A/E/C Firm Positioning

Note: This is a transcript of an episode about Positioning Your Firm from PSM – Professional Services Marketing Show podcast. Hosts David Lecours and Josh Miles share best practices for A/E/C firm positioning.

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  • What is Positioning?
  • Why positioning your firm can be painful?
  • Vertical vs. horizontal vs. both in positioning strategies
  • How long should your positioning last?
  • Template for your positioning statement
  • Where do you use a positioning statement
  • Why firms avoid positioning

PSM.show hosts David Lecours and Josh Miles

Episode 108 on A/E/C Firm Positioning

Announcer: Welcome to PSM. The Professional Services Marketing Podcast. It’s insight applied.

David Lecours: Hello and welcome to PSM show. If it’s about professional services marketing, we’ll be covering it here. I’m David Lecours and this is Episode 108. Josh, Happy New Year. Did you have a nice holiday?

Josh Miles: sure did. We’re still cleaning up a little bit of the champagne over here.

David Lecours: Nice. We had guests and it’s always great to have family come but it’s probably even better to have them leave.

Josh Miles: How can we miss them if they won’t go away?

David Lecours: That’s right. Absolutely so cool. I’m excited about our topic today. Do you want to tell us what it is?

Josh Miles: Yes something near and dear to my heart. And today it’s all about positioning. So does that mean we’re your firm is located?

David Lecours: It could. However, it’s not a necessity. What positioning really refers to and I really think of positioning as kind of the foundation of all marketing. You know it’s what you do. It’s who you do it for. And then it’s how your differentiator benefits those target audiences. So it really requires some sometimes painful decision making because you have to decide what you’re going to be and that often means what you’re going to not be. And my experience. I love your take on this is don’t you find it that marketers really have trouble narrowing their positioning?

Josh Miles: I think it’s kind of a classic case of people saying well we don’t want to be pigeonholed for something or we don’t want to be stuck only known for this one particular thing. So I think people tend to especially creatively minded people tend to fight against the idea of having to do something that’s so tight and so narrow that they’re going to be just screwing caps on bottles for the rest of their lives.

David Lecours: I think you know one of the things I have in here is well what about AECOMM? You know they work in. You know I don’t know how many but let’s say 12 different vertical markets and they offer 12 different services and it’s probably more like twelve hundred of each. And I always say well when you get to be AECOMM you can do that too. But until then I think it helps. And you know when you have a firm that size with that many resources, then it makes sense. But yeah I’ve also found that those creative folks, and I put engineers and architects and even consultants and even sometimes accountants.

David Lecours: You know trouble you know making those hard decisions.

Josh Miles: when you think to your point on AECOMM part of a company like that that is just massive in size and scale. And in all the markets that they work in, that is their positioning.

David Lecours: Exactly. Yes.

Josh Miles: We are half of the world of professional services. So that’s why you come to us because we are a force to be reckoned with. So they don’t have to get super narrow because they can say we are the only AECOMM.

David Lecours: In fact, in their positioning statement there is a line about we take on the world’s largest problems and you know until your firm can take on the world’s largest problems it’s probably best to leave that positioning to them. So yeah you’re right that is in fact their positioning. But yeah I mean I had my experience is that clients to your clients here I’m talking to our audience here they really do want to hire experts and it’s really difficult to build meaningful expertise if you’re reinventing your service offerings every time you take on a new client while I get there’s a there’s an addiction and there’s probably an adrenaline rush to that we call that sort of jumping off the diving board and inventing water on the way down. It’s not a real sustainable way to work. You know you’re going to crash and hit the pavement if that water isn’t vented in time. So yeah I think positioning requires some tough decisions in order to get to a place where you can really demonstrate your expertise.

Josh Miles: I think the expertise is really what it comes down to is this idea of being the only your being the leader in space or being the the ones who can help a client through a particular challenge or problem or you know knowing that you’re bringing somebody on who’s who’s seen this before. Sort of akin to the surgeon like you don’t have somebody operate on your shoulder who is like, “well,I usually do feet. But yeah. What the heck I’ll try a shoulder.”

David Lecours: Right, I can do it. Yeah. I’ve got a scalpel. Well they’re certainly different parts of the anatomy. And, to that end, you know you can have different services and you can work in different markets but you need to sort of come up with a compelling way to wrap those two together. I like to say, “you can be a bartender and a wastewater engineer, but you better have different business cards.”

