Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

Identity and Expertise: Twin Engines to Power You Through the Downturn

Companies that struggle the most are those whose blurred identity and questionable expertise make them look risky to decision-makers whose companies and own jobs are on the line.

By Tony Tiernan and Bob Buday

Why are so many consulting firms struggling at a time when so many corporate clients need help?

On the face of it, this recession ought to be a boom time for consultants, with so many companies teetering or on the brink of extinction. Yet, while a few consultancies are thriving, most are scrambling for business.  So what’s going on?

For more than 20 years we have helped some of the world’s fastest-growing consulting firms increase demand for their services. Over that time we have talked to dozens of their clients, senior business executives who are savvy consumers of consulting services, about how they choose consultants. For these managers, it boils down to two questions: Am I convinced you can solve my business problem better than anyone else? And are you compatible with me and my people (because if you’re not, no matter how capable you are, you won’t move me and my people to change)? To win the work, the consultant has to get a “yes” to both questions.

Answering them well will depend largely on the strength of your firm’s overarching “identity” and how well it demonstrates its expertise on the client’s problem at hand.  Either one can be a powerful differentiator.  The core role of marketing is to communicate both.  But a lot of consulting marketing falls short on these counts, often despite the fact that the firm has a strong, but unarticulated identity and superior, but not codified expertise.

Consciously or not, clients make choices based on the combination of identity and expertise. That combination is the source of your differentiation and the compelling reason to buy your services (see illustration, Figure 1).  Yet many consultancies focus on describing their services, which are often the least differentiating thing about them.  The ones that struggle the most during economic downturns are those whose blurred identity and questionable expertise (at least from the outside) portray them as very risky purchases by executives whose companies and own jobs are on the line.  The shame of it is that many of these consulting firms are, in fact, great at their game.  Their problem is they can’t explain it convincingly to companies that need more clarity and proof than ever – both what they are about and why they’re superior at it.

Figure 1: How Clients Choose: Identity + Expertise

Clients tend to make choices based on a combination of Who You Are and What You Excel At. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and in a deep recession we argue it can’t be this way for consultancies that want to grow (or in some cases, remain in business).  In this article, we explain why consultancies more than most other businesses must demonstrate a strong identity and compelling expertise, a notion typically overlooked by traditional marketing theory and practice. We discuss ways to determine whether your firm’s identity is clear enough and its expertise sufficiently convincing to prospects.  We then explain how to begin clarifying identity and demonstrating the expertise necessary to increase the lead stream and convert a far greater number of prospects to clients.

Why Consulting Firms Need Clear Identities

A consulting firm’s ability to attract clients during tough times begins with having a strong identity. In a business whose services, policies and behaviors are all highly malleable, identity is the guiding compass.  A strong identity is what keeps a consulting firm’s services focused and its expertise deep and current, its policies and ways of treating people unwavering (clients and employees), and its ethics intact when ethical shortcuts become enticing.

What do we mean by identity?  A consulting firm’s identity is essentially the sum of what it does (the business problems in the world that it chooses to own and solve) and the way it operates (the meaning and purpose that drives its business; the values that shape its relationships with clients and staff; the difference it is trying to make in the world; and the emotional value of what it delivers).

A consulting firm that does the hard work of discovering and articulating its identity can use it as a tool to shape the organization’s three core business processes: developing clients; developing people; and developing ideas. The result is an organization that is “all of a piece” – inherently differentiated and coherent without being overly rigid.

Consulting firms, possibly more than any other type of business, really need the consistency and direction provided by a clear identity.  There are at least three good reasons.

The first is precisely because their services are hard to explain, and because whatever those service lines are, they can proliferate and change rapidly. Without a clear, shared sense of the real meaning and purpose that underpins the business, the problems that it solves, and the value that it creates, a consulting firm can so easily morph into whatever the client – any client – wants it to be at any given time, or whatever each new senior hire thinks it should be. That’s a recipe for immediate dilution, eventual mediocrity and ultimate disaster.

Staff retention is the second reason why consulting firms need the compass of a clear, value-creating identity. A consulting firm’s assets are its people, and these assets appreciate significantly with seasoning – i.e., their expertise builds over time. A clear, shared sense of the purpose and meaning (therefore value) in the organization helps bind your best people to the firm, and helps elevate morale and motivation during tough times.

The third reason is differentiation. The sheer proliferation of consulting firms, and the relative ease with which concepts and marketing messages can be copied by a competitor, mean that the stated differences between firms are often onion-skin thin.  Add to that the fact that a consulting firm’s “brand” is conveyed in large part via its people, and you have a uniquely difficult industry in which to create meaningful differentiation or build a brand. A clear, strong value-creating identity is the foundation for a strong organizational brand.

Consulting firms that use the current recession as an opportunity to demonstrate who they are and what they stand for will find that, when the recovery comes, they have built a magnet that attracts the right clients and the right staff.

Why Consulting Firms Need to Demonstrate Expertise

If a consulting firm’s identity is its well-considered decision on what issues in the world it solves and how it operates in that world, its expertise is the sum total of the capabilities it has developed over the years and which it can bring to bear in solving those issues.  Simply stating that you have certain expertise – “We are supply chain experts for process manufacturers,” or “We are strategy advisors to the telecommunications industry” – provides little proof of those capabilities.

