Gain competitive advantage through distinctiveness

Lee Grunnell believes something distinctive exists within every professional services firm – it just needs uncovering...

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First, it led firms to adopt an outdated marketing strategy based around features and benefits.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 around it.

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 distinctive?

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 behaviours:

  • Building relationships
  • Client focus & service commitment
  • Commerciality
  • CSR
  • Excellence & quality
  • Innovation
  • People & respect
  • Professionalism & integrity
  • Teamwork

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 embody them?

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 things:

  • 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 into cliché.

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 messages:

  • Client focus & service delivery
  • Geography
  • Heritage
  • 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 in.

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 them.

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; stand out.

Becoming distinctive

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 firm:

  • 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 professionals only.

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 entire business.

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 and strategically
  • 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 distinctive.

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.

Be distinctive.

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.