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March 17, 2017

How to find your professional service firm’s differentiation factor

Claiming brand differentiation can be difficult for professional service firms for a number of reasons:
  • Professional service industries are constantly undergoing change, and firms find themselves shaping and expanding services to meet evolving demands
  • Professional service firms often wind up becoming generalists over the course of their lifetimes, as exterior pressures to diversify services grow
  • Many professional service firms sound the same as each other; discerning one law firm or financial institution from the next can be difficult for the average consumer when their offerings appear nearly identical

And yet, differentiation is an essential component of building a strong, memorable brand with potential for growth and longevity. What is “brand differentiation”, exactly? It’s your competitive advantage, also known as the thing that sets you apart from your competition. It’s the thing you offer that means you don’t have to compete on price.

Perhaps you’re part of a professional service company that is long-established, and you’re realizing that your brand isn’t as memorable or as clear as it needs to be in the face of tough competition. Perhaps your firm has undergone significant change recently, and your differentiation factor no longer reflects what you really offer. Or, perhaps you’re getting ready to create a new professional service brand. Let’s take a look at some ways to establish a meaningful differentiator that apply in all three cases.
1) Go back to the drawing board. 

What was the original spark of inspiration that led to the creation of your company? Trace back to the origins of the firm, when its purpose in the world was first identified. Often, as professional service companies grow, that original purpose of the business can get lost in the complex realities of meeting clients’ varied needs, and offerings diversify over time. What was that one thing that the firm wanted to be known for when it was founded? That thing may be the differentiating factor you are looking for.

2) Ask the people that know your firm best.

Conduct an informal survey to get to the root of what it is that you do best. Ask loyal clients, top customers, or close friends to share what they think it is that makes your company exemplary compared to the rest. They may be able to give you insight into the value you offer that competitors can’t, which may point you towards your competitive advantage. Why do they love working with you? Why do they seek your services again and again? (Remember, your brand is comprised of your clients’ and customers’ perceptions, so getting their insight is critical in understanding who you are and what you do best. It’s important to get that outside perspective, and not just rely on what you and your colleagues think internally.)

3) Learn more about your ideal clients.

Look beyond the clients and customers you already have towards the ones that you want – your ideal clients (although some of your existing clients may very well be ideal clients). Build one or two ideal client personas by establishing the demographics, responsibilities, goals, challenges and characteristics of the people you most want to serve. This insight can help you identify a way that you can serve them in a way your competitors can’t, which may be the foundation of your brand differentiation.

4) Focus what you do, or who you do it for.

Specialization and differentiation go hand in hand. It’s much easier to stand out when your offerings are focused, specific, and can’t be confused with anybody else’s. There’s also an opportunity to charge a premium for your expertise and deep knowledge in that area, and you can market your expertise as your differentiation factor. Is there a specific demographic or customer type that you can target your services towards? Urban millennials, stay-at-home mothers, and small business owners are all examples of targeted audiences. Or, focus the service you provide by developing a specialty. If you are already a full-service firm, it can be difficult to scale back your offerings. However, doing so will enable you to be highly targeted in your marketing and highly relevant to the right clients. You can also identify an operational advantage that would set you apart; for example, offering online consultations in an industry that typically doesn’t.

5) Dive into market research.

Are you fully up to date on the technological trends and social forces that may be affecting your competitive field? Neglecting to stay alert to the changes that may be coming your way is like having your head buried in the sand; your business is more prone to being harmed by disruptors. Market research can help you identify a differentiating factor, too; understanding audience needs and competitive strategies may help you see an opportunity for innovation, or a market gap where customers’ needs aren’t being met by current competitive offerings.

Once you have a strong and unique differentiating factor, the next step is to develop a marketing strategy to launch your new and improved messaging into the world, and to redefine your positioning in the minds of your customers. It’s never too late to make an amazing impression, and to become the envy of your competitors.
As marketing and branding experts in the professional service space (with a specialty in the legal, financial and healthcare industries), we are here to help you do exactly that. Start by downloading our free e-book “Building a professional service brand that stands out.”
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