'Imitation is the highest form of flattery' 19th century English cleric and writer, Charles Caleb Colton.
We know this holds true for Gucci,Prada,Rolex,and other high end producers, but one could be forgiven for believing many in the professions adopt a similar mindset.
No professional firm likes to think, let alone say,they imitate their competitors, and in fact most professional firms go to great lengths in their capability statements (yawn) and on their website explaining just how really different they are from their competitors.
But guess what? In most cases the claimed points of differentiation themselves are practically identical.
Sorry if you recognise any of these from your website but here are some of the more common claimed points of differentiation I have picked up. Preface each one with "Unlike our competitors":
- ....founded in 1066 our firm has a long tradition of.... (take your pick from;personal service/integrity/meeting our customers needs/aged partners,etc),
- ....our firm is built on the following core values(here is an off the shelf list of up to 400 core values but don't look too greedy just choose 4 or 5 say;integrity,honesty,reliability, innovation,sexiness)
- ....we understand your business and the industry you operate in (yeah right like you have 2000 customers, you know them all intimately and you are their industry "go to" firm?)
- ....we value all our clients and give them all the same exemplary personal service (in reality when it comes to prioritising work you probably deal with whoever yells the loudest)
- ....we provide you with cost effective solutions,(This usually means one of 2 things: either it will be cost effective for the firm,or the firm will discount heavily just to get the business),
- ....we have competitive rates(for a start you do what most of your competitors do and bill by time and you probably base your rates on reverse competition anyway),
- ....we exceed our customers expectations(have you actually asked each individual customer what their expectations are,or just assumed you know what they are?)
- ....we are recognised as one of Australia's/USA's/World's/Timboon's top firms (at least the partners of the firm recognise the firm as thus)
- ....we are a full service law/accounting/consulting/IT/services firm (Different? If you google "full service firm" you get 323,000,000 results in 39 seconds)
Ok so maybe the above is all just a little tongue-in-cheek but you get my drift.
Even if these statements are true for any firm they a hardly a point of differentiation- they are at best just table stakes and they might,if you action them,allow you to play in the professional services game.Not one of them is any guarantee of ongoing success nor will they make any firm stand out from the crowd.
My friend and colleague in the advertising agency business, Tim Williams of Ignition Consulting who has made a successful career advising his clients how to truly differentiate themselves, points out that there are many myths about most firms so called differentiated positioning strategies.“Size” is not a strategy,neither is “full service”, “middle-of-the-road-stand-for-everything” nor is “hope” or “effort”. Tim's definition of a truly differentiating positioning strategy is- well, actually being different: meaning “going deep versus wide”, narrowing your focus and defining not only the features your firm has, but importantly the features you don’t have.
Whilst there is nothing wrong with being better than your competitors often your customers will not know (and you may not want them to know) whether or not you are better than your competitors.Your customers will however know if you are different to whoever else they might contemplate for your services. When I ask members of firms what differentiates them from their competitors in addition to what is on their website (if they have read their website) they will often use words like "our premises", "our technology"," our technical skills", " our clients","our people", "our culture". It is only these last 2 responses-people and culture-that go a fair way in defining what truly differentiates one firm from another.
I believe that the primary attribute that you as a firm has that no other firm in the world has is you, and anyone else in your firm.Together with the internal relationships between firm members, plus the external relationships you and your firm have with your clients this makes your firm unique. Everything else- be it technology, premises, precedents, systems, or your processes- can and is being replicated-and probably being replicated better than how you do it.Your clients are even being replicated as you may share them with other firms. What you don't share and what cannot be replicated though is yours and your firms relationship with those clients.
I come across firms that use energy and scarce resources on endlessly seeking to improve their internal efficiencies and/or beating themselves up with any number of institutional copying called benchmarking.I believe at least some of this would be better spent by firms uncovering and capitalising on what they already have-by inspiring their motivated people (hint: ditch any unmotivated people if you have them) and doing all they can to create a culture of innovation.
I particularly despair when I see smaller professional firms that intuitively have great potential (often because they have flexibility and a less rigid and formalised structure of larger firms), being advised to basically replicate the business model of those larger firms whether it be time recording, improving their leverage, improving their realisation and utilization,introducing rules and policies upon policies,etc. The larger firms will always have a size and process advantage over things like that (it is after all what made them larger firms in the first place) but that doesn't make them great,it doesn't make them different and it certainly doesn't make what they do right for a smaller firm.
Adam Smith wrote
" In mature markets, profits don't come from increased efficiency, but rather from increased innovation and differentiation".
Most of us operate in mature markets and in such markets an increasing number of external disruptors,start ups and the odd innovative incumbent,are truly differentiating themselves whether it be with their service offerings,their strategic focus,their structures or their pricing. They are more innovative,creative and take more risks.Profit after all comes from risk.Many incumbent firms say they want to be different but what they really mean is they only want to be a tiny wee bit different. There is after all safety in numbers.It is not easy being different.It means you cannot stand for everything. Standing for everything is the same as standing for nothing.It means you will not be able to appease everyone nor act for everyone.It means saying no sometimes.
Keep Mini-Me in Hollywood. Instead take time to look deeply as to what already does,or will,make your firm different,remarkable and stand out from the crowd.
Even in the most competitive markets the market is not saturated with professionals-it is saturated with sameness.