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Professional Services Marketing Blog
At Hinge we have been studying Visible Experts℠, people who have attained high visibility and expertise in their industry, creating a personal brand that is recognizable industry-wide. We study them because we want to understand how they attained that status and what we can learn from them. This profile focuses on Rick Telberg, a Visible Expert for the accounting and finance industry.
Keeping Pace with Change
Rick Telberg, President and CEO of CPA Trendlines, was introduced to the accounting industry more than 20 years ago when he helped launch Accounting Today magazine as Editor. Although his background was in journalism, he quickly became fascinated by his new industry. “There’s an interesting tension in finance between the forces of integrity and the forces of business,” Rick says. “It makes for a natural storyline.” He immersed himself in the world of financial media and never looked back.
As Accounting Today grew, Rick’s responsibilities also expanded. He took on the roles of Vice President and Group Publisher for Thomson Financial’s accounting media properties, including Accounting Technology, The Practical Accountant, and what is now accountingtoday.com.
Already a pioneer of digital publishing when the Internet boom hit in the early 2000s, Rick became one of the first to harness online media and marketing for his sector. Now, he says, “the accounting industry is still learning how to adapt to the online marketplace. But we need to remember that competition is what drives change, not technology itself. Who is using it best, first, and most effectively? The marketplace will notice that, perceive the threat, and only then will change occur.”
Developing a winning differentiation strategy is a huge struggle for many professional services firms. It just got a little easier with the release of Hinge’s new Differentiation Guide For Professional Services Firms
This is the latest in our Executive Guide Series. Each guide is focused around a specific topic within the professional services branding and marketing field. Their goal is to give a quick, easy to understand overview that helps you tackle an important issue.
Easy and useful are the watchwords of this series.
Differentiating your services from those of your competitors is not an easy thing for most firms. After all, most firms within a specific profession are capable of offering similar services. And many services are relatively easy to copy (even if performed with a much lower level of competence).
And even if there are huge differences between the competence levels of various firms, these differences are not intuitively obvious to potential clients. Most clients are simply not capable of judging the technical competence of your staff and the services they provide.
This has led some folks to conclude that differentiation isn’t possible or even desirable. Wrong.
In fact, our research shows that high growth professional services firms are three times more likely to have a strong differentiator than their average growth competitors.
A brand differentiation strategy is one of the most poorly understood pillars of professional services marketing.
Some professional services firms recognize that a differentiation strategy is the foundation of a solid brand. But others maintain the notion that it is not foundational, or even important in the professional services marketplace. Most firms in a given industry tend to all be the same anyway right? So what good is a differentiator? Furthermore, even once firms understand the necessity of a distinct brand, many struggle to identify what makes them unique. Often, they miss wide-open opportunities to make themselves stand out.
Our latest webinar helped shed some light on the whys, the hows, and the whats around formulating a differentiation strategy. You can check out the recording here. This post will review the key points we made around a differentiation strategy. Let’s start by exploring the basics.
The word is a self-descriptor. A differentiator is a characteristic, or small set of characteristics, that is true, provable, and means something to your target audience. It’s something your competition can’t claim. Otherwise, it doesn’t make you different. We’ve identified 21 types of differentiators that work best for professional services firms – so I’ll come back to those in a minute.
Simply put, a differentiator is the foundation upon which most, if not all, of your growth strategies are built. The essence of “who you are” is what helps define your market, your offerings, your recruiting strategy, and evolution of services you bring to market. But don’t differentiate just for differentiation’s sake. Make it count.
A strong differentiator, or a short-list of strong differentiators, sets your firm apart from others, particularly key competitors, in a way that is meaningful to your target audience, including clients, prospect, investors, or even future employees. We’ve seen from our own research that high growth firms are 3x more likely than average growth firms to have a strong differentiator. That’s a powerful case for a strong differentiation strategy.
At Hinge, we’ve spent quite a bit of time researching the drivers of growing professional services firms. In particular, we’ve researched the role that reputation and visibility can have on brand strength. Given a strong brand, what’s the relationship to a firm’s valuation?
To answer that question, we invited Michael O’Brien, Principal at Rusk, O’Brien, Gido & Partners to bring insight to the topic. Michael and his colleagues provide business planning, valuation, ownership planning, and mergers and acquisitions strategies to A/E/C clients.
Those who have been in the industry for decades will recall the market collapse of 2007 and 2008. Post collapse, many firms have not regained the level of value experienced in prior years. Add to this the many firm owners who are still looking to drive up firm value in preparation for retirement. For some owners, they may even fall prey to the mythical formula of “Earnings x X = firm value.”
The key element to consider when determining a firm’s market value is the expected future cash flow. And to enhance a firm’s value, a firm needs to regularly conduct risk assessments to determine the things it does well and the things that it does not do as well.
There are two parts to a firm’s value: tangible value and intangible value. Book value has to do with tangible concerns such as cash, accounts receivable, fixed assets and equipment (machinery, computers, software). In essence, the book value looks back at what has already been done. On the other hand, intangible value has to do with existing workforce, contracts, customer relationships, patents, trademarks, business methodologies and trade/brand name. It’s no surprise that in professional services, the greatest asset are the people.
Every once in a while a piece of research comes along that neatly fills in a missing piece of the professional services business development puzzle. The Hinge Research Institute, our independent industry research organization, has just released such a study.
It’s called Beyond Referrals: How Today’s Buyers Check You Out and it’s available as a free download.
Why This Study?
This research fills in an important gap in the professional services business development process. Previous studies summarized in the book Inside The Buyer's Brain documented how potential clients go about identifying firms they may want to work with (asking friends and colleagues and online search were most frequent).
The research also documented the selection criteria used to make the choice (reputation is a biggie). But there was an important piece missing.
How do your potential clients check you and your firm out? How do they determine whether you will be a good fit for them? How important are references? What about social media?
At Hinge, we have been studying Visible ExpertsSM, people who have attained high visibility and expertise in their industry, creating a personal brand that is recognizable industry-wide. We study them because we want to understand how they attained that status and what we can learn from them. This profile focuses on Robert J. Lang, Ph.D., a Visible Expert for engineering, art, and design.
Art as Life
When Robert Lang became interested in origami at the age of six, he never thought that it could one day become a career. According to Robert, he “got hooked” on origami because of its simple aesthetics and the seemingly limitless possibilities for design. “It was something I could pursue with just paper and my hands,” he said, “and yet there was no end to the levels of complexity. Even now, there are far more avenues to pursue than I have time to spend.”
Robert’s interest in origami became a dedicated hobby that followed him into adolescence. When the time came to go to college, though, he went with a more practical choice. “I chose engineering, which is also about making things,” says Robert. “It has a lot more in common with origami than people think.” Robert studied electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), designing circuits and learning about lasers and optics—the manipulation of light. He went on to earn a master’s in electrical engineering from Stanford University, returning later to Caltech for a Ph.D. in applied physics.