Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Tangibilize Your Firm's Intangible Strengths


Have you ever tried to articulate your firm's value proposition? Your value proposition is the primary reasons clients are likely to select you over your competitors. For most A/E firms, coming up with a compelling value proposition is exceedingly difficult because most firms aren't that different from each other in the eyes of clients.

I have guided leaders of several firms through exercises designed to help them identify key elements of their value proposition. Most of those firms have predictably struggled with it. They typically start by listing as their top differentiators attributes (such as responsiveness, reliability, quality, relationships) that are difficult to prove to prospective clients.

I like the RAIN Group's description of a strong value proposition. They suggest that an effective value proposition must have three characteristics (likening it to a three-legged stool):
  • It must resonate. A strong value proposition aligns with what clients want and need, and what they value. It's relevant.
  • It must differentiate. It sets your firm apart from your competitors. It's different. 
  • It must substantiate. It offers proof that you can deliver the value you claim. No empty marketing slogans. It's verifiable.
Each of the three characteristics present a formidable challenge to the typical firm. It's easy enough to relate to the client's technical needs. But we're less clear about how we meet high-value strategic business needs. And we often struggle to connect our work to the associated human needs and desired outcomes. (See "Uncovering the Client's Real Needs")

Most A/E firms seem to list differentiators that are experiential and unverifiable. In other words, existing clients might recognize that your firm is trustworthy and flexible, and they might continue to work with you because of a strong relationship. But how do you sell such virtues to prospective clients? And doesn't every firm make similar—and similarly unprovable—claims?

If you're convinced that these kinds of intangible qualities constitute your competitive advantage, then you must determine how to tangibilize them. This means making them, at least in part, observable and verifiable. How do you do that? Let me suggest three primary ways:

Produce objective evidence. You're probably familiar with the venerable test of marketable benefits, which involves answering two questions: "So what?" and "Can you prove it?" Assuming you can describe how a particular area of expertise or qualification is beneficial to the client (and don't assume it's automatically evident!), then you're faced with the second and toughest of the two questions: Can you show me the evidence?

The fact is that there is scant evidence for most of the marketing and sales claims we make: "We provide high-quality work," "Our designers really listen," "We put our clients first," "Our employees are dedicated to producing exceptional solutions." Such verbiage only drains the value from your value proposition. For this reason, I encourage you to try to avoid claims of distinction that you can't validate.

Instead, focus on those strengths that you can verify. For example: "As evidence of our commitment to quality, change orders related to our designs have averaged only 0.7% of construction costs over the last decade, compared to an industry average of 2%." If you lack the evidence to back up your claims, go find it if you can.

Define a delivery process. Most of the supposed intangible strengths that A/E firms offer as differentiators are not the product of corporate intent but of individual competency. Client service is a ready example. Every firm claims to provide it, but very few can show a process or system for ensuring its consistent delivery. Combined with the fact that few firms even measure how well they serve clients, this typically amounts to a meaningless sales claim.

I can attest to the value of being able to describe (and show) a process for delivering the intangible strength you're trying to sell. Years ago, I developed a client service delivery process for my former employer, a firm that determined it wanted to be "the service leader" in its target markets. We even could produce a picture of how we provided leading service:

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Admittedly, it's an oversimplification of what great service entails, but it nevertheless proved to be a valuable business development asset. My favorite example of this was a shortlist interview for a nationwide environmental services contract with a major airline. I had tried to convince my colleagues not to even pursue this since our firm lacked any experience with airlines or airports. But we managed to make it to the shortlist.

We decided to stress our service delivery process since we had heard that the airline wasn't happy with some of their current environmental consultants. When we showed the slide with the diagram above, the selection committee chairman exclaimed, "Why are you the only firm talking about this? Poor service is why we're looking at new firms. Yet you're the only one to tell us how you're going to give us better service!" We got the contract.

Can you take a similar approach for other intangible strengths? I think you can. You could talk about steps you take to strengthen client relationships. You could describe your firm's policies for ensuring responsiveness to clients. You could outline your training program that promotes better collaboration on projects. Et cetera. 

Demonstrate it in how you develop new business. If you've read many of my posts here, you know that I advocate a service-centered approach to business development. To borrow Charlie Green's terminology, this amounts to "samples selling"—demonstrating your intangible strengths versus merely talking about them. You can allow the prospective client to sample most aspects of project work before buying; for example:
  • Client focus—by reversing the usual focus on you the seller and centering it on the buyer instead
  • Problem solving—by helping the client characterize and identify the solution you hope to help implement
  • Quality—by delivering sales products (white papers, correspondence, proposals, etc.) of exceptional quality
  • Reliability—by consistently delivering what you promised, even in the little things like returning phone calls promptly
  • Expertise—by providing great insight and knowledge relative to the client's needs
Those intangible qualities that you believe are genuine and valued by your clients typically mean little to prospective clients without proof. By taking steps to tangibilize them as described above, you can turn those empty sales claims into real points of distinction. Maybe you'll even hear one of your new clients exclaim, "Why is everybody just talking about this instead of showing us how they're truly different?"