The Big Shift:
Recession, the Client Experience, and Growth

As published in the  American Council of Engineering Companies of Wisconsin  January 2011 Newsletter

How do we as PSF (Professional Service Firm) leaders 
avoid the commoditization of our services?


As part of our Thought Leadership Series presented in conjunction with Creative Growth Group, we assembled a panel of industry experts to examine recent lessons and tactics in change, resiliency, creativity as they impact the client experience and growth in professional services firms.

Our panel included:

  • Bill Welter, Managing Director, Adaptive Strategies, Inc. and co-author of “Rethink, Reinvent, Reposition: 12 Strategies to Move Over Your Business”
  • Bob Dean, Director, Americas Profiling Online and certified professional of “The Experience Economy”
  • Bill Hickman, Chief Growth Officer, Leo Burnett
  • Timothy McHugh, Sr. Analyst, William Blair & Company, experts on the Professional Service marketplace to examine recent lessons and tactics in change, resiliency, creativity as they impact the client experience and growth in professional services firms.

Reinventing Yourself
Bill Welter described his background in engineering, learning and 5 years in the Marine Corp.  When you look at the concept of reinventing yourself, one of the things that is fascinating is what the Military has done to reinvent itself.  As a Vietnam Veteran, he explained how at that time the thought was “ Wouldn’t it be cool if the Military could learn from Business?”  Now that has changed because the military has reinvented itself.  The military has realized that the young people in the academy will be the generals and will be their talent pipeline in 15 years and the military’s job is to teach them TO think, not WHAT to think.

Per Bill, “I’m an official old guy, I am 64 years old.  So what’s this think called Facebook, Twitter, Tweet? And, it’s only going to get more complicated.”

Learning from the military
Businesses today should learn from the military and adopt the After Action Review which is asking consistently after every project:  What did we want, what did we get, why were they different and what did we learn?

Bill emphatically stated, “If we don’t do this, we are losing out on a huge opportunity to adjust where our firms are going.”

Bill challenged the audience, “How do you take your business beyond the commodity point?  What is your value promise from the client’s side?  What is your reputation?”

He advised to look at your business from the client’s point of view and recommended the book Beyond Price by Mary Kay Plantes and Robert Frinfrock as a good resource for additional ideas on differentiating your business in ways that matter.

Transforming Clients
Bob Dean’s point of view is grounded in The Experience Economy by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore which ultimately has received recognition as one of the 100 best business books of all time.  As a Certified Experience Economy Consultant, and having worked in professional services, Bob has wondered how PSF companies can really differentiate themselves through their client experience to avoid commoditization.  He believes, as Andrew Dietz suggested, we should potentially be striving towards even transforming our clients.

Bob’s particular interest, as Director of a Talent Management company, Profiling Online, is in how the employee experience supports a great client experience. His focus is on talent and how that talent supports that client experience.  He stated that The Conference Board has reported that employee engagement is at its lowest level in many, many years.  If your client experience cannot exceed your employee experience, then what can companies do to address this issue?

He sees providing a great client experience as a challenge for PSA firms, but he is not sure he has seen best practices as of yet.

On another note, Bill Hickman of Leo Burnett asked, “The question for the room is Why the Experience Economy?  As a commodity, you have no choice but to push price if you don’t create an experience around it.”

Bill went on to explain that their clients hire them to help them define the experience of their customers.  They help people like us figure out a) why we are in an experience economy and b) what in the world do we do about it?

So, at Leo Burnett, they have replaced the word ‘product’ with the word ‘purpose’ and changed the way that they approach their business. They call this lens or view ”HumanKind”.

What is HumanKind?  First, you need to understand your purpose and that a product or service is a human truth.  Then you tie your product or service to a behavior you are trying to transform. In other words, identify a purpose that your product or service plays in human beings life that by its very design will transform behavior: the way people think, feel or act.

When you know your human purpose, then you know how to “act”.  If you really do not want to be a commodity, then you need to answer the question, “Why do you exist?”  The answer of why we are in the business we are in, should direct how we “act” or perform the part.

Then we addressed Timothy McHugh, Sr. Analyst with William Blair and Company to gain a perspective on the financial viewpoint.

“The most challenging aspect has been those companies that have not responded to thinking about differentiating themselves are undergoing the pricing pressures” observed Tim.

How do we avoid the price pressure?  How are people differentiating themselves?

Tim has seen companies focus on entrenchment towards the core, generally investing in existing customer relationships.  They are not looking for a lot of new customer growth, but looking to get deeper with existing customers with multiple expanded services lines with a goal of being a full service advisor.

In Summary
The prevailing thought among our panelists to avoid commoditization, was to focus on re-evaluating our client experiences and creatively change so that our clients are willing to pay more for the experience of working with our firms.  So that doing business with us is more than just meeting project goals and timelines, but that we truly connect on a human level that potentially transforms our clients.

Now isn’t that a goal worth pursuing?  Count me in!