The Keys To Differentiation

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Suzanne Lowe, President of Expertise Marketing, recently led a workshop for AccountingWEB entitled Differentiation: The Key to Success For Accounting Firms.

The workshop was based on the results of the firm's study "Differentiation: How Are Professional Service Firms Using it to Compete?" This is its fourth annual survey reviewing strategic marketing issues that impact professional service firms. It was conducted in conjunction with the AAM (Association for Accounting Marketing) and AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants).

Three critical issues resulted from the study:

  1. Accounting firms are implementing some form of differentiation in their marketing programs.
  2. There is little agreement on exactly WHAT differentiation means.
  3. Some of the approaches that many firms are pursuing are actually reported to be unsuccessful.

Many professional service firms don't link differentiation to their firm's strategies. Instead, they randomly experiment with a spectrum of (mostly tactical) differentiation approaches.

According to Expertise Marketing, strategic differentiation requires two approaches:

"Minding" the differentiation gap revolves around gaining a better understanding of your firm's business landscape, including the marketplace, clients and the competition.

"Mining" the differentiation gap involves identifying and/or building, and then promoting the firm's true differentiation. In mining the gap, consider the following five factors. A firm's differentiation should be valuable, difficult to copy, credible, compelling, and sustainable.

Make sure that your differentiation is valuable to your clients. Example: Many organizations are restructuring their departments among industry lines as a method to differentiate themselves. The result is that this reorganization mostly benefits a firm internally, and offers little if any value to a client.

The key to differentiation is ensuring that your approach meets the criteria of the five most critical factors:

  1. Valuable to the client and to your team
  2. Difficult to copy
  3. Credible
  4. Compelling
  5. Sustainable

(For more insight on differentiation, be sure to review the article on Unique Core Differentiators, based on the March 14, 2000 workshop presented by Rich Durkin of Results Accountants' Systems.)

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