Okay, you've repositioned your firm as a narrowly focused expert. Now what, you ask? Now, my friend, you ask yourself the product question: What skills, capabilities and processes do you need to add to support your positioning? While positioning is rooted in a claim of expertise, product represents your ability to prove such a claim. The further you progress into the buying cycle the more important such proof becomes.
The root of the free pitching problem lies in the plethora of similar agencies making undifferentiated claims to too few clients. Winning without pitching begins with positioning your firm narrowly enough to reduce competition to the point of significant business advantage. But if you've made the difficult positioning decisions and the results still are not coming, what then might the problem be? The problem might be your product. A collection of strong skills, capabilities and processes will let you prove your claim of expertise, in the buying cycle, without having to actually solve the client's problem to do so.
If we organized all agency product by its value, we would have a hierarchy with people and their skills at the bottom and institutionalized processes at the top.
Internal Knowledge and Skill
At the base level of our product hierarchy we find the knowledge, skills and pedigree of employees. If you specialize in agricultural brands, then surely you are hiring agronomists? A mature market specialist might hire gerontologists. Got any PhDs on staff? Product begins with hiring people whose skills match your market. Creativity is included here, as is understanding of the latest trends and tools of your market.
A robust professional development program helps to ensure that the skills of your people keep pace with the changes of your market. In your firm is professional development mandatory? More on that later.
External Knowledge and Skill
Moving up from the skills of your people we get to the skills and capabilities of your partners or external resources. These are the people you refer into your clients for skills slightly outside of your own. Your reputation (positioning) is tied to the quality of these people. When your client has a problem that you cannot solve, do you send him off looking for a solution, or are you able to refer in the appropriate outside expert? You do not necessarily need to have working partnerships with these outsiders, but you should know who is who, and be able to make recommendations to your client that reflect well on you.
Moving up our hierarchy again we now move away from people to institutionalized skills and processes, beginning with defined processes. Are you able to document and explain how you do what you do? Do your engagements begin with a formalized discovery session – something branded, described on a piece of paper, and charged for? Or do you merely have a ‘get started’ meeting or a ‘brain dump’? All your processes should be formalized (named and briefly described in writing somewhere), especially the diagnostic processes that you use at the very beginning of the engagement to assess the situation.
Think about a surgeon. Before he operates, you want him to explain to you how he plans to do it, don't you? You ask about his approach not because you want to judge it – no, you merely want to see that he has one! Is he ‘creatively gifted’ and approaching each patient differently from the previous one, relying heavily on the inspiration of the moment, or does he have a plan and a proven methodology? Think about this: you make all kinds of assumptions about his surgical skills based on nothing more than his ability to explain to you how he works. (Read that again. Got it? Good.) Your clients think the same way, especially late in the buying cycle.
If you specialize long enough and you document and define your processes, then you should eventually come to this place of developing your own proprietary model for how you work. A word of caution: a ™ or ® after your process name does not make it proprietary, or even valuable. I would suggest most such claims of propriety trip the client's bullshit meter. Most agencies' processes are not proprietary, they are a variation on the basic four-step model of 1) Diagnose the problem, 2) Prescribe the therapy, 3) Apply the therapy, and 4) ongoing Reapplication of therapy as necessary, with variously placed feedback loops. Most agency websites have a page describing a variation on this process. Half of them have hollow claims of propriety.
Where agencies usually develop proprietary processes is in their diagnostics. The more you get to know a market, the better methods you will develop to diagnose the client's situation, leading to a more effective prescription. True proprietary processes are more valuable than non-proprietary ones, but truth be told, whether your defined processes are proprietary or not is less important than your ability to demonstrate that you actually employ them. This brings us to the apex of our hierarchy.
Talking process is one thing, but it's really only the foundation for demonstrating it, because most firms actually talk a good process game (so much so that the client's eyes often glaze over when they see the same process from a different firm, with a different trademarked name.) But, if you can prove that you have a defined way of working and you can preview the client journey for the client before he engages you, that is where you begin to leave your competition behind. Welcome to rare and valuable product territory.
Can you show process by walking through case studies and demonstrating that you took different clients with different problems through the same steps to understand their problems and craft customized solutions? The powerful and largely underestimated implication to such demonstration is this reassurance: little variability in process equals little variability in outcomes. If you cannot offer such reassurance through demonstrated processes then you are probably left having to actually solve the client’s problem, in whole or in part, as a means of proving your ability to do so.
The most effective Win Without Pitching agencies are the ones who can show their process and can prove they actually follow it. Once you have defined your process then take your case studies, cut them up and rebuild them to reflect your process. In your case studies you want to show the outcome of each stage, while talking about how you arrived at the outcome. If after walking through multiple case studies the prospect sees proof of you applying your process and can imagine what it would be like to work with you, then you will have business development advantages that others can only dream of. It's not easy to get this right, but when you do, everything changes forever.
A Dearth of Product Development
Increasingly I can put agencies into one of two categories. They are, on the one hand, firms that recognize that business is evolving (fragmenting and specializing) at a pace that continues to increase, and willingly match their product development speed to this ever-faster moving market. The service offerings of these forward-moving firms differ substantially from their offerings of only two or three years ago. They sport new skills, new tools, and they meet the new demands of an evolving client, market or mediascape. These firms are a microcosm of the modern economy, driving their own cycle of creative destruction in which new offerings replace old, personnel is upgraded through training and turnover, and the firm evolves in a pace that matches or even leads the market it is serving.
On the other hand is a growing group of agencies that is moving backward relative to the rapid pace of change around them. Typically these firms have experienced ten or more years of good times and good profit. There is little personnel turnover from year to year. Everyone, principals included, has become comfortable. A look back reveals that the same things are done today that were five years ago, in the same manner, often by the same people, with unchanged skill sets. Little within these businesses has changed over the years, except for the results. The business isn't prospering like it once did and the principals don’t understand why.
In these backward-sliding firms professional development is not mandatory. There is no purposeful creative destruction at work in the firm, no steady evolution of offerings, no uncovering of new demands in the markets they serve, no active recruiting of outside partners; just a sense of waking up one day to find that everything is different. These principals eddied-out in a fast-moving stream and got lulled to sleep – hypnotized by the rhythm and sound of the current streaming past.
A Troubling Trend
This polarization isn't new and it's not the trend that I find troubling. What troubles me is that the stagnant group is getting younger, quickly. It's not just 60-year olds with 30 years of experience that are getting lulled to sleep. Increasingly I see it happening to principals in their fifties and their forties and even earlier – young men and women pining for the good old days.
Five or six years of complacent profit-taking is no longer an option. Agencies must be as committed to product – the ongoing acquisition of new skills, capabilities and processes – as to positioning, for product is the very defense of positioning. Your agency's product is your capacity to prove your claim of expertise, and while your claim may not change, I guarantee you that the skills, capabilities and processes that the market uses to define expertise will change and for the foreseeable future the pace of that change will do nothing but increase.