As in most industries, competition in professional service provision has intensified over the last decade. Staying ahead of that competition is now a major challenge, achieving growth a swim against the tide. Readily available advice includes ‘create an alternative’, ‘think differently’, and ‘stay unique’! Sounds good, but how do you actually go about doing that? Here are my six tips to flesh out those bones…

1. Be appealing to work with
There are a number of ways to be unique. In terms of both expertise and service level. What are your customers telling you? Do they feel well informed about the progress of a project? Are the invoices clear? Can they always get hold of your consultants when they need to?

If there are issues here, they’re often easily fixed, providing you know about them. Create these improvements for your customers, and you’ll make doing business with you a faultless experience – something to really set you apart in your sector.

Not sure what your customers think of you? Begin finding out right now. Initiate a customer survey, or call customers when projects are completed. Everything that you can improve or simplify will bring you closer to your ultimate goal: satisfied customers supporting more growth.

2. Create a unique image that fits tightly with your business
All consultancies are basically the same, at least that’s what many of your clients think. Relatively standard use of language and repeated promises on the website create an image and expectation that might not actually align well with what you have to offer.

Maybe your industry standard is sharp suit and tie, and you follow it despite it not complementing the kind of people you are. Could it be that some of your customers also feel more comfortable with a slightly less formal image?

Breaking from the crowd can make the difference. Think about green, sustainable banking. Despite the heavy anti-banking sentiment following the crisis, these businesses have stepped sideways and created significant growth. Explore the opportunities. Maybe there’s a chance to adapt your image in a way that enhances your identity, differentiates you from the crowd and is valued by your prospects.

3. Really understand your market
A lot of consultancy companies cast the net far and wide, keeping their focus only as long as it takes for the next opportunity to arrive. However, if you really, really choose for a specific segment of your market, and do your best to learn it absolutely inside out, customers and prospects will recognize and value it.

In addition to a narrower market, you can also develop specialist expertise in a particular process or concept with added value for your customers. That said, take care not to go too narrow, and ensure that you leave yourself with a pond big enough to fish in. Growth needs to remain possible. Take confidence in the fact that the biggest consultancy businesses, thanks to a lack of focus, are losing ground fast to the smaller, more specialized advice bureaus.

4. Change your invoicing
Are you still invoicing based on calculations done after the project has been delivered, while hearing from customers that they no longer find this appropriate to market conditions? If so, ask your customers what their expectations are. Maybe they want to pay for a fixed price project, or pay a lump sum upfront that they can tick off as work is picked up – or maybe based purely against results?

More and more consultancy businesses who focus on performance improvement are deriving their fees from a percentage of the results they create. It is a risk, but if you’re delivering good advice that your customer buys into, it has the added benefit of creating trust that you know what you’re about.

5. Create a visible position in the market
Not all customers and prospects know exactly what you do and just how good you are at doing it. Help them by putting successful project overviews on your website, writing a blog about the areas where you can add value, or by sharing tips and advice at congresses, via webinars or through lectures and presentations.

Maybe that feels like giving away your expertise for free. However, making sure you’re visible in the market, and that people are aware of what you have to offer, will eventually lead to projects finding you organically. People will associate you with guidance when challenged by the issues you discuss. It’s not a short term investment that will immediately see a return, but it will pay significant dividends over the longer run if done correctly.

6. Streamline your own processes
The first tip can also be applied to your own workforce: be a great company to work for! If that’s genuinely how your employees feel, that enthusiasm is going to be visible for your customers. A streamlined, well-managed internal operation has the ability to positively influence your customers’ experience of working with you. Ensure that the advice you give your customers is also followed by you, and let your business be a shining example of how things can be done.

Keep it real
To finish, one general point. All the areas where you want to differentiate from the competition need to be absolutely genuine. They need to really reflect what you do, who you are and how you work.

If you can’t back up what you’re saying, if you’re not telling the actual story, customers will see through your sales rhetoric very quickly. Take care to create a good story that you can provide evidence for, with previous happy customers acting as your reference ambassadors. And above all else, make sure it represents value for the customer. If they don’t see the potential for profitable improvement in your story, they’re not going to buy it.

You can become unique in many ways. Continually sticking by what you’ve always done is not one of them. That will only ensure that you stay where you are, or move backwards. And you want to grow. Go where you can make a difference for your customers, make sure your message is ‘real’, and adapt your organization accordingly emphasize the difference you can make.