What Works in Positioning Professional Services?

Over the years, I have worked with a number of professional services clients—from systems integration companies to management consulting firms. The question that these clients always have is: how do you position a service?

The underlying assumption is that a service is less tangible than a product—that is, messaging around a service is less clear cut. At the outset that may be true. But, I like to do the same thing with services organizations as I do with product companies. Here are a few tips:

1. Like any product company, you need to identify your target customers. Who really needs your services? What is their environment, what are their business and work-related issues and how can you solve their problem or enable them to realize an opportunity. For some services firms, the target may be identified by title, size of company and industry, but, often further identification by behavior and personality is required. For instance, services companies that enable significant changes through implementation of a new strategy may have more luck identifying visionary clients who are willing to take calclulated risks for potential gains.

2. What is your category? For instance, marketing consulting is a broad category. In my case, I specialize in a subset of marketing consulting: positioning and brand strategies (with a further specialization in high technology companies).

3. What is your service? Understand that you may have to alter your service offerings to map a compelling solution to your target customer’s point of pain. Your service offering should not be a laundry list of services. You will need to have a higher level message of the overall service offering that is concise and compelling. Under this larger umbrella, you can then fit smaller “buckets” of services that are logically organized according to solutions or needs.

4. Can you “producticize” your service and/or methodology? For example, with a systems integration client, we identified, named and branded its methodology. This helped to differentiate the client from competitors as well as to underscore the value of a proven and relatively risk-free way to get quick results. Productizing intellectual property is very important to services companies, as is quantifying the talents and experience of your staff. It requires more creativity than a straightforward product, but can definitely be achieved.

5. What is your true differentiation from competitors? This can’t be from your point of view. It must be differentiation that is meaningful to your target customer. Go back to the problem statement and ensure that you can solve the problem better than your competitor. Or perhaps your differentiation is less around your service and more in the company you keep (e.g., services partners, blue chip clients, etc.). Whatever it is, ensure that it will make a difference to your customer.

6. Do you have a plan for word-of-mouth marketing? In professional services, references are key. Think about having to choose a doctor, dentist or accountant. You always ask your network who is the best in these specialties. It’s no different with professional services in high tech markets. Figure out who are the key influences in the market segment you have chosen, and ensure that they know who you are and why you should be a preferred services provider.

As you can see, positioning a service is not that different from positioning a product. Just remember that the service becomes the product.

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