Brand differentiation has long been a top priority of professional services leaders. And for good reason! In a sea of similar-looking firms offering similar services, how is a buyer supposed to choose one over the other?
The rise of digital marketing has changed the way firms differentiate themselves from an ever-growing list of competitors. And today, more and more companies find themselves competing on cost.
Yet, brand differentiation remains one of the most poorly understood pillars of professional services marketing.
Finding the right differentiators for your professional services firm is not always an easy task. Many firms promote “differentiators” that don’t differentiate them at all—in fact, these so-called differentiators often make them sound more like their competitors.
In this article, we explain how differentiation works, and we provide examples of strong professional services differentiators that you can use to sharpen your own firm’s brand positioning.
What is a Differentiator?
A differentiator is any characteristic of your firm that separates you from key competitors and gives you a perceived advantage in the eyes of your target audience. To be a valid differentiator, it should pass three tests, which we cover in the next section.
Differentiators are often part of an overall differentiation strategy, which is a deliberate plan to make it stand out from otherwise similar competitors.
Developing your firm’s differentiation strategy is an important way to avoid the commodity trap and always compete on price with your competitors. Strong differentiators will shine a light on important ways you deliver value to your clients. But how can you evaluate if a differentiator is strong or not? Let’s explore this topic briefly.
How to Evaluate a Differentiator
To test if a differentiator is effective, a it must meet three important criteria:
- It must be true. You can’t simply make up a differentiator in order to appeal to prospects. This could damage your reputation. A differentiator may be aspirational, however—as long as you are taking serious measures to make it come true in the near future.
- It must be relevant to potential clients. If your differentiators do not matter to your prospects, they will quickly lose interest and move on to a competitor that speaks to their issues.
- It must be provable. Differentiators can be relevant and true but if you don’t support them with evidence prospects will remain skeptical. It’s important to support your differentiators in ways that your buyers can understand.
The sad reality is that many differentiators fail on at least two of these criteria. But take heart. There are many successful ways to differentiate your firm.
In fact, we’ve developed a list of twenty-one examples you can use to brainstorm possible differentiators for your firm.
21 Top Differentiators for Professional Services Firms
Here are twenty-one differentiators that work for many professional services firms. It’s important to note that you can have multiple differentiators at your firm. Moreover, they can be combined to create a powerful competitive advantage.
Review these differentiation examples and speak with your team about how they may be adapted to work at your company.
1. Specialize in an industry.
This is perhaps the easiest and most successful differentiator for most firms. Clients value the specialist in their industry. But be careful. If you try to specialize in too many industries, you will lose credibility.
2. Specialize in serving a specific role within your client’s organization.
This role-based specialization is also quite successful, especially if combined with an industry focus. If you are head of IT at a law firm, it’s comforting to know that your service provider specializes in helping technology officers just like you.
3. Specialize in offering a particular service.
This approach can be quite successful, especially if the service you specialize in is hard to find. But beware, unique service offerings can quickly become mainstream. Witness Sarbanes-Oxley compliance or social media marketing as two recent examples.
4. Offer a truly unique technology or process.
By truly unique, we do not mean your process that starts with assessment and ends with monitoring results and making adjustments. We mean an approach that is a whole different way of approaching the problem and offers a unique benefit to the client.
5. Focus on understanding a particular target audience.
A key differentiator for some firms is their in-depth understanding of a particular audience. Your firm might specialize in marketing to Baby Boomer women. Your clients might be retirement planners, insurance companies, or clothing retailers, for example.
6. Specialize in serving clients of a certain size.
This is a common differentiator, although some folks don’t think of it as such. Perhaps you work exclusively with the largest companies in the world. Contrast that with a firm that focuses on solo practitioners. Either firm could have a competitive advantage over a firm that serves clients of all sizes.
7. All of your staff shares a specific characteristic or credential.
Everyone feels like they have a great team. So it’s tough to make that stick as a differentiator. But what if all of your programmers hold PhDs in computer science? That is both provable and meaningful to a potential client. Or perhaps all your project managers are PMPs. Not as distinctive, but also provable and relevant.
8. Specialize in clients that share a common characteristic.
This differentiator is focused on a characteristic of your clients other than their industry or role. Let’s say you provide accounting and tax services for expatriates. They might be from any country, in any industry or any corporate role, yet you will have a competitive advantage.
