By Stuart Maister, Chief Storyteller, Strategic Narrative

Why do clients choose your firm of accountants rather than the other guys? Or, perhaps more tellingly, why did they choose them rather than us?

Unless you are highly specialised, it wasn’t because of technical expertise. One of the challenges for all professional service firms is to differentiate in a field where what you do is pretty much the same as everyone else. Your people are highly qualified, experienced, professional and passionate. They care.

The other lot say the same.

You will know that as automation becomes the norm, the technical skills of accountancy will become less and less of a selling point. Everyone wants to get into the higher ground of advisory because that’s all there will be soon. The same is true for lawyers, engineers and architects.

You need to be special. But how?

Studies show that, even for major decisions, we choose on emotion and then justify this choice using rational factors. This is the primeval Monkey Brain at work. If you’re not special, so that clients connect with you emotionally as well as rationally, the monkey won’t choose you and your ability to win business will be impaired.

In particular, your digital presence needs to communicate why you are special. We studied the websites of the top 20 accountancy firms in the UK. We felt 6 passed this test of being distinctive. 14 did not.

So how to be special? If you can’t fight on the ground of what you do, then you have to be focused on who you do it for, why you are the obvious choice and how you do it. Then articulate and tell this story effectively so that your target customers get it quickly and easily. Ensure the narrative is true so that this translates into real client benefits and growth based on a clear decision about where you have decided to pitch your tent.

Our analysis of the top 20 used these dimensions as a way of judging: are they special?

Focus on the who

One way to be special is to super-serve a specific segment of the market. If we are the very best accountants for owner managers of mid-sized manufacturing businesses in the UK, then we need to focus in a razor sharp way on the issues affecting this market and all of our narrative needs to be about them.

This means our advisory services are valuable because they build on the experience of working with the same kind of businesses, and our case studies sell us because our target market believes we understand their issues.

It is critical to call this out. If you are the best for someone it means you are not the best for someone else. That’s the painful strategic decision a lot of firms, or practices within firms, have to make if they want to grow.

Now you may say this is the bleeding obvious, and we already have specialist teams. The key is to be super sharp in the way this is highlighted and articulated. If this is your key focus then this is your headline – not that you do accountancy, but that you are the very best partners for mid-sized manufacturing firms in the UK. Your content is about them and their issues and your story addresses those.

Focus on the why

Ask yourself: for those people we say we super serve, what is their agenda? What do they care about? Why would we therefore be a natural choice?

Author and speaker Simon Sinek says we should focus on our ‘why’ – linked to purpose. I think it is just as important to focus on the ‘why’ of your clients. What they care about is deeply embedded in their Monkey Brain, and they need to feel that you are the right people to help.

It may be to do with a specialist service we offer. Can this be the Trojan Horse that gets us the first gig and then allows us to build widely from there?

Is it to do with the situation in which they find themselves – for example, we specialise in high growth tech firms looking to raise capital. We’re good at helping that situation.

Maybe it’s simply geography – our team is based in a region or city and this actually relevant to the companies we are targeting. Proximity is of course less and less important.

The point here is to be the very best, natural answer to the ‘why’ question of the people you have decided are your focus – and then tell them that story over and over again, consistently building a strategic narrative with those most likely to buy from you.

Focus on the how

The ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions work at a practice level. But the ‘how’ question is really where the magic often sits on a firm-wide basis.

It is often the case that we can differentiate most effectively by really working hard to identify, define and articulate how we do what we do – and why that makes a difference to the client.  This relates to everything that makes you, you: culture, the mix of services, the way the firm is organised, the way compensation is paid, the way you recruit and train.

An example: striking gold

Let me give an example from my own experience. I ran a workshop with a very large professional services firm, and we were digging hard into this question. What do we do that is different from the other firms pitching for the same contracts? We looked at every aspect of the firm, and in almost every way they offered the same professional services to the same kind of clients.

Then we hit two pieces of gold.

Firstly, in the way they compensated their partners. Instead of a star system, enjoyed by partners in rival firms, who were highly compensated for their own fee earning power, in this firm this did not happen. Compensation was awarded on a firm-wide basis. The result was that there was no incentive not to share clients, information and knowledge. I was assured that every partner who came from another firm was blown away by the support he or she got from colleagues.

For clients the benefit is clear. When they work with one partner, they get the whole firm. This is not as true among their rivals.

Secondly, this firm had a long history of taking on big, tricky projects that established new regulations and even law. They were pioneers who were at the forefront of what is possible.

You can see how this can become some of the key themes of their narrative, differentiating themselves from others offering the same service.

So: how are you special? Who are you special for? What do they care about? How do you deliver in a distinctive way? Answer these questions in a thorough and agreed way, with input from your clients as well as your partners, and you’re on your way to defining your new Strategic Narrative.