It seems every week we talk to another professional services shop trying to kick-start their marketing and sales process. We sit down with the founder and ask the same question: “how are you different from all the other firms out there?”
When we ask that question, we get the same answer: we have a global delivery model, we are client centric, we put people first, we are domain experts and/or we really understand our clients.
To paraphrase Tyler Durden, with those credentials, you are beautiful and unique, just like everyone else. Your competitors have the same answer. They have a global delivery model, they are client centric, they put people first, they are domain experts and they really understand their clients.
So if you are just another professional services shop, what do you do when it comes to answering the question: “so how are you different from all the other firms out there?” How do you differentiate yourself in the undifferentiated world of services?
The question can be answered many ways: we could talk about messaging, positioning, company culture, decision making processes and employee empowerment & trust.
But instead, we’ll talk about “trusted customer relationships and the founder’s problem of scale
When we meet founders of professional services firms in the $1 to $5 million/year revenue range, what we generally see is a founder who has left a senior position to start a company. As a first customer, the new entrepreneur lands his first account by selling services back to his former employer –a whale (a large farmable account capable of more than $1M annual billings with a well known brand or reputation).
In this scenario, other than a trusted relationship, there is very little on the services menu that differentiates the services shop from the competition. Aside from marginal differences in talent, culture, expertise and methodology, almost every other $1M to $5M competing services firm can do a job as well as any other.
So when we talk about trusted customer relationships, we’re talking about founders who have leveraged a deep pre-existing relationship with their clients to make the leap to small business ownership. This relationship was built over many years through interaction, integrity, success/failure, transparency and consistency.
However, because of the relationship, the founder brings speed and nimbleness to problem solving because he or she has an intuitive grasp of the project goal AND the culture’s style of generating support for the goal AND the culture’s preferred style of organizing execution toward the goal. Together all this means a relationship that is hard to duplicate.
The problem of scaling this kind of relationship begins when the founder wants to find another major whale sized account that is just as profitable and farmable as the first major account.
The entire problem for finding the second whale is creating what was “second nature” with the founder’s former employer. How do you replicate in the selling and marketing process the relationships that were created over time through interaction, integrity, success/failure, transparency and consistency?
The answer (and the currency by which the trust is established, earned and scaled) is USEFULNESS. In sales-processes, the conversations, the relationships, the personal network and persuasion have always been the de facto currency. If people buy from people and if a brand is really the sum total of a customer’s interaction with a company, then it follows that in B2B, the personal brand of the founder is really all that matters when it comes to finding the next whale. After all, double digit revenue growth could come from the addition of one new whale per year.
The web and social media did not create the idea of a personal brand. Leading with value and emphasizing relationship value over a quick-transaction have always been the hallmarks of successful professional services organizations.
The only difference that social media makes is that the technology finally got granular enough and accessible enough and instantiated enough to be useful in facilitating this level of the ageless human dialog of value exchange. The tendency of people to become known through repeat encounters is as old as walking upright – and establishing a brand of credibility and openness to repeat transaction is earned by being accessible and broadly useful to the challenges prospects face – across the whole lifecycle of the problem solution.
For that and many other reasons, a dedicated emphasis on personal branding may overlap and replace some of the “traditional” tactics in marketing’s tool chest. The highest value of these personal branding activities is how they reach past the product attributes and into the underlying human issues beneath the problem the prospect company is experiencing.
Great sales people have always done this – communicated the solution when it was time, and then spoken in specifics about how it could be sold inside by the champion, and how it would be implemented, and described the benefits that would accrue. Equipping the internal champion to carry the message further and generate some kudos for himself in the process is natural.
Tom Searcy, author of “Hunt Big Sales” says “People only buy what they can safely sell to others, or defend if challenged. Our job as whale hunters is to equip and train the buyers to defend themselves from the attacks that will come later.”
In transferring this knowledge to new whales, over time, the more useful encounters you have with the prospect/customer, the more quickly you can get to equipping them to defend themselves and eventually co-own your goal. Co-owning a goal is not just implementing the solution, but helping your internal champion adequately share and evolve the problem and its solution.
Co-ownership is an exploration of how the whale’s culture generates appropriately widespread concurrence on this problem. How does it get on the priority list of problems to be attacked? How does the company’s culture establish resources for those sufficiently high-priority problems it decides to attack? What is the current decision-maker’s role in those deliberations about priority and resources?
When these questions are answered, THEN, only THEN can the sales machinery begin sketching a proposal that speaks to prospective solutions AND how to help steer consideration of those solutions through the company’s internal machinery, equipping the current decision-maker to advance the dialog, not just show a product list and price sheet from a vendor.
Ben Bradley is founder of Macon Raine - a B2B Marketing Agency
Ben Bradley writes about the intersection of
technology and business. His primary interests include the impact of
sales and marketing on end-user technology adoption, billing and
business models, social innovation, entrepreneurship, collaboration,
networks and groupware. He is also the founder of Macon Raine, Inc. He
can be reached at