Gain competitive advantage through distinctiveness
Lee Grunnell believes something distinctive exists
within every professional services firm – it just
Differentiation is dead. The
pursuit of pure differentiation as
a source of competitive advantage
in professional services has
proven flawed for two reasons.
First, it led firms to adopt an outdated
marketing strategy based around features
and benefits. Rather than thinking about
what clients needed and how to deliver it,
firms focused on the features they already
had and tried to convince everyone of
their benefit. They become internally,
rather than externally, focused organisations.
Second, firms soon realised it was
relatively easy to copy features and,
therefore, claim to offer the same benefits
that their competitors claimed. This led
directly to the current landscape where
most firms say and do much the same
thing and it’s become increasingly difficult
to stand out.
It’s commonly accepted now that 90%
of what one firm does will be the same as
its peers. That leaves 10% that’s distinctive.
Rather than absolute differentiation,
this is what firms need to focus on;
understanding how they’re distinctive
and then building a clear market proposition
Most firms market themselves on the
90% of their business that’s the same.
But how exactly do you uncover, articulate
and communicate how you’re
Being distinctive is about what you’re
like both on the inside and the outside.
It’s about your values, culture, personality
and the way your people behave.
Then it’s about how you communicate it
to your audience through everything from
your website, marketing materials, bids,
client service standards, tone of voice,
visual identity and beyond.
So let’s look at what firms are getting
wrong in their search for distinctiveness
and how they can put it right. The only
question is: what’s your 10%?
On the inside
Values are (or should be) the foundation
for how an organisation is distinctive.
They are about culture and personality.
They represent the actions and decisions
that people take instinctively.
However, if you looked at the typical
values that firms have you’d expect
everyone to be identical and behave in
exactly the same way. This is because
most firms’ values focus on the same nine
- Building relationships
- Client focus & service commitment
- Excellence & quality
- People & respect
- Professionalism & integrity
How many of you work for a firm that has
one or some of the following values?
Commitment; excellence; integrity;
respect; quality; teamwork. Most likely
the vast majority. But can anyone
describe what exactly they mean? How
easy is it to point to someone in your firm
and say whether they do or do not
There are three problems here:
- You cannot tell someone what values
they have; they either have them or
they don’t. You cannot tell someone to
be innovative, collaborative or creative
if, by their nature, they aren’t. This is
why values are so important in recruitment;
if you have a strong and distinctive
set of values it’s easy to tell if
someone will fit into your business or
not. In time, the only people that want
to come to you will be those who
believe in the same things that you do.
- These traditional sorts of values should
be redundant. Your people should
embody these qualities as a matter of
course. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t)
recruit people who are not professional
and dedicated or do not have integrity.
A firm that feels the need constantly
reinforce how important commitment,
respect and excellence are? Me think he
doth protest too much…
- By having these sorts of values all firms
are doing is highlighting the 90% of
their business that is the same as their
peers’. They’re simply telling the world
that their people are highly able, take
their jobs seriously and work hard.
Why would you want the world to think
that you’re the same as everyone else?
You should want the world to think
that you’re better.
Values matter because people and relationships
matter. Clients and prospects
are presented with lots of technically
excellent professionals who take their
jobs seriously and work hard, but they
choose to work with those who have
something else on top.
To overcome these problems professional
firms need to work out what the
something else is that characterises their
culture and approach. To do this they
need to spend more time doing two
- Finding out from their clients what it’s
like to work with them.
- Finding out from their people what it’s
like to work for them.
Doing this will provide firms with values
that are far more insightful, authentic
and distinctive than those they currently
have. The only challenge then is being
brave enough to articulate and communicate
them in a way that doesn’t descend
On the outside
If this is what professional firms say
they’re like on the inside, what do they
say they’re like on the outside?
So with values, with marketing – the
majority of professional services
marketing is based on the same seven
- Client focus & service delivery
- People & relationship building
- Sector & commercial knowledge
- Size & scale
- Technical expertise
How many of us have read the following
sorts of quotes in brochures, bids or on
websites? “What really sets us apart from
other firms is the way we work with you”;
“we pride ourselves on our approachable
and team-based way of working”; “we
work hard to understand our clients’
business objectives”; “we aim to build
relationships that last beyond individual
transactions”; “we’re committed to the
highest standards of service delivery,
client care and communication”.
This sort of marketing white noise is
so prevalent partly because of the
features and benefits approach to
marketing highlighted earlier. Again,
what exactly do these statements mean?
Some of them are, of course, sensible to
focus on. Do clients want their advisers to
understand their business, build relationships
and demonstrate sector and
commercial knowledge? Absolutely.
However, what firms say about these
concepts are more often than not clichés
that have little or no substance. As a
consequence, most clients now regard
these sort of statements as nothing more
marketing rhetoric. Moreover, these
messages should only ever be supporting
evidence to what clients are most interested
Clients come to a firm because they
have a problem they are trying to solve,
an issue they are trying to fix or something
they are trying to do (or have to do).
