...Including, But Not Limited To

One night at the family dinner table, I asked one of our sons what he was looking for in a life partner. I thought it might be good to sketch this out in his head before he fell in love with someone…and then shaped the list to whatever was true. You know, kind of like we all do. Think of it as having a draft board strategy when the chaos unfolds so that you don’t go all rash in your decision making.

Anyway, he quickly answered, in a way that told me he’d thought about this before, with a two-part answer. I was really impressed. Not so much with his answers, but with the fact that he knew exactly what he was hoping for.

Now let’s flip that around and say you ask me what kind of firm we’re a good fit for. Here’s my answer: we are a good fit to work with:

  • Anyone in the creative services space.
  • Principals must be involved, though others can join.
  • Independent. We will never work w/ a holding company agency for advisory services, though we do a lot of that on the M/A side.
  • Big issues. Not much handholding.
  • Desperately want to get to the next level, whatever that happens to be.

Let’s flip that around one last time, and let me ask you what kind of client you’d like to work for? Or even what kind of work you are good at? What I’m likely to get from the typical firm is something that’s going to sound very inclusive, very desperate, very “I can do anything, silly, just ask.”

But let’s think about this in a slightly more scientific way.

First: Category

First is the category. For us, it’s a consulting firm. For you, it’s a dev shop or agency or PR firm or SEO/SEM or design or branding or packaging or maybe one of sixty things. No one is big enough to create this category, by the way. You’re in it or you aren’t. There’s no differentiation in choosing a category, and even this nascent “category invention” thing that people are touting is largely nonsense. There’s one “category creator” and then 999 others who come along in that category. We all want to be category creators or, faulting that, we want to work for category creators and then tell our subsequent clients that we “created” that, but that’s a stretch. If you happen to be behind the excellent UX of the native mobile Uber app, you happened to learn a lot about category creation, but you didn’t create a category—they did.

So we have that done—choosing a category--but there are now many, many firms within that particular category that you have just chosen, so our work isn’t done.

Second: Distinction w/i the Category

Second is your positioning in that category. That’s important, because the world doesn’t need another digital or branding firm, and they certainly don’t need another consulting firm! (Queue the consulting jokes, which I love.) In this second stage you’re trying to distinguish yourself from the other firms in your category, and you might lean on a vertical distinction or a horizontal one, or a combination of them, each of which has its own advantages.

And let me just jump in here and say that I’m not going to allow you to say things that are:

  1. Unprovable to the prospect before they work with you.
  2. Anti-claims against things that no one is claiming.

In this first category, I’d lump things like this: we are more nimble or we have a proven process or we really listen or we move the needle by getting actual results for you, rather than just talking a good game.

The thing is, no one is saying things like this: “Okay, I get it. We noticed every other firm yammering about how they listen to you really carefully, and we even tried it. But it didn’t work, and so our policy now is to not listen to our clients.” Or, “We tried the teamwork approach and we just decided that it doesn’t work for us.” Or, “We’d heard that a zero-based approach to uncovering all those hidden insights was that one thing that clients really wanted, and we threw ourselves into it. Turns out that it takes more of our time and more of your money, so we’re just going to make some assumptions and in the end it’ll all probably work out.”

But I can hear you screaming at me. Hah. “But you can’t believe how many of our clients tell us that we really do those things, and that’s why they work with us! Everybody else promises that, but our clients tell us that we actually deliver compared to some of the other firms they work with!” And that, my friends, is what’s called the selection bias that’s confirming what you want to believe.

Fortunately, though, there are great principles for strong positioning (I’ve enumerated most of those in The Business of Expertise, and they’re available all over the 2Bobs podcast for free) and there are equally great tests, before and after, to assess whatever you come up with (or we can help you individually).

In the end, though, you won’t be just:

  • a law firm, but maybe a law firm that specializes in property damage subrogation cases.
  • A branding firm, or one that specializes in working with (scientifically defined) “challenger brands.”
  • A dev shop that builds websites, or one that understands the nuance of building digital properties that attract and retain communities.
  • An SEO/SEM firm, or one that supports multi-location retail vendors only.

But that begs the question of “why” go through this pain. And it really is pain, because the process of positioning is about exclusion and not inclusion, and limiting our supposed options is always painful to entrepreneurs.

It’s about exclusion because you aren’t making expertise up, but rather electing to focus on one of many options that you have, and it feels like you’re choosing which kid you love the most and abandoning the rest.

But Why Endure The (Temporary) Pain

So why do it? We have to face the fact that positioning the firm isn’t always easy. If it were, with no consequences for bad decisions, a much larger percentage of you would be doing it, right? No, you think through this carefully because:

  • You’ll be able to create an efficient, targetable marketing plan to drop excess opportunity into the top of the funnel. That excess opportunity forms the very essence of courage to adjust your pricing. As a current client told me on Tuesday of this week, after we landed on their positioning: “Our marketing has been overwhelming until we had a clearly defined target.”
  • You’ll sleep better at night making less sh!t up for clients, because tighter positioning brings similar scenarios into your field of vision, from which you can then notice the patterns and find solutionsthat are more accurate and quicker to see.
  • You can charge a premium for what you do because there are going to be far fewer viable substitutes. Money, in other words. The sweet smell of money, which gives you more choices in life.
  • And finally, you do it because it makes all the other decisions easier: who to hire, what service offerings to emphasize, how to structure your relationships, etc.

Those are the four reasons, and together they are pretty powerful. If the issue that’s holding you back is courage, there are some great ways to soften the blow. And if the issue is missing information, it’s worth solving those information gaps.

The Ugly Alternative

The absolutely unacceptable alternative is what’s pictured in the illustration. And in fact, I’m actually seeing more and more of this on websites:

Our expertise includes, but is not limited to, [and then a droning on and on of options as if there are any more, but maybe there are, and maybe we forgot them, so if you can think of anything that we haven’t desperately included, will you please let us know? And give us some work, pretty please?].

Okay, maybe there’s a bit of ornamentation in there, but I literally see you folks saying that nonsense every day: but not limited to.

That would be like your kid saying, “Well, Dad, I’m settled on a female at the moment. Probably within five years of my age. Any color eyes. A good conversationalist, but that’s not critical as long as she talks, some. Educated, or at least visited a school campus cafeteria once. But I don’t want to limit myself to any of those choices, so I’m pretty open.”

Please just stop with this mushy begging for work. And for those of you (maybe one-third of you?) who have put a stake in the ground, I salute your courage and I wish you every one of the four benefits above.

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