Tahzoo is kicking off our new customer experience initiative. Before you choose us (and you should) one of the first things to consider is: what does Tahzoo offer that is unique—or, at least, differentiated—from other firms like us?
We think of ourselves as special. We believe we can do a better job helping our clients than our competition. Our growth over the last five years is testimony to the validity of this perception, but what is it that allows us to claim superiority? How do we continually attract top clients? What do we deliver that makes our clients successful?
At the end of the day, answers to these questions makes us, as a professional services firm, a premium brand.
The Uniqueness of Professional Services Firms
Professional Services firms are different from product-based brands in that, instead of promoting and selling something tangible, like a car, a smartphone or even a piece of software, services firms are selling talent, experience and the ability to solve problems. Our primary assets are our employees.
According to Prof. Jay Lorsch, who teaches a course at the Harvard Business School on Leading Professional Services Firms, there are basically two dimensions that make professional services firms successful: human talent and alignment.
“Good firms hire the absolute best people and develop them, motivate them and build careers in which they will stay committed … they develop organizational practices that motivate these outstanding people to serve clients well. Getting this right is what we mean by alignment,” he says.
It is this concept of alignment, the creating of strong links between employees, company strategy and the experience delivered to the firm’s clients that produces the differentiation at the heart of any great brand.
The Professional Services Brand
A classical definition of a brand is the sum of all the interactions, impressions and perceptions held about a company by its customers and the general public. It includes artifacts like logos, images, and messaging tone and voice. But it also includes the reality of the experiences one has when interacting with the company, including its people, products and services. In other words, it’s more than marketing.
For a brand to be successful, it must be honest and authentic. Ford missed the mark in the 80s and 90s when it tried to promote itself through the tagline, Quality is Job One, while pumping out inferior product. Comcast will forever struggle to be perceived as customer-centric as long as it fails to actually deliver quality customer service. On the flip side, Volvo will always be perceived as the safest automobile on the road, even when many other manufacturers have equal safety ratings. That is because Volvo invested in a brand whose core value was safety first and foremost.
For a professional services firm there are 4 core components of a brand: internal reality, actions, market perceptions and artifacts.
Of these four, the easiest to produce are the artifacts. The hardest to influence is the market perception. And the brand’s actions are determined more by the internal reality than all the messaging and artifacts marketing and sales can dream up.
Let’s look at what each means.
Internal reality is both the most critical aspect of the brand and the one the firm has the most control over … potentially. It is tied to the firm’s vision, mission, values and culture. It is the primary determinant of the organization’s ability to deliver great work. Leadership must set the tone, but the entire organization makes it reality. You can’t fake culture. You can’t be mis-aligned with messaging. Any gaps will become obvious to clients and employees alike, ensuring failure. On the other hand, a healthy, transparent culture fosters growth of brand equity and market recognition.
The collective actions of the leaders and the staff, especially when in direct contact with clients and partners, are where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the brand. The reality is that, for most client engagements, there are very few people who have substantive direct contact with the client. Typically, only three or four people have face-to-face contact with the client—the delivery manager/project manager, the account manager and the subject matter experts.
For a professional services company the size of Tahzoo, that means the actions of one-or-two percent of the company will determine client perception of the brand. At some point, every single employee will act as a brand ambassador for the company. Their actions—whether they are directly in front of a client, like those of a project manager, or behind the scenes, like a developer or someone in finance—determine the success or failure of the company to project the desired brand image. Every employee must therefore deliver on the promise. They are the guardians of the company’s culture and integrity. Their actions speak much louder than their words.
These are the physical manifestations of the brand. They are the things that can be seen, heard or touched that convey a company’s message and brand. They include things like the logo, the imagery, and the messaging content. They also include the three types of media: owned, earned and paid. Owned media includes websites, collateral, presentations, proposals and all manner of templated business materials. Earned media is what other people are saying about the brand in public. It is dubbed earned because it’s hard to do and even harder to change if it goes bad. Examples include analyst reports, awards and the sharing and commenting on branded thought leadership and publications. Paid media generally refers to advertising, but also includes activities like hosting webinars or sponsoring an industry event. It is not very common except among all-but-the-largest professional services companies.
A company has the most control over its brand artifacts and it is through those artifacts that much of the initial market perception is based. Just like the actions of the employees, however, brand artifacts are only effective over the long run if they are aligned with the internal reality.
If, for example, the company website says the company has 1000 employees when no one ever sees more than a handful in an office at a given time, there may be a disconnect. If employees who participated in a project don’t recognize the same project when they read the case study, there may be a problem.
Perhaps the most important elements of brand artifacts are that they be simple and direct, without jargon. Anyone, regardless of role within a client organization and the company itself, should be able to understand them. Consistency is also critical. Consistency includes adherence to brand guidelines, colors, fonts, imagery … as well as messaging and content. If individual employees produce their own presentations, proposals and collateral, it is almost certain the brand will suffer from inconsistency. In the end, complexity and inconsistency will mean clients won’t understand what the firm does or, worse, they will come away with a different set of expectations than the company intended.