However, firms typically spend little time
talking about the things that clients are
most interested in – how they can help
Firms need to turn their marketing
content 180 degrees. Rather than talking
about themselves, they need to talk about
their clients, the impact they can have on
them and the outcomes they will deliver.
How will you help your clients to save
time and money? What can you do to
make your client’s life easier? Can you
help them to reduce risk? Will you deliver
their transaction more quickly? Can you
manage their claims and disputes more
effectively? What about removing the
obstacles they face to deliver major projects?
Rather than making them distinctive,
marketing makes firms blend in. Say
something different and more relevant;
So, if firms are currently marketing the
90% of their business that’s the same as
their peers, how can they make the 10%
of their business that’s distinctive louder
and more meaningful? There are three
stage to being more distinctive.
Uncovering – Being distinctive is not
about having a great idea. It’s about a
process of discovery – discovering something
that people haven’t noticed. To
uncover how you’re distinctive, you need
to answer three questions about your
- What do people know?
- What don’t they know?
- What should they know?
Clients should have huge amounts of
material to help them do this. Client feedback,
bid feedback, directory quotes —
even complaints. If you don’t have the
information, go and get it. Speak to your
clients, your people, intermediaries and
business introducers. Anyone who has a
view about what it’s like to work with you
or for you.
Articulating – Having uncovered how
you’re distinctive you need to articulate it
in as simple, straightforward and
powerful a way as possible. This typically
means expressing your distinctiveness in
a word, statement or phrase. To be most
effective, you need to make sure it’s RAD:
Relevant, Authentic and Distinctive
First, what you discover needs to be
relevant to the markets you’re in, the
clients you work with and the work you
do. It’s intrinsically linked to your
strategy, about where and how you want
to compete. It needs to be important to
the people you’re selling to, otherwise
they won’t be interested in it.
Second, it needs to be authentic. For
your people to consistently think and
behave in a certain way it has to feel real,
otherwise they don’t do it. If you want
your people to go out and talk about
something they have to believe it. If they
don’t, you’ll be found out. It’s much
easier to believe in something that’s real
than something that isn’t.
Last, it needs to be distinctive.
Whatever you say cannot be timid, bland,
boring or half-hearted. Contrast, don’t
compare. Be bold and confident. The
whole point is to stand out.
Communicating – Having uncovered
and articulated how you’re distinctive,
you need to embed it and communicate it
relentlessly and consistently, both internally
and externally. The objective is to
make the 10% mean more than the 90%.
The diagram overleaf shows how to do
this by saying what you do and doing
what you say.
A major part of being distinctive is, of
course, about winning work by offering
clients a more compelling proposition.
However, that’s only part of it. We need
to stop thinking that it’s just about
marketing and the domain of marketing
Being distinctive is ultimately about
your strategy and your DNA. It goes to
the heart of who you are and what you
want to be. It requires investment of time
and effort from firm leadership. Without
that it will fail. With that it can be a
hugely powerful tool for transforming the
Done properly it will improve client
loyalty, speed of decision making, collegiality,
return on investment and recruitment:
- Clients are more likely to stay with a
firm that delivers the experience they
were expecting and hoping for. Offer
clients something that they value, that
nobody else offers them and then
deliver and you can have a client for life
- If you know what it is that you stand
for it’s easy to evaluate decisions and
investments; if they don’t align you say
no. It suddenly becomes much quicker
and easier to run a business effectively
- Partnerships are by their very nature
disparate organisations and encouraging
a firm-first approach is difficult.
However, if there is a stake in the
ground that everyone believes in and
buys into then it becomes something
that binds everyone together. If people
don’t believe in it then they can always
(and should always) leave
- A huge proportion of marketing and
business development time and money
is spent on things that do not support
the message firms are trying to
communicate. Generally that’s because
they don’t know what the message is.
Understand who you are and what that
means to the market and you will
understand the things you can stop
spending time and money on
- If you only recruit people who believe
in the same things that you do, recruitment
will be much quicker and easier.
First, people that don’t believe in the
same things won’t want to join you;
second, you’ll know much earlier on
whether the people that do are right for
you (and why wouldn’t they be?). In
time you’ll have a workforce that are
more loyal and more committed
because of your shared values
A business that wins new clients and
turns them into loyal clients, has collegiate
and committed people who use their
time effectively, makes good decisions
quickly and spends money wisely is a
business that will be successful. But it can
only become those things if it understands
and communicates how it’s
Nobody buys a car because it’s exactly
the same as all the others they test drove.
Nobody buys a house because it’s exactly
the same as all the others they looked at.
Nobody instructs a professional firm
because it’s exactly the same as all the
other ones they spoke to.
Lee Grunnell helps professional
firms uncover, articulate
and communicate how
they’re distinctive. He was
previously marketing director
for various law firms and has
also worked for one of the
big four accountancy firms.