Creating distinction in professional services

Two recent branding engagements with clients in very different professional service areas led me to the same conclusion: Even the act of establishing meaningful distinction in your service market or niche creates distinction. In other words, you are distinct for being distinct. All of your competitors blend into a bland background of sameness.

That’s how it is across professional service markets such as legal, health care, accounting, business consulting, marketing, engineering. Setting aside superficial points of distinction such as name and logo, too few firms are finding substantive ways to stand out from the crowd. And no good comes from that, as business advisor Scott McKain argues in his 2009 book, “Collapse of Distinction”:

If you cannot find it within yourself to become emotional, committed, engaged, and yes, fervent about differentiation, then you had better be prepared to take your place among that vast throng of the mediocre who are judged by their customers solely on the basis of price. It is singularly the worst place to be in all of business.

And yet, that’s where most businesses, service or otherwise, find themselves. Rather than dive into the many reasons for this state of affairs, I’d like to address just one: Too few in business understand how to create relevant distinction.

When I say relevant, I mean distinction that identifies you as different from your competition and is meaningful to your clients and other stakeholders in your business. After all, you may be truly different but if that difference doesn’t matter to your clients or those who work for you, then it’s of no value.

I share McKain’s perspective:

Creating differentiation doesn’t mean you have to become completely, totally unique from your competition from top to bottom. It simply means you must create small, solid points of distinction that are recognizable and important from the customers’ perspective because customers perceive that different is better.

7 dimensions of service brand distinction

So how can you create these solid points of distinction for your service business? I just answered that question for one of my clients and will share what I came up with. I call it the seven dimensions of service brand distinction. I’m confident you will find valuable areas of relevant distinction in one or more of these realms:

  1. What we do: The obvious starting point of distinction for most of us is what we offer and the needs we address. Here our differentiation strategy is on providing a unique service or solving an unmet market need.
  2. How we do it: We might look to our models, methods and systems we use or the culture we’ve built to deliver our services. Our focus is doing the same or similar things better than our competitors, whether it’s being smarter, more strategic, more creative, more prepared than those like us.
  3. Who does it: This dimension asks us to examine our collective character and personality – who we are being as a firm in the conduct of business. This strategy asks us to see our firm as more than a collection of unique individual service providers and find ways to adopt and exhibit a shared set of traits. We’d emphasize training and careful hiring that stress the ability of employees and partners to consistently be who we say we are as a business.
  4. For whom do we do it: This looks for distinction in the markets and clients we serve – a commonly used method of differentiating. We would focus on serving niche or specialty markets or parts of organizations that are under-served or poorly served today.
  5. Where do we do it: This isn’t just about differentiating on where our offices and clients are; it can also be about where we concentrate our services – the strategic front-end of an engagement, the tactical back-end execution, somewhere between or all of the above. Our strategy may include being the best provider in our service category in our community, focusing on building an expertise and national reputation in a specific industry niche or identifying specific points upstream, midstream or downstream in solving a client’s need.
  6. Why do we do it: This is what I would call the existential point of distinction. It derives from our mission (our reason for being as a s business), what we stand for, our core beliefs and values, the difference we want to make. Here we focus on engaging like-minded stakeholders in our overarching purpose and demonstrating we do what we do to make a larger social, environmental or economic difference.
  7. Do we do it: Here we emphasize proof. We are who we say we are, we do what we say we do and we deliver what we say we’ll deliver. It may be that all our competitors are saying the same thing. We are the ones who actually walk the talk. Our strategy is on delivering on the client experience we promise, measuring and being accountable for positive client outcomes and cultivating and communicating proof of performance.

This list is not an exhaustive source of where you can find and create those “small, solid points of distinction,” but it’s a great place to start. What this list presupposes is you also have a solid understanding of 1) what your clients want and need and how they experience your business today and 2) what distinction strategies are being used by similar or competitive firms. Otherwise, you run the risk of being both irrelevant and indistinct. Chances are that’s a position your competition already owns. Gladly leave it to them.

Photo credit: MrB-MMX at Flickr


November 16th, 2011

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