When it all comes down, the only thing that really matters about a brand is market perception. A brand is only as good as what it is perceived to be, regardless of intent. If the market pigeonholes a company into a specific niche, like being a Strategic Integrator, no amount of marketing will change that opinion, even if the reality is greater than the perception. It is an uphill battle to change public perception.
It is the market’s ability to form and share opinions that has the greatest influence on perception. The most influential source of perception are existing clients. If they are satisfied and willing to recommend you, your market perception is sure to grow. Additionally, recognition by industry leaders like analysts and journalists contributes greatly to a positive perception of a brand. And finally, market perception can be influenced by the brand’s participation in the public arena through the contribution of thought leadership in blogs, independent publications, speaking at events and, increasingly, through social networks (like LinkedIn) or forums (like the one for Tridion developers).
Defining a Premium Brand
This all brings me back to my original theme: differentiation. From an abstract point of view one of the hardest things is to make your firm sound different from every other professional services company in your field. Almost every firm talks about a commitment to customers, quality and expertise. Everyone claims to be integrated, global and have “unique” solutions.
In a recent study, the words used by the top 10 services firms, across 8 sectors, were mapped in a word cloud. Do these terms sound familiar?
Perhaps the best advice in this regard is: “mean something … if you want to matter.” What sets a company apart and what makes it matter to potential clients as well as potential employees is a compelling, authentic brand. A company has to have a clear understanding of what its value is to the marketplace, and it must concisely and consistently convey that value in everything it does—artifacts, actions, internal reality and, most importantly, market perception.
For example, take a look at two of the top consulting companies in the world, McKinsey and BCG. Both appear to be almost the same on the surface. They produce smart content, tackle the big business issues and serve a similar global clientele. But, when you dig down into the core brand narrative, two distinctive approaches emerge. For McKinsey, it is all about delivering a promise of power and control. Whereas BCG promises understanding and transformation. It is this difference that shades how each organization competes and how they win in their market. Neither competes on the what or the how. They start with “Why.”
Building a premium brand
Getting down to brass tacks, what does it take to build a premium brand? There are three keys to being authentic, differentiated and valuable.
- Be a bona fide expert in a new aspect of your field
- Become recognized as a thought leader in your field
- Demonstrate how you have delivered measureable value to your client
EXPERT – It is no longer good enough to be an “expert” in your field. Table stakes include technical expertise, as well. Every services firm claims expertise. Its nearly impossible to claim that your consulting skills are any better than the next guy. This is especially difficult when competing against global market leaders or award-winning agency creative. What will set you apart from the rest is when your expertise is in a new aspect of your field. Being on the cutting edge suggest you can do things your competitors can’t, and that allows you to claim you can help your clients stay a step ahead of their competition. Even better, demonstrate specific advances in process or technology. These are things you can own—they become intellectual property.
Perhaps the best example is AKQA, www.akqa.com . Already held in high esteem as a leading digital agency, AKQA leapfrogged the competition when it teamed up with Nike to produce Nike+, an initiative to get people to track their athletic activities using digital technology. Later, they were one of the first agencies to develop iPhone apps for Gap and Nike. AdAge magazine listed them as one of its top-10 agencies of the decade. As a result of that sort of brand equity, in 2012, AKQA was acquired by WPP.
THOUGHT LEADER – Clients want to be associated with leaders. One of the best ways of demonstrating leadership, not to mention building awareness and recognition, is through the regular participation in the industry through publishing, speaking and being referred to or quoted in the media. Quite often, the most recognized thought leaders don’t have any smarter ideas, more valuable insights or better communications styles, they simply are present in the marketplace of ideas on a regular and consistent basis. This works for big guys and small ones. When a CEO of a Fortune 500 company reads an insightful piece on BCG Perspectives, they are more likely to say, “Get me those guys!” Next thing you know, BCG has a nice new engagement.
Bruce Temkin was a respected analyst at Forrester Research. He left to form his own services firm, The Temkin Group, www.temkingroup.com. In addition to publishing several books on customer experience, authoring the “Customer Experience Matters” blog and being co-founder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association, The Temkin Group regularly publishes its annual Temkin Experience Ratings, viewed as one of the definitive measures of customer experience success across many industries. The Temkin Group currently works with many global-500 companies and commands a premium for all consulting services.
CLIENT SUCCESS – Nothing speaks louder than proven success. The more often you can share the success you have brought to a client, the more new business you will win. Prospective clients love to hear real-world examples of saving money, increasing revenue, or demonstrating a positive ROI. Better yet, persuade your clients to be references or to join you on stage at a major speaking event.
Stein IAS, the merger of two award-winning, small B2B agencies in New York and London, is a great example. For each of their featured works on their website, www.steinias.com, they publish tangible results for the client, “The website saw a 67% increase in visitors.” And, “Click-through rates are more than 5 times the industry benchmark.” Or, “The campaign led to 131m in new business, from a budget of 3m. an ROI of 44:1”
 Leading Professional Services Firms, HBS http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/leading-professional-service-firms