Differentiators That Don’t: Accounting Firms Should Avoid These Four Mistakes

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The cornerstone of any good marketing strategy is differentiation – highlighting how your accounting firm is different from your competitors. Differentiation creates a competitive advantage by positioning your firm as distinct from similar firms and worthy of closer consideration.

Unfortunately, many professional services firms go about the task of identifying and qualifying differentiators in a brainstorming session or two that typically yield low-value, me-too results that are mind-numbingly similar to their competitors: “we’re a valued partner,” “our firm is an industry leader,” “we offer world-class service.” You get the idea.

Three things separate true differentiators from ineffective, ho-hum marketing statements. They must pass these tests:

  1. True: Is what you’re claiming a fact and not just wishful thinking?
  2. Relevant: Is it valuable or interesting to your target audience?
  3. Provable: Can you support your claim with evidence?

As part of our recent Hinge Research Institute study of high-growth professional services firms, we surveyed more than 500 firms of various sizes and compared high-growth firms to their no-growth peers. One area we focused on was marketing strategy. We looked closely at differentiators used by high-growth and no-growth firms to see how they differed.

We found that no-growth professional services firms favored the following four differentiators the most:

1. “Our commitment to results.” This fails as a differentiator because it’s widely used and virtually impossible to prove. Besides, no one in his or her right mind would say, “We’re not committed to getting results for you.” It does not pass Test No. 3.

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About Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen

Lee W. Frederiksen, PhD, is managing partner at Hinge, a marketing firm that specializes in branding and marketing for professional services. Hinge conducts groundbreaking research into high-growth firms and offers a complete suite of services for firms that want to become more visible and grow.

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Oct 20th 2016 11:45

You've made some excellent points there Lee, as usual. Over here in the UK many firms attempt to differentiate themselves on:

- Personal service.
- Specialise in owner managed businesses.
- Strong Technical skills (qualifications not outcomes they help deliver).
- Big enough to cope, small enough to care.

They usually go on to add that they offer the full range of accountancy services before listing them.

They generalise their firms, not differentiate them. All of the above are the minimum standards, the price of entry to compete. They end up promoting accountancy not the special benefits / outcomes they help the clients achieve.

So business owners glide from one firm's website to another unable to differentiate them. The only way they can differentiate is by price: the cheapest fee usually wins out.

If there's a single question to sort high growth firms from the crowd it seems to be:

"Tell me the work you are most proud of, the work that has had the greatest impression on your clients' lives?"

The majority of partners tell me they need some time to think about it. Others, like the firms featured in, 'The world's most inspiring accountants', by Steve Pipe, can't stop talking.

Thanks (2)
to Patricka4g
Oct 21st 2016 19:48

Thanks for your comment. The UK differentiators sound awfully familiar! It is sad that the profession is at least partially responsible for driving to commodity status by failing to differentiate. Thanks again...lwf

Thanks (1)
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to Patricka4g
Nov 3rd 2016 04:58

You are right Patrick... "Tell me the work you are most proud of, the work that has had the greatest impression on your clients' lives?"... is a great way way to sort out the men from the boys

Thanks (1)