The Message An Undifferentiated Firm Sends

When I have the opportunity to speak from a stage, it's more of a one-way affair. When I'm working with a single client, it's a small sample size. But I recently had the chance to spend a half day with thirteen software development shops who had flown into Nashville, around a big conference table, and the discussion led some things to fall into place in my head.

I asked each of them to pretend that they were in a competitive new business setting and then write down a short paragraph describing why their firm was the better choice. The fact that some of them struggled to articulate that was a preview of what was going to go wrong.

After about four minutes, I then had them swap papers with a firm next to them...and then each person read the statement that their "neighbor" had written. The idea was to demonstrate how interchangeable...and thus meaningless...those arguments were.

Three of the thirteen firms had a strong positioning, and two of those three were addressable markets. One was vertical and one was horizontal.

None of that is new information, and I've talked about it extensively in a book and in many episodes of our podcast. What I haven't talked about, though, is what message you are sending with your positioning choices.

The Message of an Undifferentiated Firm

I think I can summarize the message of an undifferentiated firm in one of three ways. It's not like you're going to admit this publicly, but chances are good that you are still a generalist for one of these reasons:

  • Too early. We're a newer firm and we don't yet have clarity. We understand the role of a tighter positioning, but we're still learning and experimenting and it's too early to settle on one.
  • Too boring. We've been around awhile but we firmly believe that we're a better firm because we're called into many different settings. We love that variety, and we couldn't keep staff around if we couldn't keep them interested with a steady stream of new challenges.
  • Too limiting. We regularly struggle keeping the pipeline filled, and being choosier seems like exactly what we do not need at this point. We want to keep all our options open.

These firms—in this case 10 out of 13—look around and don't really think it's a big problem:

  • Most of the other firms are in the same boat. I'm one of ten in this room and surely we're not all wrong.
  • In spite of this, we're still pretty busy. Maybe not as profitable as we'd like but generally as busy as we'd like.
  • Keeping our fingers crossed, we haven't really had to create a marketing plan, yet, and so that tension hasn't made us rethink it. In fact, we're pretty darn proud of that fact that we've gotten to this point with flattering word of mouth and referral work. Maybe if we weren't this good, we'd need a marketing plan like those other firms that don't seem to be as popular or connected.

The Message of a Differentiated Firm

What's the message of a differentiated firm, then? Again, it's not as if they are actually saying or even thinking this, but here's how I interpret their stance to the market.

  • We are choosy. We have standards. We're confident. We're not needy.
  • We care enough about our clients that we're going to dig deeper and really understand a vertical or horizontal area. We're going to build expertise that the other firm with the "more better" strategy can't hope to achieve.

When Things Slow Down

Nothing makes you think differently about your positioning more than when things slow down and you decide to get off your butt and think about a disciplined marketing plan. Efficient marketing requires a target, followed by a message that immediately resonates sufficiently to foster a conversation between two willing parties.

At the moment—if you are one of those ten firms in the room—you're pulling the unpainted white company step van over a block before you arrive, walking to the back, opening both doors, and rifling through the selection of magnetic signs, and then slapping the message that most closely matches what your prospect wants to hear on the side. You get back in and drive the rest of the way, hoping that the prospect will see themselves in your presentation.

Instead, I'm asking you to paint the van, my friend.

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