Words Won’t Do It: The Professional Services Differentiation Challenge

By Tony Tiernan and John Grace

How do you differentiate your business when what you deliver is an abstraction, such as advice? Words alone are unlikely to be the answer.

The default answer for many professional services firms has been to rely on the chemistry between individual partners or consultants and their client. This leads to two fundamental problems:

·       The client’s relationship is with the individual Partner, not the organization

·       Chemistry is an elusive concept and hard to scale.

Professional services firms generate well over US $1 trillion in annual revenues and represent a large and growing sector of the economy. Of the U.S. professional services sectors, IT consulting is the largest, followed by law firms and management consulting firms.

But if you look at the self descriptions and claimed differentiators from the websites of the top ten professional service firms in each of the eight primary sectors, you see “brand blur” on a staggering scale. It’s astounding how many of the same words and descriptions appear (see our Purple Paper on Differentiation for Professional Services Firms).

Do You Help Clients To: Are You: Do You Have: Do You:
Tackle their toughest, most
challenging, most complex
or most intractable
challenges or problems

A trusted advisorGlobal
A holistic approach Partner with your clients
Realize their greatest
Results-driven or
Deep industry
Deliver results or
deliver value
Survive and thrive in
an uncertain future
Collaborative Deep functional
Hire the best and
the brightest
Achieve sustainable
growth, competitive
advantage, their goals,
Creative Strategy to
Employ exceptional
Avoid mistakes Integrated Deep insights Understand your
clients business
Transform Insightful,
fact-based and
Best practice
Deliver value Experienced, proven
and established
A rich heritage and
an impressive
client list
Solicit client

If most or all of the above apply, then congratulations – you are clearly a legitimate member of the professional services club.The bad news is that there is no clear differentiation or reason for a potential client or talented recruit to select your firm over any other member of the club.

Our next  post will explore how meaning is at the root of all powerful and enduring brands, and how to use story as a tool to create meaning.