Josh Miles: Exactly. I don’t think I want the glass from the same guy.

David Lecours: No definitely not. So you know to further elaborate if it’s not clear. Yeah you can work in radically different spaces but you need to have different marketing plans and different positioning for each of those very different spaces. So we’re kind of talking a little bit about you know different types of positioning and sort of the classical you know ways to look at this is working in vertical markets versus horizontal or a combination. You want to sort of unpack that a little bit Josh? in sort of what those different terms mean. Case we’re in a clear.

Josh Miles: Yeah absolutely. So when I think of verticals I typically think of industries. So this could be things like education or health care or public works or you’ve got these different vertical markets that you go into and then horizontal for me and maybe you look at this differently would be sort of the areas of expertise for the practice areas or the studios in which your firm works so you know in a really huge practice you might have an interior design practice and you might also have MEP engineering and you might also have structural engineering and you know most firms don’t have a diversity of a spread but you have those different areas that you do work and have specialties and then those different areas that you are sort of the clients that you interact with.

David Lecours: Right. So yeah it’s just kind of simplify or summarize so verticals tend to be more markets and horizontals tend to be more services. Now where I think you know if firms if you’re sort of thinking about these different options where a firm can be really compelling is when they combine those two things together. So let’s say they are working specifically in healthcare and they are specialists in interior design. So when those two things come together now they’re really starting to differentiate themselves from all the other people that work in healthcare and all the other people that are interior designers.

Josh Miles: Yeah it’s a much tighter positioning when you can say we’re the only you know interior design firm who specializes in cancer rehab. You know you can have these very tight ways to go to market when you’ve got very specific target both in the service line and in the practice area and there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both. You

David Lecours: know if you’re focusing in specific vertical markets it’s much easier to find the clients that you’ve chosen to seek. You know you can most likely there’s some sort of trade organization you can join that you can buy lists of people because they’ve already self-identified as working in healthcare or education. Horizontal it’s a little more difficult but it certainly can be done and there is probably a little more variety if you are just focusing in a horizontal service. But again it’s tough to get that level of expertise.

Josh Miles: You know one of the things that I like to walk clients through is this idea of perceptual mapping which is kind of a fun way to look vertical and horizontally from a visual standpoint. And one of the most basic ways you can break that down is you know do you do one thing or do you do a myriad of things. So

Josh Miles: I would put like on the x-axis left to right is kind of your breadth of services. So if you picture the left side is we do everything on the right side as we do one thing and then on the y-axis could be just price. So the bottom of the y-axis is we charge rock bottom basement prices and the top is we’re super premium so you can start to map out where you fall on that grid and where your competitor falls on that grid and then you start to see light. Are we all kind of crowded around the middle of fighting for the same thing or are we all fighting over the price because we’re commodity ties and we do everything and we’re on differentiated or are we super differentiated to the point where we charge those premium prices so that we can really get great demand for our expertise. And then you can do the same x y perceptual mapping thing for any of those vertical and horizontal positioning elements and kind of see how you match up and how your competition falls on that chart for each of those positioning areas.

David Lecours: Yes that’s a really great way to do it because it’s a visual tool that you really quickly can see where the opening is and I’m not sure in the beginning if we really clarified wide positioning matters but the whole goal is to carve out an open space to really own a particular space you know in this case within those little baps years getting a visual feedback of it. But yeah it’s the idea of differentiating your firm so you’re not just a commodity you’re not just one of many. You know having to always only compete on price. You want to be perceived as this expert and offering something truly unique and meaningful to your client.

Josh Miles: Yeah. Back in the day. Maybe not even all that long ago everyone said oh we’re just an attack on sustainability to our positioning. And everybody was saying the same thing and all of a sudden you find out you’re like you’re all in the same room. So you all strangely sound the same when you Tagamet on so you know those little things that become trends that really take off and then it’s a sort of unexpected element of you know being a good business.

David Lecours: So that brings up something that I’m thinking about as you know. How long should a firm’s positioning last?

Josh Miles: Wow that is a fantastic question. I guess my gut feeling would be it should only last as long as it makes sense and as long as it’s profitable.

