Are your stars stuck between a rock and a hard place?

Candice O'Sullivan
May 1, 2014

It’s easy to be individual – if you’re an individual. Each of us is unique. So you and I can claim to be different – easily and convincingly.

But when you stick a bunch of people together, the inevitable happens. We all tend to meld into one. We now represent something much bigger, call ourselves by another name, talk about the greatness of us.

If we’re not careful, we yabber on about us so much that ‘you’ and ‘I’ get lost.

The problem with leaving ‘you’ out of everything that ‘us’ says is obvious (or so I hope it is). The impact of prioritising ‘us, the conglomerate’ over ‘I, the individual’, is more subtle, but just as damaging.

Differentiation is no easy task for the group of professionals

In geology, a conglomerate is defined as ‘a rock consisting of individual clasts within a finer-grained matrix that have become cemented together’ (thanks Wikipedia).

My point?

Most professional service providers appreciate that they would be nothing without their people. And yet their selling efforts are not people-led. Rather than discuss their finer points, they base their sales pitch on statements like:

‘Our rock is bigger than your rock.’

‘Our rock is smoother than your rock.’

‘Our rock is edgier than your rock.’

‘Our rock covers more ground than your rock.’

‘Our rock has been around a lot longer than your rock.’

These statements are all meant to imply certain benefits. And they do. The problem, though, is that lots of rocks are apparently bigger, bolder, better … you get my drift. So it can be difficult – based on these claims alone – to tell them apart.

Smart service providers don’t ground their businesses on these rocks. Rather, they take the ‘clast’ approach. They recognise that their individuals – their people – are the true ‘separators’ in an otherwise monotonous landscape.

On this topic, Nick Seddon from Beaton Capital recently wrote:

‘Individual relationships are as important as ever because each of us can claim to be unique. This is easy differentiation but how many firms promote this form of differentiation? It’s all regarded as a little risky because power then resides in the individual rather than the institution.’

This exact sentiment was reflected in a recent LinkedIn poll: 76% of respondents said they preferred to differentiate by firm, while only 13% preferred to differentiate by individual (5% did not think it mattered).

Ultimately, a firm’s leaders must decide which approach best aligns with their agreed business strategy (or rather, which path they have the guts and appetite to go down). But before making your decision, keep in mind the following:

  1. People do business with people they know, like and trust. This is, and always will be, the best rationale for showcasing your individuals and helping them build one-on-one relationships.
  2. Today’s business environment is ripe for personal branding and relationship building at an individual-individual level, rather than a firm-client level. Thanks to digital advances, employees have never had so many tools at their disposal for getting (and keeping) in touch with the market, making themselves visible and making their presence felt. Newer channels to market, like LinkedIn and Twitter, are allowing individual professionals to nurture relationships more quickly, more often, and in many ways, more effectively than in the past.

Of course, the fundamental challenge for firms brave enough to pursue this kind of ‘all stars’ differentiation is how to make use of the relationship capital and social capital generated by their individual professionals. But as Seddon points out, firms first need to have the courage to take the risk and empower their individuals to build relationships in this way.

By Candice O’Sullivan, Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark. You can follow her insights into professional services and #NewLaw marketing @wellmark_psf. You can also find Candice on Google+ at +Candice O’Sullivan or follow her tweets on brand strategy, content marketing and related topics @candicepill.

Further reading:

Image credit: ‘Tent rocks‘ by John Fowler courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons under a CC BY 2.0 attribution license.

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