Michelle Daniels

Who do you want to serve?

This year’s PM Forum conference tackled what for some is the holy grail of professional services – differentiation. Just how can you distinguish your firm’s offering against the competition in an immensely crowded marketplace? Michelle Daniels reports.

Once again it was great to see such an impressive turnout of delegates and speakers. Elliot Moss, director of business development at Mishcon de Reya and chair of the day’s conference, opened proceedings with a summary of the differentiation challenges facing today’s professional services. In particular, how do you:

  • Decide what your most compelling point of differentiation is
  • Communicate it so that people believe you
  • Continue to deliver those points of difference over time

Elliot also touched on a key factor that would gain momentum throughout the day’s discussions and presentations, namely that clients like to work with firms that are well managed and whose people they value. Despite the rise of procurement and commoditisation in the sector, relationships are still fundamental to a successful professional services’ business model.

The unsustainability of competitive advantage today

The baton was then handed to Simon Slater who gave an insightful analysis of what differentiation means today and whether competitive advantage can now be truly sustainable. Simon contrasted the work of Michael Porter and Rita McGrath before sharing his own belief in an ‘adaptive’ competitive advantage that will emerge in the years to come. This will present both opportunities and challenges for professional services. From an opportunities perspective, businesses will continue to draw on the insight, guidance and advice of the professions as they try to respond quickly to a rapidly changing commercial landscape. Professional firms too though will need to become more agile and dynamic in their approach to benefit from this demand. Qualities not often associated with the professions – innovation, shared value, prompt service reconfiguration to meet market demands, and impressive leadership – will be at the heart of those firms who will succeed in distinguishing themselves from the crowd.

Driving change through communication

The focus of the conference then turned to communications and questions such as…

  • How do you communicate your strategy so your people engage, buy-in and most importantly act on what you say?
  • How do you create the desire to change when the biggest driver in professional services is typically ‘habit’ and tradition?

…were tackled head on by Andy Bounds, who once again returned to the PM Forum conference with a thoroughly engaging session. His aim was simple – to get us to create more action-focused communications in our firms. Andy rightly emphasised that these are essential if we are to develop compelling messages that differentiate us from competitors and drive change within our organisations.

Case studies

The daily practical challenges of implementing differentiation strategies then formed the focus of a fascinating session which brought Vicki Boaden of PwC, Kulwinder Gill of Tata Consultancy Services, Dana Denis-Smith of Obelisk and Mark Montgomery of myhomemove together to share their experiences.

Head of UK client and market development at PwC, Vicki Boaden, talked through some of her firm’s approaches in fostering behaviours internally that build a long-term and positive reputation and a powerful client experience – not a mean feat across a global organisation. Kulwinder Gill, head of marketing europe at Tata Consultancy Services, went on to give an overview of how her firm successfully targeted and won contracts in the UK public sector market.

Both Dana Denis Smith and Mark Montgomery talked through new business models at their heart of their companies. These are leading to a fresh and distinctive approach in the legal sector and prompted much discussion amongst the delegates.

At the heart of Obelisk’s business model is a vision to build the world’s leading legal outsourcing business centred around communities of home-based highly-skilled professionals. Its CEO, Dana Denis Smith saw a deepening talent pool that was completely unutilised – top ex-City lawyers, mostly women, who opt out of the workplace to focus on family commitments. By devising a more flexible business model, she and her team now offer the market more affordable legal solutions that still draw on some of the best talent available. Obelisk now competes successfully against major national and international law firms.

Myhomemove, led by Mark Montgomery, has harnessed the power of technology and a ‘best cost strategy’ to transform the conveyancing market client experience. With a focus on blending efficient systems and processes with personal service, myhomemove is now the UK’s largest conveyance and the most profitable. Key to its success has been a careful analysis of the various parts of the conveyancing process with a view to improving efficiency and customer value. Myhomemove remains committed to delivering consistent good quality customer service and is clearly performing well here. Customer engagement levels are very high (60% of client satisfaction surveys are completed and client satisfaction levels are well above 90%).

Competing in the future

The after lunch session propelled delegates into the future where micro-chips are the size of dust and we’ll all ditch the smart phone for augmented reality glasses and smart devices the size of an earring. Ian Pearson of Futurizon took us on a tour of the mind-blowing possibilities for marketing as technology gets both smarter and smaller and people’s use of it becomes even more integral to their daily activities.

Ian also shared insight about how the competitive landscape is changing. Most firms now face ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ market dynamics and business structures are continually evolving. Aided by Cloudbased and other such technologies, SME collaborations and ‘virtual’ businesses are competing successfully against traditional corporates. Once again a dynamic and agile business approach will be needed if organisations have any hope of keeping up with the speed of change. We have been warned!

The role of marketing in driving change

The conference break-out sessions gave delegates a chance to share their experiences of driving differentiation strategies in their own firms. I attended the session on reputation and client experience led by Vicki Boaden and Giles Wilson of Menzies Aviation, a client of PwC. In this thoughtprovoking workshop delegates were encouraged to consider their own differentiation approaches and share these with Giles, to gain the client’s perspective.

From the client’s mouth

The traditional panel session at the end of the conference also explored the client’s perspective on what differentiates firms in a crowded market place. It gathered together senior purchasers of professional services – Rachel Emerson, senior legal counsel at Thomson Reuters Financial & Risk, Giles Wilson, EVP at Menzies Aviation and Jodie Williams, principal of The Marketing Hub. Richard Chaplin also joined the panel and the discussion was moderated by Elliott Moss.

Many delegates’ questions focused on the criteria favoured by panel members when selecting and also retaining a professional adviser. It was good to hear that the quality of a firm’s people is still high on many clients’ agendas and the relationship with those advisers is key. A desire for better communication and ‘delivering on promises’ showed that these basic fundamentals of client service can still be a differentiator to those firms who achieve it. Other qualities and approaches the panel favoured were: commerciality; fee transparency; having dedicated relationship partners; and aligning quality advice to the client’s business and situation.

The conference had showed how we are already on route to a future where firms will need strong leadership and faster decision-making in which to respond to a continually changing business landscape. Communication, and marketing’s effectiveness in supporting it, will be key to driving change and ensuring firms adapt and evolve successfully to meet new client demands. The good news is that marketers have a significant part to play in the whole process – from helping firms interpret the market changes to ensuring the client experience continues to reflect the service quality clients will happily pay for.

It was great to have had the opportunity to catch up with both new and familiar faces at the conference. Many thanks to all the sponsors who made the day’s proceedings possible – BrandRocket, Chartered Developments, Manzama, RR Donnelley, Siteimprove, Spada and Vuture. Also a big thank you to Concep, who enabled the conference to move with the times by creating a great event app.

Michelle Daniels is a director at Extended Thinking. Visit: www.extendedthinking.com