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Positioning Strategy: 5 Common-Sense Approaches that Never Work

Today, I’d like to talk about five approaches to positioning strategy that are bound to fail. At first blush they make so much sense that you may be tempted to implement them. In fact, these approaches are so common, that they are probably doomed to failure by overexposure alone. But there are other more fundamental reasons they make poor positioning platforms.

Before we go any further, however, let me do a little backpedaling. There are exceptions to every rule, including my claim that these approaches “never work.” There are probably a few firms that can distinguish themselves on the basis of one of these attributes. But to pull it off is so difficult I don’t recommend you try. Why not? We’ll get to that in a moment.
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First, let me briefly define what I mean by positioning strategy:

Positioning strategy is a plan that distinguishes a firm from a sea of otherwise similar competitors in a way that makes the firm more attractive to potential buyers.

So the key elements of a positioning strategy are 1) it differentiates and 2) it appeals to a specific set of buyers. The “common-sense” approaches I discuss below manage to accomplish neither of these goals, yet they remain cunningly seductive. Let’s find out why they are so beguiling and so utterly worthless as market positions.

“Our People Are Better”

Why it makes sense: Professional services firms are built around people. In fact, you could argue that every firm’s success is a direct result of the qualities—and talent—of its professionals. So if you hire exceptional people, and you know that your competition underperforms in this department, it makes perfect sense to promote the heck out of this strength. After all, who doesn’t want to hire the best?

Why it won’t work:  There are two problems with this positioning. First, yours isn’t the first firm to have this epiphany. I can’t count how many times clients have told us their people are their chief advantage. Of course, buyers hear this a lot, too—so often they have stopped believing. Which brings me to the second problem with this statement.

Many firms believe their people are more special than they truly are. It may sound counterintuitive, but you are too close to your firm to appreciate the quality of your team. And you can’t rely on what your clients say about your team, either. Clients tend to be poor judges of talent, as most have only worked with a very limited number of firms. And, if they fired your predecessor, chances are you are looking pretty good about now.

“Our Process Is Better”

Why it makes sense: Anyone who has tried to provide complex services using a broken process understands the profound misery it causes a firm and its clients. A superior process, on the other hand, is bliss. Communication is flawless. Deadlines are nailed. Mistakes are caught before the client ever sees them. If your firm has a great process, it can be a competitive advantage—and it’s just common sense to build your firm’s reputation upon it.

Why it won’t work: Process can matter. But is it sufficient to build a positioning strategy around? When trying to choose among different service providers, buyers often ask to see your process. But they usually aren’t qualified to understand its finer points. More often than not, they simply want to see that you have one. They are looking for indicators that your firm won’t leave them high and dry, and a detailed process gives them confidence.

You see, process isn’t a differentiator, it’s a prerequisite. Unless you can back them up with hard data, claims that your process is far better than industry norms will sound a lot like everybody else. Anyway, clients aren’t terribly interested in buying a process. But they are nuts about outcomes and past performance.

“We’re Committed to Excellence”

Why it makes sense: Who wouldn’t want to hire a firm that is 100% committed to doing exceptional work? Your firm walks the talk and brings its A-game to every client engagement. Your team embraces the ideals of Stephen Covey, Six Sigma and Agile. And while some of your competitors make similar claims, your follow-through makes you different. Your firm’s tenacity and dedication should make a fine positioning platform.

Why it won’t work:  I’ve got some bad news. This cliché is so worn out it has no legs. No matter how “excellent” your team is, no prospective client is going to give this so-called differentiator even a nod of recognition. Thousands of firms—many of them mediocre, at best—have used the phrase “committed to excellence” (or some variation) to describe their approach to work. As a result of its overuse, the word “excellence” is dead. Off to the sweet hereafter. RIP.

SEE ALSO: Why Brand Differentiation is Essential for Professional Services Firms to Succeed

“We Offer Better Service”

Why it makes sense: Customer service. There’s nothing more important to the client relationship. You are, after all, in the professional services. Your account team is as good as it gets: responsive, proactive and good listeners. Clients love working with you, and back at your office you have a folder thick with glowing endorsements. Surely your sterling service is a peg worth hanging your hat on.

Why it won’t work: You can talk about your service until the cows come home, but buyers have heard its all before. You see, exemplary service is easy to talk about but it’s hard to prove (until, of course, you’ve been hired). Sure, you can point to your testimonials and references, but even middling firms have at least a few happy clients. Strong positioning is built on attributes that are either self-evident or can be proved. But “service” is just a word until it is experienced.

“We’re Different”

Why it never works: I’ve skipped Why it makes sense altogether because there is no way to rationalize this hollow differentiator. (It’s so empty it echoes!)

Firms that use it—and they are legion—seem to believe that saying they are different will make it so. Rarely do they have any credible supporting evidence, and even if they do they are missing the point. Firms that are different promote the thing that makes them different, not the fact that they are different. But let’s give these firm some credit. At least they know they need to differentiate themselves. Unfortunately, they have no idea how to go about it.

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Clearly, these approaches to positioning have some serious drawbacks. What approaches might work better? Your firm might begin by identifying one or two true differentiators that you can use as a basis for your positioning. You can read about some common strategies in the our Differentiation Guide for Professional Services Firms. The key is to find tangible, provable benefits that most of your competitors can’t or don’t claim.

Our recent research on buyers of professional services also holds some clues. For instance, we found that, when selecting a new firm, buyers value specialized skills and expertise far more than the quality of the work they produce. And when choosing between finalists, reputation was the most important factor that tipped the scales. In addition, 47% of buyers suggested that developing a reputation for producing results was the best marketing strategy for service providers. So, for instance, if you can consistently produce results for your clients and back them up with data, you would have a very solid differentiator on which to build a viable positioning strategy.

Additional Resources

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Author: Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D. Who wears the boots in our office? That would be Lee, our managing partner, who suits up in a pair of cowboy boots every day and drives strategy and research for our clients. With a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, Lee is a former researcher and tenured professor at Virginia Tech, where he became a national authority on organizational behavior management and marketing. He left academia to start up and run three high-growth companies, including an $80 million runaway success story.

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    Sherman Mohr

    Love it Lee! Truer words never spoken. When I hear just about any company go down the path of these five, I’m reminded that they haven’t really done anything unique. Thanks for the post.

    Reply