For years now I have preached to you about narrowing the focus of your firm in order to eliminate competition and shift the power in the buy-sell relationship to you, the seller. A narrow positioning is one of the foundational Win Without Pitching principles that allows you to take control of the buying process, lower your cost of sale, protect your integrity and improve profit margins. In this article I go the other way and discuss broadening the firm’s positioning by taking engagements outside of your area of expertise.
Expertise vs. Positioning
First, I want to be clear on the distinction between broadening your skills (your expertise) and broadening your positioning (your stated claim of expertise).
You should always be working to deepen your skill set, and in going deep you will find valid development tracks that take you outside of your area of focus, thereby adding breadth. As an example, through discovery sessions or other diagnostics many agencies find they have an aptitude for creating internal alignment among multiple stakeholders within the client company. No one builds consensus like an outsider. For these firms it makes sense to support certain agency personnel in their skills development in this area – an area that might be termed human resources or organizational development consulting. This type of development would constitute a deepening of the firm’s facilitation skills and it would open up opportunities to broaden the application of these skills beyond the historical employment of them. Surely facilitators of brand alignment could similarly help clients achieve consensus on other corporate issues?
But is this work the firm should actively pursue? Is the broader skill set something that should be factored into the agency’s positioning – its public claim of expertise? The short answer is not necessarily. It is not my intention to explore the variables to consider here in making this decision, only to illustrate that expanded skills alone do not mandate an expanded positioning. Your positioning is the thin edge of your capabilities wedge, behind which you have other offerings, half-offerings, future offerings and potential-maybe-someday-if-someone-is-interested offerings.
How Do You Expand Expertise? Carefully!
Others outside of your declared area of expertise will see broader relevance in your offering. It is these prospects, outside of your area of focus, that will help you expand your expertise and maybe someday your positioning. But these are delicate transactions that must be handled carefully.
Last month I wrote of the need to raise objections before the prospect does, putting the onus on him to address them, rather than waiting for him to ask you to do so. Nowhere is this more important than when considering an engagement outside of your focus. When a prospect outside of your expertise (let’s call it X) enquires, “Do you do Y?” the appropriate response is not “Yes” (a lie), or an overeager “No, but I’m sure we could.”
The appropriate response is to state the obvious. “That’s not our area of expertise. We specialize in X.” Then be quiet and wait to see if the prospect can bridge the gap between what it is that you do and what it is that he needs. That’s the important point here: it’s his job to bridge that gap, not yours.
The objection, of which both parties are aware, is that his needs do not exactly match your expertise. Demand does not perfectly match supply. If you can point out the gap before the prospect does, then he will try to bridge it for you. Continuing in our example, let’s say the prospect bridges the gap with, “You come highly recommended. I’ve seen your work. I know this isn’t exactly your area of focus but I’m confident that you can do this and do it well.” Gap bridged, right? Time to walk across and take the engagement? Not so fast. There are some things you need to do before you reach out and take the engagement. Let me draw a picture.
Pushing the Package
You and the prospect are sitting across from each other at a large table. He puts a package – the engagement– on the table equidistant from the two of you. He points to the package and asks if you do this type of work. Your response of “Yes,” or “No, but…” is the equivalent of lurching across the table to grab his package. Any attempt to snatch the engagement will trigger its immediate retraction back into the prospect’s lap, driven by concern over the un-addressed objection. By bringing up the objection (“That’s not exactly what we do. We do X”) you are effectively pushing the package back towards him. The prospect, if he does indeed attempt to shorten the gap between your expertise and his need, will effectively be pushing the package back toward you.
It’s your turn to push it back. “Have you considered working with a firm that specializes in this area?” By raising the question you want to hear if he’s talking to other firms, if he intends to talk to other firms, or if he has already ruled out everyone else. If he is talking to firms that specialize in this area or if he expresses his intent to, then encourage him to proceed with them and call you only if you he doesn’t find what he’s looking for. It is okay to accept work outside of your specialization but you should not be actively pursuing it and you certainly should not be competing for it. Let’s say your prospect responds by telling you that he has ruled out all other firms. You’re the only one he’s speaking to. He pushes the package back to you, even closer now. “Surely what we are talking about is close enough to what you do?”
The Trial Close
You are now even more tempted to reach out and grab the engagement. It’s so close you are already spending the money. It’s killing you. But before you reach out you need to make sure all objections are overcome. You do so by employing a trial close. Begin by pushing the package back yet again and saying “Let me think about whether or not this is a fit for us. I don’t want to enter into an engagement without a high degree of certainty that we can do this well. Let’s agree to come back to this point after further discussion. Now, let’s assume for a moment that there is a fit. Let me explain how we would work with you, how long this would take, and how much we would charge.” Then go on to explain what the normal engagement would look like, listening for price objections or other concerns along the way. Hearing none, you make a sweeping search for any missed objections; trying to gauge the prospect’s willingness to engage you. “The issue of fit aside, which we’ve agreed we’ll come back to, do you have any concerns with our approach, time frame or fees?”
He responds, “No. It all sounds perfectly reasonable.”
You counter with your If-Then trial close question, “So, subject to our comfort level with taking this engagement, this sounds like the right way for you to proceed?”
Now you slowly reach out to the package in front of you and calmly lift it from the table. “Alright. I think this is close enough to our area of expertise to assure a high quality outcome, and different enough to keep us interested. We’ll do it.” You’ve made sure there was nothing else in the way of doing business together before you addressed this big objection. Too often these big obstacles of fit, price or scope are overcome only to find that others remain.
It is in the manner described above that new types of engagements are secured and your skill set is expanded.
To summarize the three main points of this article: First, expanded skills do not necessitate an expanded positioning (but they often do point the way to unmet market demands worth investigating.) Second, when presented with opportunities outside your space it is incumbent upon you to acknowledge the gap between supply and demand and ask the prospect to bridge that gap. Third, ensure that no other objections or obstacles remain before agreeing that your expertise will translate to this new engagement.