David Lecours: Yeah you know so I sort of teed this up because eventually we want to have the Image Seven folks back on. If you’re new to our podcast Josh and I adopted this podcast from a firm in Australia that had sort of two positioning areas of focus. One was in educational marketing and one was in professional services marketing. They chose to narrow their positioning and they eliminated the professional services and thus they reached out to us to adopt the podcast. They are just now working in the educational marketing space so positioning isn’t forever. I think you should approach it perhaps and this is just my opinion. I think you should approach it as if it is forever so you take it seriously. But you re-evaluate say every three to five years every time you look at your strategic plan and say hey is the marketplace still responding? Are we still relevant? Are we sort of as positioned as we think we are when we first launched this positioning?

Josh Miles: Yeah absolutely I think to go into it with the at least the short term view that this is forever. Yes that sounds really contradictory. The short-term view that it’s forever but at least thinking about it as OK if we had to do one thing forever would it be and start doing that now. And I think very much to Image Seven’s credit as you said at the top of the show. They had those two positioning. But when you went to the Web site it was really clear you need to either go in one door or the other being some sort of virtual version of two business cards and they made two podcasts.

Josh Miles: So they had the absolute version of this show that’s just education focused as well which is really cool.

David Lecours: And I think I won’t speak for them but I’m just going to guess is that that takes a lot of work. Right. So now you’re marketing almost two separate brands. Two separate podcasts two separate e-mail lists two separate ways you do proposals. And well I can’t wait to hear from them but my guess is that that just became unwieldy and they realized that while they could actually be deeper experts if they weren’t splitting their time between these two areas and they could narrow their focus and go deeper so.

Josh Miles: Well that’s a little teaser we’re going to hear from them when we interview them something maybe David you could talk about is let’s see I get this super niche. Sorry, that’s my Midwest coming out. You can say “niche” if you just have pinkies out as far as I’m concerned. But you’re super niche positioning. And then there’s really general opportunity walks in the door that looks interesting. What do you what do you do with that? If it doesn’t really fall within your stated positioning?

David Lecours: I believe that positioning is about the work that you seek, not necessarily what you accept. So positioning is what you’re doing in terms of proactive marketing: the things that you’re going out into the world and seeking. But if a great opportunity presents itself then and gosh darn it if you’ve got a hole in your pipeline for incoming work, of course, you take that work or it may just be an incredible new opportunity that somebody believes you can do effectively because you’re so well positioned in this other space it might be some complementary type of work say you’re amazing at health care specifically in the sciences and then a lab comes to you and says Hey can you design our lab then yeah, of course, you take that on and that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about positioning is that if you’re going to somehow put these blinders on and never be able to accept work outside the domains that you are establishing.

Josh Miles: And I think the reality is so long is that you know that oddball project that is attractive and profitable is something that your current staff can execute on. So it’s assuming you’re not you know to use your wastewater engineer earlier that if you have a room full of those guys and this is a road or bridge project that shows up obviously that’s that’s maybe not the best fit but to have something that is a little bit outside of your positioning you can still handle absolutely take that on but then don’t put it on your home page and tweet about it and put it all over Facebook and you know tell everybody how excited you are to win this project. That is not at all what you’ve spent so long doing the market. You’re all about it.

David Lecours: And let’s say you do work in a couple different verticals or you have a couple different services. You know while we like to think that we love all our children equally. The reality is that some of those verticals that you work in and some of those services are going to be inherent if not significantly more not profit necessarily but they bring in more revenue. And I think you need to be really sort of clear about knowing where your money’s coming from and if in fact one of those areas is where you’re getting most of your dollars. That’s the positioning that you lead with doesn’t again not necessarily. You’re not going to sort of cut out those others services or markets. It’s just you’re going to lead. And then what I hope is that by leading in that market you’ll be so well known that those other services and markets will sort of draft and benefit from the strong leadership and strong you know point of view and position that you’re taking.

Josh Miles: know speaking of strong points of view I found in school one of the greatest ways to develop a strong statement was to use the scientific method called Mad Libs. So yeah.

Josh Miles: DAVID I know that you have this really cool sort of Mad Lib-esque way of putting together positioning statement. Maybe you could introduce our listeners to that right.