9. Focus on solving a specific business challenge.
Here, the spotlight is not on the client as much as on the nature of the business challenge they are facing. To work, it must be a challenge that is easily recognized and tough to solve without specialized skills and experience. Helping firms secure their first government contract is an example.
10. Have one or more individuals who are Visible Experts® in their fields.
This is a time-tested strategy that works very well. Having the country’s top expert in your specialty is a very powerful competitive advantage. Many firms have been built on this differentiator alone. Add multiple high visibility experts and you will have a compelling and very valuable brand.
11. Offer a unique business model.
Everyone in your profession bills by the hour, but you offer a fixed fee. Voilà, a perfect differentiator is born! A unique business model can be both meaningful and easy to prove. But be watchful. If it works well, you are likely to accumulate imitators.
12. Have a specific geographic focus.
This is a very traditional differentiator that is losing some of its punch as technology, remote work and changes in common business practices are making geography less important. But take heart, it can still work in situations where local knowledge or face-to-face interaction is vitally important to clients.
13. Offer access to a unique set of information not available elsewhere.
Sometimes, access to certain information can be very valuable to potential clients. Do you have benchmarking data that no one else possesses? Some firms have built very valuable practices around proprietary data that isn’t easily duplicated.
14. Offer a unique set of contacts or relationships not easily accessible.
While the previous differentiator focused on information, this one is focused on relationships. Public relations firms have long used relationships with reporters and editors as differentiators. What relationships can your firm bring to the table?
15. Do business with a distinctive level of service.
In most cases, offering good client service is simply the price of entry. Everyone does it, or claims to. So to become a differentiator, your level of service has to truly stand out. Can it be done? Indeed, there are still some physicians who make house calls.
16. Distinguish yourself by the clients you have.
Having an impressive client list is a plus for many firms. But what if you take it further? Some firms differentiate themselves based on their client list. For example, if your firm serves the higher education market and your clients include Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, you have a key differentiator.
17. Focus on the size of your firm.
We are the largest… fill in the blank. Size sends a signal that you are doing something right in the minds of many potential clients. This combines nicely with a specialization to show both relevance (the specialty) as well as success (the largest). Find a niche and dominate it.
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18. Emphasize your relationship with a parent firm or partner.
A close relationship with a parent firm can be a limiter (potential clients may feel like you cannot be objective about other technologies for example). But for other potential clients, it can be a big asset. Who knows the ins and outs of the technology better? This same differentiator might also be applied to situations where your firm is a value-added partner rather than a subsidiary.
19. Focus on a notable signature accomplishment.
Some firms can build a strong brand upon a notable accomplishment. Firms that invented a technology or solved a highly visible problem for a very well-known client are good examples. (One of our clients built the launchpads that sent NASA’s astronauts to the moon.) This type of notoriety can be leveraged throughout the industry and over time.
20. Specialize in producing a unique or very valuable result.
Similar to number 9, where you focus on a notable business challenge, this differentiator focuses on a valuable result. The key difference is that you may need to overcome multiple business challenges to produce a valuable result. For example, you might specialize in turning average growth clients into high-growth firms. This could involve solving a wide range of business challenges, rather than a single one.
21. Look or act differently than all of your competitors.
Most professional services firms tend to look and act a lot like their competitors. Why? Perhaps you have been in the industry for a long time. Or perhaps doing things very differently feels risky. We see this all the time. Well, a very different look and feel can be a powerful differentiator for this exact reason. Combine this with other differentiators and you have the makings of a robust competitive advantage.
There you have it—21 differentiators that can pass the three hurdles that every differentiator must clear. And remember, these can be combined in ways that make your firm unique in a way that no single differentiator can.
How Hinge Can Help
Identify competitive differentiators that will help your firm stand out from the competition and build a brand that drives sustained growth with Hinge’s Visible Firm Program.
Interested in learning more about your competitors? Through our competitive research and analysis services we provide an objective exploration of your firm’s top competitors.
- Our free Differentiation Guide for Professional Services Firms guides you through how to build a powerful differentiation strategy.
- Download a free copy of our latest research study Inside the Buyer’s Brain, Fourth Edition to learn how to build a well-differentiated brand to help your firm close more sales.
- Learn how to uncover your firm’s true differentiators with Hinge University‘s Differentiation, Positioning & Messaging course.