• Colin Doyle CFO

5 steps to differentiate your firm

By Lee Frederiksen

It’s hard enough to successfully build a business in today’s highly diversified, hypercompetitive world, but when you’re selling services and something as nebulous as “expertise,” it can get exponentially harder. That’s why accounting practices need a differentiation strategy.

What's that? A differentiation strategy is a plan to make your firm stand out from nearly identical competitors. Unlike companies selling tangible products that are physically, visibly different, professional services firms sell intangible, invisible intellectual assets. That can be difficult stuff for potential clients to wrap their heads around.

What’s needed is a clearly defined differentiator, a meaningful difference between you and your competition that has real value to your prospects. That difference can be broad-based and position you within the accounting profession, or it can be narrowly focused to address a niche audience or to take advantage of a competitor’s weakness.

It’s important to understand that a differentiator cannot be something you claim without merit or substance. For example, it’s not enough to simply claim your firm is the “industry leader” or “No. 1” in your marketplace. As differentiators, those claims have no meaning, substance or value.

So how do you know you have a solid differentiator? Put it to the test by asking yourself these three questions: 1. Is it true? It’s one thing to claim something, it’s quite another to be able to back it up every day. If you claim to respond in 24 hours, you cannot reply to prospects or clients in a week. That’s a sure way to lose credibility, respect and business. 2. Is it relevant? You may be able to claim your firm is the only color-coordinated accounting practice in the state, but if it’s not relevant to a prospect’s selection process, it’s not a valuable differentiator. 3. Is it provable? This is often the hardest test of a differentiator. You may have identified a true and relevant point of distinction, but it’s useless without proof. Even if a differentiating statement is true, prospects won’t believe it if you can’t substantiate it with evidence.

As a professional services firm, the strongest differentiator you can promote is expertise. Regardless of your particular discipline or specialty, every prospective client wants to work with the top expert. After all, clients aren’t buying your services because they like them. They’re buying your services to solve a business problem or seize an opportunity, so they want to utilize the best expertise their money can buy. I mean, who wants to hire mediocre help?

Assuming you’ve got expertise worth promoting, the challenge is making it visible to the marketplace. If your firm’s expertise is not visible, for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist. Fortunately, the internet and social media make it easier than ever to establish a public presence and promote thought leadership. Joining industry forums and online associations, writing guest blog posts, and hosting webinars can provide platforms for promoting your expertise. Even more traditional methods such as public speaking at industry events, writing trade publication articles and publishing books are all effective ways to demonstrate your expertise.

The Hinge Research Institute recently released its 2019 High Growth Study for professional services. In it, we asked survey respondents from high-growth firms to identify marketing strategies they planned to use to address their top marketing challenges. Almost 60 percent stated they would be making their expertise more visible in the marketplace. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea to you too?

Making all of this happen in an efficient and orderly manner requires a differentiation strategy — how you’re going to set yourself apart from the competition, develop your visibility, and promote it. Creating a strategy is a five-step process: 1. Identify your unique area of expertise. What expertise can you claim and is it of significant value to your target client at the time they are choosing which firm to work with? Is it narrow enough to limit competition and broad enough to create enough business? 2. Do your research. What “pains” are your prospects “suffering” from that you can “cure”? The answers will help you determine topics of interest and messaging that will gain you the most attention and position you as an expert. 3. Develop your differentiators. Create a list of potential differentiators and put them through the three-step test. Got a really strong one? Great. Got three or four? That’s even better. 4. Create a narrative. With your area of expertise and differentiators in hand, now it’s time to tell your story. Your website’s a great place to start, but look for speaking engagements, relevant blogs where you can submit guest posts, or perhaps write an e-book you can offer. There are lots of ways to engage with prospects, turn them into leads and convert them to clients. 5. Turn up the volume. Once you start promoting your story to your target audience, monitor the results and fine-tune your message to maximize its value. Not getting a great response at first? Find out what’s wrong with what you’re saying and fix it.

Our research has revealed that developing visible expertise is one of the best ways for professional services firms to differentiate themselves from their competitors, gain a significant marketing advantage and achieve a high growth rate. If you’re ready for that kind of success, it’s time to develop strong differentiators and visible expertise.

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