David Lecours: So if there was a deliverable in your positioning it would be the positioning statement and this is the statement that goes at the top of your website. It’s the first things that somebody reads and this is sort of the the Madlib fill-in-the blank format that we use with our client so I’ll just read this out and then in your mind listeners sort of start to fill in the blanks. OK. So we are a _________. And that’s where you fill in type of firm helping ________ (fill in target audience) to ____________ (solve a business problem.) So what that would look like and I’ll just use LecoursDesign positioning because I know the best. I would say we are branding consultants helping a A/E/C firms attract great clients and talent. I’ve identified the type of firm that we are: branding. You know you could say architect you could say engineer you could say accountant helping. And I’ve identified the target audience: in this case AEC firms which is architecture engineering construction firms and then too. And here’s where you insert solve a business problem which is: helping those firms attract great clients and talent. So that’s like the very simplest form of a one-sentence positioning statement if you want to add on to that which most clients do because they feel like that doesn’t really capture all of them. You can add a second sentence that is: Our __________ and that’s where you fill in unique value proposition does __________. And that’s where you fill in the benefit to your target audience. And this is where most firms get it wrong frankly is that they don’t convert the feature to the benefit right. They say why they are unique but they don’t clarify why that is unique to their target audience. Does that make sense?

Josh Miles: Yeah I think that’s totally right. I think when I don’t think this is even unique to AEC or professional services but I think marketers in general often want to lead with features and they kind of fail to circle back with the benefits for the benefit or that as Simon Sinek would say the Why is really a thing that you want to lead with what’s what’s the unique way that you are helping us solve this that only your firm brings to bear.

David Lecours: And it comes down to you know what I call the curse of knowledge right. You know all those benefits so well you feel like you don’t need to communicate them. But keep in mind that a potential client is just learning about you for the first time and they don’t they don’t know all those things so you have to sort of oversimplifying what it seems like in your mind oversimplify and over communicate to him. And it’s just communication and just oh OK I get it.

Josh Miles: Yeah exactly. And I think the more you know the more you fail to ask the right questions and be curious so you just sort of assume that you know the answer is our sales coach calls the dummy curve like the better you get at doing stuff the worse you get at selling things because you just assume that you know what they’re going to say and you know as our coach says when granny’s basement flooded totally ruined her dresser because the whole basement was full of water. And so your response would be what?

David Lecours: Why? Why did it flood?

Josh Miles: That’s one of the correct questions. So you didn’t he didn’t jump to a value judgment says oh that sucks or I’m so sorry or ma’am that’s too bad that you lost a piece of furniture. You know you jumped to a questions so you don’t know if I like the furniture or if I was happy was in my basement if I was frustrated with it. But questioning is the right path to go there.

David Lecours: Yeah not just making these assumptions. Sorry, Josh, I guess I’m just too well trained.

Josh Miles: I think you’re a plant.

David Lecours: So there are a couple tests when you’re writing out your positioning statement. There are a couple of things that you can do to sort of test whether it’s working. Josh you want to talk about those?

Josh Miles: Sure. So maybe this goes without saying but you can’t go to market with something that just simply isn’t true. So if you if you read this positioning statement and you’re like. Eh, that’s that’s not quite right. And then obviously maybe work a little bit harder on that.

David Lecours: Yeah so that’s it it’s a tough one because as marketers sometimes we’re prone to hyperbole and a little bit of exaggeration but it gets to actually the third one is that it’s got to be provable it’s got to be something that you can demonstrate. I call it during the “client dating process.” It’s that time when the clients getting to know you. You’re getting to know the client and if you’re making a pretty bold claim and I firmly believe you should. If you can’t back it up with some sort of evidence or demonstration of how you pulled that off for clients in the past, it just doesn’t fall into that “true” category. Now maybe you’re not 100 percent there maybe you’re 90 percent there but if you stake this bold claim it’s going to force you to learn some new knowledge or add some staff that has capabilities maybe that you don’t quite have.

David Lecours: Yes. I don’t have a problem with firms claiming that. But what I do struggle with is if they’re at like 20 percent there and they’re claiming 100 percent that just does not because people are smart you know they can sniff out B.S. pretty quickly. So yeah.

Josh Miles: So it’s ok I guess maybe to phrase it differently. You would think it’s OK to be a little bit aspirational and how you’re positioning yourself even if it’s maybe a newly found position? You’ve been doing this work for 100 years but for the last year, this has been your focus. And so now it feels most right.

David Lecours: Yeah I love that. Aspirational is the perfect way to say that.

Josh Miles: Yeah. So it’s got to be true. It’s got to be provable and it needs to be unique something that is absolutely you and not something that anyone else can claim or they would have to have the same skill sets and experiences to be able to claim that.

