Mel Lester in has raised a powerful question in his blog posting: “Is Differentiation Really Worth Pursuing?”
He makes the point that many AEC marketers try to apply “differentiation” as a marketing ploy, and it rarely works, because the purported differentiation is meaningless and doesn’t reflect anything credible and meaningful.
Differentiation is a popular business topic. And an elusive goal for professional service firms. Many firms have invested substantial amounts of time and money in the pursuit of differentiation, but arguably few have achieved success. Indeed, some experts are skeptical that differentiation in professional services is realistic.
Lester quotes consultant Mike Schultz as writing in “The Myth of Differentiation:“
“Much as firms might hear otherwise, being different isn’t much of a factor in winning or keeping clients. Often, the ‘we’re different’ message affects them negatively.” He mentions performing a quick Google search on the phrase “unique consulting firm.” It yielded almost 4,000 web pages. For this reason, claims of distinction are understandably dismissed by most clients.
Bruce Marcus is another skeptic, Lester observes.
He writes, “Professional service marketers talk of differentiation, which, frankly, is baying at the moon…differentiation is overrated, and is perhaps, like branding, a myth.” He questions the ability of professional service firms to claim distinction given the nature of the business. “You can’t say, ‘Our firm gets better mileage’ [an objective differentiator]. But neither can you say, ‘We do better audits.’ Or, ‘We write better briefs’ [meaningless subjective claims].” Few professional firms can offer evidence to support their differentiating messages.
Lester quotes Suzanne Lowe as saying: “The reality is that when it comes to differentiation, the more complex and organizationally deep the differentiation strategy is, the more competitively potent it is.”
“Few firms have the management fortitude to create a truly distinctive company,” Lester writes. “It’s hard work. It has to be. If differentiation was easy, then everyone would be doing it and succeeding. Which means, of course, they wouldn’t ultimately be successful at it because all their competitors would be doing it too.”
He suggests the best way for AEC practices is to think in terms of relationships rather than the “marketing position” priority. In other words, instead of trying to define yourself by some sort of gimmicky “focus”, simply deliver a truly exceptional (and I don’t mean the phoney marketing ‘exceptional’) client service experience so that your relationships and client connections are stronger and deeper than ever.
You can also focus on value creation, especially in business development and “connecting your work to delivering business results.”
A third framework for effective differentiation is achieving a true reputation as a thought leader within your sector/market/community. You can’t do this without the substance behind the words, however. Saying you are a “thought leader” won’t work. You really need the leading-edge ideas that are valuable to your potential client. Your task in this situation is to share these ideas in the right places — in front of your current and potential clients who will appreciate their value.
Differentiation, then, becomes an exercise in truly achieving your exceptionally great status — and that is something your marketing department can help achieve, but cannot do for you.