Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Unlike product brands you can pick off the shelf or take for a test-drive, most professional service organizations sell an intangible–usually a promise to produce a desired future outcome that improves the condition of the customer.
Professional services are sold on reputation and trust, and having a strong professional services brand establishes these qualities in the minds of prospects. The prospect buys into the promise based on their level of trust with the provider.
For this reason, brand building for professional service consultants and firms is often more critical to building business value than for product brands.
In an age of price driven commodities, professional services have to be positioned in the minds of customers with razor sharp precision. To be effective in creating relevant differentiation for their brand, marketers of professional services have to be thinking about building castles in the minds of their target customers, rather than providing bricks (services) to them.
The key to brand building for professional service firms begins by laser focus on uncovering their value to clients beyond the function and utility of their service delivery. Service offerings, claims of expertise and quality delivery are table stakes. Uncovering the real “value” of a service brand is a whole other deal.
When “services” are in abundant supply, customers control the buying process. To hire your firm involves risk. and more importantly, become loyal advocates and sing your praises to their peers.
If you take a close look at the current claims of most professional service brands in any discipline make on their web sites, here’s a list of the most common (and forgettable) claims:
• We are client focused
• We are global
• We build lasting relationships
• We value trust and integrity
• We are experienced in your industry
• We are results driven
• We provide quality outcomes
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with these claims all by themselves, but if you happen to be the CEO prospect seeking a professional services firm to solve a critical problem, wouldn’t you think she would expect this to be the ante in the deal?
These claims are meaningless and don’t buy much relevant differentiation. Yet surprisingly enough, these are the core messages that most professional service brands hang their hats on. In the noise and clutter of the 21st century marketplace, much more is required to stand out and create conversations with would-be clients.
"Castles in the Mind".
Few leaders of professional service firms are thinking about building "castles in the minds" of the prospect. I heard this phrase long ago. It's an elegant description of strategic positioning.
Castles are the “highly valued outcomes” clients and customers desire that cannot be easily obtained by their own internal resources, or from your competitors. When your service brand represents a highly valued outcome not in abundant supply, chances are your brand will command a premium position, you will command premium fees, and business development will primarily be centered in responding to inbound inquires, rather than outbound marketing and message delivery.
There are two types of “outcomes” clients and customers will commonly desire:
Blatant Outcomes Basically the customer says, “we need to get this done or something bad will happen”. There is a penalty for not buying, so essentially it’s a no brainier for the prospect– they must buy. Accounting, Law Firms and Pest Control Brands serve these blatant outcomes.
Latent Outcomes In this case the customer “doesn’t know what they don’t know”. Needs are unknown and un-articulated until the service brand enlightens the prospect to an outcome that, once revealed, is one that can’t be lived without. Research Firms, Science and Technology, Advertising Agencies, Architecture and Engineering Firms and Management Consulting serve latent outcomes.
It’s critical to know just what type of castle your prospective client desires in their mind. Is it latent or blatant?
In many respects this sets the context or frame of reference for the services brand. Essentially it is the game the brand has chosen to play in. More importantly, having this insight will reveal the level of resonance and relevance the prospective target client will have for your services.
The next piece of the puzzle is strategic positioning. Here, the challenge is to distinguish between required attributes – the ones that all competitors must have – and the truly unique attributes that only your firm can credibly claim and deliver one.
At its most basic level, brand positioning comes down to this:
What highly valued outcome you/your firm provides (value proposition), to whom (target customer), better than anyone else (proof).
Let’s look at these three essential components in more detail:
The Brand’s Value Proposition
This is the “one thing” that your brand will stand for beyond delivering services. This one thing must be highly valued by the target client and not be in abundant supply by competitive brands. This “one thing” usually has absolutely nothing to do with providing functional services to clients.
The Target Customer
For professional service consultants and firms, defining the target customer is more about “fit” than demographics. A good fit between service provider and client to be is usually based in the ability of the prospect to:
• Actively seek a solution to a blatant or latent desired outcome
• Appreciates the “use value” of the desired outcome more than the cash value to obtain it.
• Trusts the providers stated expertise
• Demonstrates a rapport that builds relationships quickly
• Has the financial resources to invest in your solution.
Defining the target customer is about exclusion not inclusion. To position your brand deftly with precision requires the art of sacrifice. Not everyone will fit.
Proof of Expertise
For professional service brands to “own” the one thing that matters to a prospective client requires you prove the claim of expertise. Saying its so, don’t make it so. Of course, the gold standard of proof is found in current clients who have experienced the value and gladly share this experience with their peers and your prospects.
Of course a well-positioned brand can’t do everything exceedingly well.
It must be highly specialized- offering deep and narrow expertise providing high value outcomes not possible through generalist competitors. Without substantiated proof, the value proposition will ring hollow.
For professional service brands to become castles in the minds of prospects and clients, three things need to be in continuous alignment at every interaction in the client's journey toward your solution:
Your value must resonate.
Your methodology must differentiate.
Your results for clients must substantiate.
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