David Lecours: And to that point, it’s got to be meaningful to your clients. So there’s a great book out there by a consultant named Cal Harrison and he wrote a book called The Consultant with Pink Hair. So having pink hair is not probably meaningful to your target audience. Yes, it might differentiate you from your competitors but so what? You know you keep asking yourself that question you know is this unique-ness meaningful and compelling to our target audience.

Josh Miles: That’s such a great point. So what if you’re the insurance consultant that sells insurance to everyone and drives the yellow Humvee right. Right. The vehicle’s interesting and maybe obnoxious but it doesn’t actually make you better. Insurance agents it just would be easy to spy you on the freeway.

David Lecours: It’s just different for difference sake. So what are some places to place a positioning? You’ve spent time crafting this. You want to put it out there in the world. What are some vehicles or places or when might you use the positioning statement?

Josh Miles: I think there’s definitely as we noted earlier kind of lead in the sales process and I would offer even early in the sales process those are probably two of the strongest reasons that the shining stands out both. You know if you’re in proposal land and putting together paperwork or if you’re in that short list interview and they’re asking you okay why should we hire you. That positioning statement should go a long way to really set you apart from the rest of the crowd.

David Lecours: Yeah definitely. And I guess I was thinking sort of also sort of practical things like I mentioned earlier. You know it should be at the top of the website. Some firms put the positioning statement you know on the back of their business card. You know it can be of like the foundation of your and I hate this term elevator pitch because nobody talks in an elevator but you know what I’m talking about here it’s that answer to the question Hey tell me what you do. Ideally, you’re positioning statement is written in real language and that’s not something we touched on but it’s a mistake that I see firms make as they do they create these positioning statements that sound, when written, so lofty and beautifully crafted. But if you were to say it in a conversation you would just feel like a… you just feel slimy and like a…..jerk

David Lecours: Nobody really uses that kind of language. So I think it’s important to use real life language in your positioning statement so that if someone asks, “hey what do you do?” You know you can reel comfortably say hey we’re branding consultants and we help if firms attract great clients and talent. And if it doesn’t tell the whole story that’s great. Hopefully, there’s going to be a follow-on question somebody is going to go really well. How do you do that? Or tell me more whatever. So you don’t have to like spell out the whole thing and that’s why it’s just a statement it’s not a paragraph and it’s not an entire white paper. Yeah

Josh Miles: I love having the almost sort of the positioning tease that invites someone to ask the question how do you do that. So I remember this one guy from networking circles years ago who when he would introduce himself people would say what are you doing? He would say I help people find the money hiding inside their business. And who doesn’t want to would, of course, say how do you do that. And then he gets a chance to unpack what he does and reviews contracts with you and helps you figure out other ways to save money here and there. And I think part of his pitch was he gets paid a percentage of whatever he helps you save so you know even his fee is sort of invisible because it was you were already spending it anyhow so he’ll spend most of that and his fee is actually inherently tied up in his positioning which is really like his business model gets summarized by his positioning.

David Lecours: So that’s very interesting. But yeah whether you’re saying it verbally or whether you’re writing it in word form whatever the medium I think the goal is to engage somebody in a conversation. Right. So we’re not professional services typically don’t work in e-commerce. It’s not like somebody fills out a shopping cart and buys your services right off your site. So it requires having some conversations and developing a level of trust between the both of you. Ideally, the positioning statement begins that conversation.

Josh Miles: People who bought MEP consulting also blog commissioning it has only three remain at this price and should make that website just for this report.

David Lecours: Absolutely. Alright, since we’re starting to devolve maybe it’s time to kind of wrap things up. I don’t know what do you think is there anything else that you wanted to talk about jobs in terms of positioning. No

Josh Miles: I think that’s good. I think you know if any listeners have thoughts on their positioning or would like to float some bias you can head over to PSM.show and share some of your thoughts with us and let us know how your process of creating a strong positioning is going for you and your firm.

David Lecours: Yes absolutely we’ll also have some other resources in the show notes again at PSM.show. So to wrap up great talk. Josh

David Lecours: this is PSM show professional services marketing and Episode 1 0 8 and we are glad to be here in the New Year and excited to kick off we’ve got some really exciting interviews coming up that we’ve lined up. So make sure you go to subscribe to iTunes and keep yourself on a regular drip of the PSM show.

Josh Miles: Very nice. DAVID, great chatting with you. We’ll see you next time. All right sounds good. Bye.

David Lecours: Bye.




* A / E / C = Architecture, Engineering, & Construction (but you already knew that)
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