Fifteen years ago I was one of about five or ten people around the world that advocated heavily for positioning a professional services firm based on narrow and focused expertise. There was Blair Enns (Canada), David Maister (UK, Canada, USA), David Baker (USA), Fiona Czerniawska (UK), Alan Weiss (USA) and probably a few others I am missing.
Whenever I spoke about this at conferences it often generated a lot of push back – many folks were still convinced that being a generalist firm was the way to go. But slowly the internet was changing all that.
The internet began to (i) replace the large firm as the “finder” of experts and (ii) provided the platform for the idea of specialization in a professional services firm to spread.
Today talking about positioning as an expert is commonplace and rarely generates any argument.
TV people talk about the moment when Fonzie jumped the shark as a turning point in that show. The moment when it was no longer cutting edge. The other night I got the sense that the idea of positioning as an expert had jumped the shark as well when I saw the newest episode of The Good Wife, a series revolving around a US law firm.
In the March 6th episode (Hearing) at about the 37:30 mark two characters talk about law firms needing an identity – that most firms try and do too much. Here it is I thought, they are going to specialize. Then they started talking about their identity being based on becoming a firm with only female partners. Here it is I thought again – they will focus on legal issues and expertise specific to women. But then they took a left turn and spoke about the personality of the firm being softer, gentler, more feminine and even suggested they would make more money because of this new personality.
And there it was. The personality trap – the idea that clients will pay more because you are nice, or fun, or young. Or in this case more feminine. Another rookie mistake in the field of positioning a professional services firm courtesy of CBS. This was as bad as when Mad Men made free-pitching popular again after decades of lobbying by the ad industry to prevent it.
Once again someone misunderstood that while anything including personality can be a tie-breaker in a decision to hire a firm there is only one reason to go looking for a firm in the first place. Clients are looking for expertise that they don’t have. When they find that expertise they may hire the firm based on that alone – or possibly they may then defer to some other criteria – the tie-breakers to make a decision between a short list of similarly qualified firms.
Unfortunately, there are no consistent tie-breakers. For one client it might be the location of the office while for another it might be the fees, and for another it might be the process. The only need that is consistent across all clients, is the need for a specific type of expertise.
So maybe positioning on expertise is not so commonplace. Maybe the idea of specialization is commonplace but if The Good Wife is any indicator, the idea of specialization based on expertise is not.
Maybe there’s still 15 more years for me to talk about this after all…explaining relevance versus differentiation.
If you want to read more from the people I mentioned above you can find them at the links below. They were the pioneers and their words are still full of wisdom.
Blair Enns taught me everything I needed to know in order to embrace the concept of positioning on expertise and then revved me up and set me loose to think up some new things on my own. Blair also has one of the best distance learning programs in the world for ad agencies looking to improve their business development skills.
I believe that David Maister is retired but his site still has great material and his books are timeless
David Baker is a great advisor to the expert sector and also the publisher of my book.
Fiona and I have never met but we seem to be on similar trajectories writing and speaking both about the consulting side and the procurement-of-consulting side.
In my mind, Alan is the Tony Robbins of the consulting world. Enough said.
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"This should be required reading for consultants AND their clients - especially the part about RFPs." - Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching