Everybody knows that you're suppose to differentiate your firm if you want to be successful, right? That's what they teach you in business school. You're suppose to reel off what makes your firm different as an integral part of your elevator pitch.

Apparently a lot of professional services marketers haven't internalized that message. In our recently released research on high growth professional services firms, we found that most firms say they have a differentiator. But when they describe it, only about one in ten firms really comes across as different.

Now granted, it is not easy to truly differentiate a professional services firm. Saying that you have great people is not a real differentiator because almost everyone can and does say it. Some folks even go so far as to say that you shouldn't even try to be different. In their recent book, Professional Services Marketing, Mike Schultz and John Doerr include a chapter with the telling title “On Being Unique and Other Bad Marketing Advice.”

I see it differently. Our research showed that high growth companies were over four times more likely to have a strong differentiator than their average growth peers. No difference equals no advantage.

So what makes for a compelling differentiator? Here are three key points.

  1. You actually have to be different. If you do what everyone else does and say what everyone else says you have no differentiator. Most firms fall into this trap.
  2. Your differentiator has to matter to potential clients. Just because you claim a real difference doesn't mean your potential clients really care about it. Many firms claim technical expertise that may in fact be real, but which is not understood or appreciated by clients. It's simply not important to them.
  3. It has to be believable. Claims of difference that cannot be supported with evidence are typically discounted. Asserting that you have great IT talent doesn't hold much water. On the other hand saying that all your technical staff hold Ph.D.'s in computer science is much more credible because it is specific and verifiable.

It also helps if your differentiator is easy to communicate. Dense jargon does not a differentiator make. The good ones are easy to understand and hard to ignore.