Nine differentiators that do work

Distinguish yourself by focusing on how you will provide benefits and insight for clients. Zero in on clients' needs and give them solutions, not slogans:

1. Category authority. Nothing trumps the power of undisputed competence. The market embraces experts far more quickly and rewards them with higher fees than jack-of-all-trades consultants. Most people don't call a general contractor to fix a plumbing leak—they call a specialist, a plumber. Similarly, a client who wants to develop a plan for employee retention is more apt to look for help from a consultant with relevant expertise than from a generalist consultant.

2. Simplicity. Some consultants get so enamored with the elegance of their solutions that they fail to make sure that clients understand the offering and feel good about buying it. If you are proposing a complex service, show it to the client in small pieces, instead of in one overwhelming chunk. Support each part of your proposal with white papers, in-person meetings, and case studies. Recognize that it may take clients time to comprehend the brilliance of your ideas. Be patient, expect multiple interactions, and educate clients at their speed, not yours.

3. A real guarantee. As suggested earlier, offer your clients a tangible guarantee such as that turnover will decrease by 10 percent or that production capacity will increase by 7 percent. A few words of caution: If you offer a guarantee, make it simple and easy for all parties to understand. A guarantee that looks like a piece of congressional legislation loses its punch.

4. Giving something away. In the early stages of relationships, clients continually size up their experience with you. Move relationships forward and demonstrate the power of your practice by offering a complementary seminar, a telephone briefing, or a research report that could benefit the client.

A wine industry consultant periodically holds an open house for wine company executives, where they discuss pressing issues. The consultant does not charge for this service, and clients and nonclients can attend. Studies have found that consultants' one-on-one interactions with clients are the most effective way to reduce clients' perception of risk; flashy marketing materials are considerably less effective.6

5. Honesty. Clients are ultrasensitive to overblown claims about results. They sense fact from fiction in marketing communications, so report only honest results and tell clients what they can realistically expect if they work with you. Reality wins and hype loses in the era of guerrilla clients.

6. Highly recognized, third-party testimonials. Clients are more likely to react favorably to testimonials from respected, well-known authorities in their fields. If your firm has an active, productive alliance with a university, think tank, or other well-known institution, an endorsement from that organization adds credibility to your marketing message and provides an additional measure of security for clients.

7. Being first (at something). To emerge from the pack, stress one benefit that you are the first or only one to offer. You may need to search through past projects, but after some digging you'll find it. For example, your firm may have been the first to increase a client's profits by reducing sales.

8. Innovation. Consulting firms tend to hawk similar services. A few firms innovate boldly and bring new ideas that change their clients' competitive positions. You will also find fast-follower firms that develop practices around a set of client services only after demand has been established. Being regarded as an innovative firm will inspire forward-thinking clients to call you. You'll be the first one in and will set the agenda for your competitors.

9. Defying conventional wisdom. A herd mentality dominates the consulting business. When a new service is hot, firms rush to clients with marketing materials and aggressive sales campaigns. This has happened repeatedly with the Y2K scare, reengineering, e-business, and outsourcing. When the tide of a new service seems to be rising, most consulting firms say, "jump in the water." Others, however, take a reasoned, but contrary view of megatrends before entering the fray.

Focus on bringing original, independent, and insightful thinking to clients on trends and developments, not the latest babble. In the long run, you will gain clients with your balanced and independent approach.

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