The myth of differentiation in marketing an accounting firm

7th September, 2011

Many marketers will try to tell you that a core part of your firm’s marketing strategy is differentiation.

In my view, what most people think of as ‘differentiation’ is nothing but a pipe dream.

When marketing consultants and business owners talk about differentiation they are really talking about claims that fall into one of The Three B’s:

  • Better
  • Best
  • Blah

Better‘ refers to claims firms make in their marketing material, such as websites and brochures, that they are ‘better’ than their competition. More experienced. More committed. More caring. Better value. Better service.

Best‘ takes it to the next level, making the claims even more unbelievable.

Does anyone really believe that your firm is the best firm in a particular aspect or service offering? It may be true.  It’s unlikely though.  But even if it is true, don’t tell me how good you are, show me how good you are. Talking about how good you are is tiring at best.  It is corporate chest beating.

And it adds no value to the reader. It teaches them nothing. (Other than you think you’re pretty hot.)

Did you know that only 18 percent of people place any credence whatsoever in claims made in advertising? (That’s another reason that social media, thought leadership strategies and the educational marketing approach we teach in The Clientshare Academy is so powerful.)

READ: 5 effective ways to market your accounting firm

So why make grandiose claims that tend to lack credibility?

This is the third ‘B’: ‘Blah‘.

You know the sort of ‘About Us’ website wording I’m referring to… “We at [XYZ and Associates] pride ourselves in our professionalism and dedication to high levels of client of service. We have combined experience exceeding [xx] years and truly value partnering with clients to add value in a proactive and… ”

…and the blah blah blah continues!

Most firms’ website have this blah blah blah wording on it. Very few people read it, and if they do, no-one believes it.

It’s meaningless.

Try this exercise with your team:

Have a brainstorming session on the whiteboard or flip chart and list out all the reasons you think you are the better than your competition. The ideas are likely to include:

  • Better service
  • Better quality
  • Better value
  • More professional
  • More caring
  • More experienced

The next step in the exercise is to go through that list and cross out any items that your competition would also claim.

Note, I said ‘claim’. This is not a matter of whether you agree with them or not, but whether other firms would also claim these things.

I guarantee that you will cross out most if not all of them because they are saying you are ‘better’ or the ‘best’ in various aspects. Your competitors would claim the same sorts of things.

It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee

Rather than being deluded about differentiation, a far more useful marketing concept is positioning.

Every business owner needs a solid understanding of the concept of positioning because it underpins the fundamentals of strategy.

Positioning is not about saying you are better or you are the best. It is about taking a unique position in the market which inherently *makes* you ‘different’, but not by claiming you are better or the best.

In my view, the most effective way to achieve clear positioning in an accounting or professional services firm is through a niche marketing strategy. In Module 1 of the Clientshare Academy we go into great depth about why there are only three basic strategies available to any business, including an accounting firm.

Michael Porter famously outlined three generic strategies that can be combined into only four possible options.

In my experience only one of those options is viable for most accounting firms.

A true ‘differentiation’ strategy is only available to businesses that have some unique technology (patents, trade secrets) or a sustainable competitive advantage in the way they do business (think Dell Computers in their early days). That is, the way in which they do business *is* actually different and superior to their competition.

This does not apply to most accounting firms

Firms have similar business models, use similar processes, are drawing from the same labour pool, using the same type of software and hardware…

…which is why differentiation is a pipe dream for most.

So, stop basing your marketing around The Three B’s and start thinking about a unique position in the market you can claim through a niche marketing strategy focusing on, for example:

  • A specific industry or business type
  • A specific occupation type
  • A specific demographic (eg. age, lifestyle, income) of the type of client you are targeting
  • A specific service area

For each Partner/Director in the firm, (excluding Partners/Directors who are 100% in management and working ‘on’ the business), focus on one or two niches, maximum.

Until you focus your marketing strategy on clear target markets and specific service offerings, your firm will continue to be lost in the ‘blah blah blah’ marketing noise made by most firms.

Another advantage of specialisation beyond marketing, is an operational perspective. You become very, very, good at that speciality and you can come to dominate your chosen niche.

A client of ours who has grown more than 245 percent last financial year attributes half of that growth to our guidance in helping them choose two clear market niches, and extremely clear marketing positioning. They are dominating their niches in their region, and are getting three to six new client referrals on average each week.

READ: How to find the perfect client for your accounting firm

This was not happening when they had the usual generalist strategy that most accounting firms have of being all things to all people … or as one client put it, “Our client selection criteria used to be ‘a chequebook and a heartbeat’!”

That is a guaranteed formula for being *un*remarkable and, consequently, for stifling word-of-mouth.

It will limit the growth of your firm.

Generalists are not remembered. Think about the last legendary ‘utility player’, in any football code.

Who was that again?