Only when consulting firms gives samples of their expertise and the impact on clients do those claims begin to ring true.  By sample, we mean in-depth, educationally oriented content on the issues on which it consults, plus case studies of named clients it has helped, with benefits quantified.
Capturing and marketing such content is the focus of “thought leadership” marketing campaigns, which have become the rage in many consultancies.  This strategy drives the lion’s share of marketing programs at large firms like McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting Group and Booz.  It is also becoming the focus of many mid-sized (AT Kearney, Kurt Salmon Associates) and even small consultancies.

Content that is compelling – novel, substantiated with examples of named companies, rigorous, and well-written – can generate significant market attention and open executive doors once firmly closed to a consulting firm.  Consulting firms as a whole are peddling lots of concepts. The truly compelling ones get attention, but they are in the minority.

Why does compelling thought leadership work?  It lowers the risk of choosing a consulting firm.  Like a grocery store sample, a Harvard Business Review article, insightful white paper or page-turning book  enable consulting firms to offer a slice of their expertise free and thus without risk.  It makes the intangible service of consulting more tangible and helps a client see how a consulting firm thinks about an issue.

Seven Symptoms of Marketing Malaise

A blurry identity and scant evidence of expertise rightfully will make prospective clients pause before asking for a sales meeting (if they ask for one at all).  In contrast, consultancies that are crystal clear about who they are and what they do, and can prove their expertise attract clients like magnets, even in tough times.  They are a ray of light in the darkness, providing coherence and reassurance amid the chaos of an executive’s day.

Is your firm a beacon of light during these difficult times? See if you recognize any of the following symptoms in your own consulting business:

  1. How long does it take a prospective client to understand what your firm does? If it seems to take far too long, you most likely have an identity problem – or at least a problem in communicating your identity. Many consulting firms struggle to articulate clearly who they are and what it is they do.  Indeed, some consulting firms seem to willfully avoid doing so. Their self-descriptions are so vague, high-level and broad that they could be anything (see sidebar). Often this results from a fear that being specific will deter some prospective clients. So it should: if you cannot say “no,” then you do not have a strategy, and you certainly do not have an identity.
  2. Do you show or just tell? Could a prospective client or employee infer from your behavior, language, perspective, etc. those values and qualities you say make you distinctive, or are they just words on a page? For example, if you really mean it when you say “Your success is our success,” shouldn’t you be offering a guarantee or sharing risk and reward?
  3. Do you blend in or stand out? We constantly see firms claim to be “collaborative,” to “partner” with their clients, to “deliver results,” to provide “objective, fact-based advice,” and so on. Those are a client’s minimum threshold expectations, completely unremarkable in the professional services category. It’s the equivalent of trying to sell a car by telling us it has an engine and four wheels – we pretty much assume that, so what else have you got?
  4. Take an honest look at the “thought leadership” that you produce. Do few people download the articles on your website? Do the leading management journals usually reject the articles you submit? Do your thought leadership mailings generate few enquiries? Do your conference speeches yield few follow-up conversations? Good thought leadership (insightful, fact-based material that really gives a reader something of value) is a powerful marketing tool that simultaneously displays the caliber of your thinking and gives readers a taste of your consulting abilities. But we commonly see material masquerading as “thought leadership” that is nothing more than thinly disguised sales promotion.  We also see consulting firms that don’t invest at all in thought leadership, firms that devote a lot of effort to producing material on issues that are not strategically important to their business, and firms that say a little about a lot of different issues and so end up not being compelling on any one.
  5. Do you offer convincing proof of expertise – stories of your client engagements in which you name names and quantify results?
  6. Do you tell prospective clients about all the factors that contribute to a superior client result – including but going beyond having superior insights and approaches to doing the work – e.g., great hiring and training practices, incentives and measures that focus on quality of work, etc?
  7. Do your communications and interactions with clients display empathy with and curiosity about their world? We often observe that everything from the language some consulting firms use in their marketing materials to the way they interact with potential clients is inward-looking. They may talk about partnering and collaborating with clients, but they are signaling that their relationship is with the problem, not the client.

How to Stand Out

So what can you do to stand out from the pack and attract and keep the clients and recruits you really want (and, of course, say “no” to those you do not want)?

Short term, take advantage of the current recession as an opportunity to clarify your firm’s core value-creating identity and use it as a tool to help you deliver unexpected value to current and lapsed clients. If you were fully living that identity, what would it mean for how you behave in those relationships? If you really mean it when you say “your success is our success,” or “we partner with our clients,” what could you do now to show that? If you have good people on the bench, and you want to keep them motivated, how could you use them creatively to pleasantly surprise clients?

At the same time, unlock the value in your collective experience and expertise – then give it away. What insights and learning could you distil into thought leadership that would be of genuine objective value to your clients? Why not bring that to them, just to be helpful (with no immediate expectation of a sale)? It will cement your relationships, bring you back into contact with your client base, and give them a reason to think well of you when they are ready to spend.

Meanwhile, build the momentum that will power you through the recovery into long-term sustainable success by addressing Identity, Issue Ownership Strategy, Thought Leadership and Integrated Marketing (see sidebar).

The combination of a clear value-creating identity and rigorously demonstrated expertise is the key to true differentiation and powerful marketing for consulting firms. Consulting firms who use the current recession to develop both will bind their best clients and their best people to them. Come the recovery, those firms will soar. Will you be among them?

Tony Tiernan is president of Authentic Identity, Inc  a consulting company that helps professional services firms attract and keep the right clients and the right staff. You can reach him by phone at +1-978-282-8211, or by e-mail at

Originally published 07/09/2009

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