essential to developing a deeper level of trust with your client. Organization – Client organizations have a lot of individuals. Pay attention to the right people by organizing your team to develop relationships with client personnel at multiple levels within the client organization. Understanding – Don’t assume anything. Ask questions and seek clarity from your client so that you are sure you completely understand what they are telling you. Sustainable Differentiators take Time and Effort The best way to create a positive experience with your client is through project delivery. A well executed project, where communication is sound, deliverables are delivered on time and the client feels like they are a very important client, is likely to create a great experience for your client. Is it really possible to empathetically deliver on quality, schedule, communication, and attention? Possible – yes. Difficult –yes. As shown in Figure 3, the ability to get the intersection of all four of these elements is limited, but not out of reach. Perhaps you could focus on one or two of the elements that are most important to your client as you begin to execute the next assignment for them - - striving towards a goal of achieving all four elements with your project team. ENTROPY AND EFFORT Calling all Engineers and Scientists. Do you remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Entropy is a principle of the Second Law that states that all matter moves, over time, from order to disorder as “usable energy” is lost. This means that disorganization, randomness and chaos naturally occur over time—unless usable energy is applied to keep things organized and orderly. Think about how this applies to the undertakings of a professional services firm on behalf of a client. Personal energy must be applied on the part of all team members to keep things in order and to provide the experience that comes from outstanding project delivery. Responsiveness, attention, communication and empathy only occur with the application of individual and team energy. It’s the only way you can keep your world in order.
  11. 11. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 11 To Be or Not To Be Shakespeare understood the how difficult it is to execute a plan. In Act 1, Scene II of the Merchant of Venice, Portia, the play’s heroine states, “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.” Knowing what to do = Easy. Actually Doing = very hard. Experience creation takes a plan. This is because, absent some written planning document that the project manager, the project team and company management can see, the project team will struggle to exert the effort required to achieve the plan. It’s human nature for most people to do simply what they understand they have to do and to not do more than that. It takes effort to visit the client in their office or to make sure that your Division President gets out to meet with the Chief Financial Officer of the client. It takes effort to make sure that you can get your top Subject Matter Expert in to meet with the client or to put together a weekly project update for your client because they like to see it. You need a written plan to manage this. It’s not difficult to develop the plan—it is tough to execute the plan because much of this effort is extraneous to project delivery and is not billable. The net result is that the more positive the experience for the client, the more likely you are to be hired for the next project. If you aren’t engaged in a project with your client, you can still create a positive experience – it just takes more effort. Consider all of the touchpoints that you have with your client from professional societies to charitable organizations to meetings in their office and determine how you can be more empathetic and responsive, how you can show attention and communicate better. This will require planning and effort on your part and the part of other members of your team who are working with your client. Development of a rapport between individuals takes time and common interests. If you are considering joining a community group or affinity group because your client has joined—find something that you really care about. If your client is engaged with an affinity group that likes to go mountain biking, but you don’t like mountain biking—don’t join. The worst thing anyone can do is to be inauthentic in trying to develop a relationship with someone else – particularly someone from whom you are trying to secure work. Time and effort work best when expended as part of a well conceived, well managed plan. Given all the demands on a professional, inclusive of both work-related Figure 3 – Brand Differentiators Inter-Relationship
  12. 12. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 12 and personal activities, it’s easy for one to put off a meeting with a client that is intended only as a relationship maintenance or relationship development meeting. When clients do NOT have impending work assignments is actually one of the best times to visit them and build your relationships. You can be sure that if you and your people are not out meeting with your client, your competition is out there setting themselves up for the next services opportunity. Conclusion Clients often hire professional service providers based on objective criteria such as technical prowess and job specific cost. Of these, cost is easy to use as a differentiator while technical superiority is very difficult to determine in many cases. Subjective criteria often enter into the decision. One question that is often asked of references is, “How was the firm to work with?” The answer to this question comes from the experience of the client. The resultant response most often starts with the phrase, “I feel that . . . “ Professional service providers can create a positive experience for their clients through developing a better client understanding, or empathy, being responsive, paying the proper attention and respect to the client and communicating effectively. Ultimately, it is this experience that leads the client to have positive feelings about the professional services provider, to continue to hire them for future assignments, and to provide a positive reference for the firm and its people. The development of a positive experience takes extra effort on the part of the service provider. Careful planning and monitoring of the execution of that plan are required to ensure that all client touchpoints are engaged in creating a higher level of project delivery experience
  13. 13. SUSTAINABLE BRAND DIFFERENTIATION FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRMS 13 . References 1. Pine, B. Joseph and Gilmore, James H., The Experience Economy, Updated Edition, Boston, HarvardBusiness Review Press, 2011 2. Einhorn, B. and Roberts, D., “Intellectual Property, A Win for Record Companies in China,” Bloomberg Business Week, August 1 – August 7, 2011, pp37-39 3. Coy, Peter, “Why Logic Often Takes a Backseat,” Business Week, March 28, 2005 4. Morrow, Edward W. , Understanding the Outcomes of Megaprojects, The RAND Corporation, March 1988 5., “empathy” 6. Ho, Benjamin and Liu, Elaine, “Does Sorry Work? The Impact of Apology Laws on Medical Malpractice,” Cornell University Job Market Paper, 2010