How NOT to differentiate your accounting practice: The Differentiation Paradox and the mythical USP for accountants

By Posted in - Public Blog on November 29th, 2016 2 Comments


Many marketers will try to tell you that a core part of your accounting firm’s marketing strategy is differentiation. That you need to have a USP: a Unique Selling Proposition.

That’s crap advice.

In my view, what most people think of as differentiation is actually delusion. It’s nothing but a pipe dream. Well, it is when it comes to an accounting firm.

Here’s why.

When typical marketing consultants and business owners talk about differentiation, they’re typically talking about claims that fall into one of three categories I call them The Three B’s

  1. Better
  2. Best
  3. Blah Blah

1. ‘Better’

‘Better’ refers to the claims accounting firms make on their website about how they’re better than their competition. They claim they provide better value. Better service. And of course they’re also more experienced. More committed. More caring.

And they proudly call this potpourri of claims their Unique Selling Proposition!

What a great USP. It’s not like any other accounting firm is making these claims, right?

2. ‘Best’

Besttakes these claims to the next level, making them even more unbelievable.

Does anyone really believe your firm is the best firm in a particular aspect or service offering? It may be true, but I doubt it. Even even if it is true, don’t tell me how good you are. Show me how good you are.

Talking about how good you are is tiring at best, and bordering on corporate chest beating.

And here’s a key point about the modern, content-driven approach to marketing for accountants: Making superiority claims like these adds no value to the reader whatsoever. It’s ‘brochureware’ content, and teaches them nothing. (Other than the fact you have quite an ego.)

And consider this: Only 16% of Millennials trust claims made in traditional advertising. Another reason the social media, thought leadership content strategies and educational marketing approach we teach in our online Modern Marketing Academy for accountants is so effective.

So if people no longer place any credence is promotional advertising claims, why make them? Especially grandiose “we’re the best” claims where people’s Bullshit Detection meters go off the chart?

And then there’s the third ‘B’…

3. ‘Blah Blah’

You know the sort of ‘About Us’ web page wording I’m referring to: “We at XYZ and Associates pride ourselves in our professionalism and dedication to high levels of client of service. We have combined experience exceeding xx years, and truly value partnering with clients to add value in a proactive and … ”

… and the blah blah continues!

Most firms’ websites have this blah blah wording on it. Very few people read it, and those who do certainly don’t believe it.

It’s meaningless drivel.

Try this ‘Defining our USP’ exercise with your team

Have a brainstorming session, and list all the reasons you think you’re better than your competition on a whiteboard or flipchart. The list will probably include:

  • better service
  • better quality
  • better value
  • more professional
  • more caring
  • more experienced
  • more technologically progressive (e.g. cloud-based)

Now,  go through the list and cross out any items your competition could also claim.

Note I said ‘claim’. This isn’t about whether you agree with them or not. It’s about whether other firms could also make these claims.

Chances are you’ll cross out most if not all of them because they say you’re ‘better’ or ‘the best’ in some respect. And your competitors could claim the same sorts of things.

While this exercise can be a little disheartening, it’s a great way to drive home the point that a differentiation strategy based on defining a USP is a waste of time and energy.

And that’s a good thing, because it will free you up to pursue a valid strategy that has a chance of succeeding in the market.

Forget differentiation as a strategy. Do this instead.

It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Rather than being deluded about differentiation, a far more useful marketing concept is positioning.

Every business owner needs to understand the concept of positioning because it underpins the fundamentals of strategy. (We teach accountants and entrepreneurs how to apply positioning to their business strategy.)

Positioning isn’t  about saying you’re ‘better’ or ‘the best’. It’s about taking a unique position in the market that inherently makes you different—not by claiming you’re different, but simply by being different due to your market positioning.

It’s a pretty abstract concept at this point, so let me explain it this way…

The most effective way to achieve clear positioning in an accounting or professional services firm is through a niche marketing strategy.

We’ve been teaching this to accounting firms since 2010. In the first module of our online Modern Marketing Academy we talk in depth about why there are only three basic strategies available to any business—including accounting firms.

Michael Porter, Harvard Professor and Founder of the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, outlined three generic strategies that can be combined into only four possible options.

In my experience only one of those options is viable for most accounting firms.

A true differentiation strategy is only available to businesses that have either:

  • some unique technology (patents, trade secrets, etc.)
  • a sustainable competitive advantage in the way they do business (think Dell Computers in their early days being a first mover in the application of Just-In-Time manufacturing).

That is, the way they do business is actually different and superior to their competition.

Sadly, this does not apply to most accounting firms.

Accounting firms generally:

  • have similar business models,
  • use similar processes,
  • draw from the same labour pool,
  • use the same type of software and hardware.

And that’s why I say true differentiation is a pipe dream for most accountants.

What should your accounting firm do instead?

Stop basing your marketing around The Three B’s, and start thinking about a unique position in the market you can claim through a niche marketing strategy focusing on a combination of specific attributes, such as:

  • a specific industry or business type
  • a specific occupation
  • a specific demographic — who they are (e.g. age, lifestyle, income)
  • a specific psychographic — how they think (e.g. ambitious startup entrepreneurs)
  • a specific service offering.

And you’ll notice I used the same word in every example: specific.

Tip: Focus on only one or two specific niches for each Partner/Director in the firm. You’ll never become renowned by being a generalist.

Once you’ve chosen your specific niches, you can define clear Buyer Personas (also known as Avatars) for each target market that describes:

  • who they are
  • how they think
  • what their aspirations are
  • what their pain points are
  • what motivates them
  • what turns them off, and so on.

Note: Going into depth about how to define your Buyer Personas is outside the scope of this article. However, we guide you through exercises on how to do it in our Marketing Masterclasses (workshops) and our online Modern Marketing Academy.

Until you focus your marketing strategy on clear target markets and specific service offerings, your firm will remain lost in the blah blah marketing noise most firms make.

Another BIG advantage of adopting a focus strategy

Another benefit of specialisation that goes beyond marketing is having an operational advantage. By focusing on a particular specialty, you become very, very, good at it. And being great at what you do will differentiate you from every other firm that is merely ‘good’.

A quick example…

Our Modern Marketing Academy’s first graduate—Steph Hinds of Growthwise—has since doubled her firm’s revenue for five years running. And she attributes much of that growth to us helping her choose two clear market niches. It allowed her to develop extremely clear market positioning and cut-through “wow” messaging based on the specificity of that strategy.

It all starts and ends with strategy.

Growthwise is now dominating their chosen niches, and their growth continues unabated.

But it certainly wasn’t happening with their initial strategy—the same strategy most accounting firms have—of trying to be all things to all people.

I can still remember the image they had on their home page when they first came to us—a doctor, mechanic, truck driver and white-collar professional all standing side by side. The unspoken message of that image was, “We’ll take anyone”.

But as a marketing strategist, to me the image screamed, “We have no strategy”.

Steph openly admits that was actually the case back then. She describes the clarity she gained from us helping her define her focus strategy as, “the difference between night and day,” and the catalyst for their business growth.

Being a generalist while claiming your accounting firm is somehow unique is a guaranteed formula for being unremarkable. It kills your referral rate, and drastically limits the growth of your firm.

No-one is remembered for being a generalist. Think about the last legendary utility player in any football code.

Who was it again?

Steps to make your accounting firm stand out in the marketplace

  1. Give up the deluded pursuit of a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) for your accounting firm. Instead, pursue a focus strategy to achieve clear positioning in the market.
  2. Get advice on how to define your focus strategy, buyer personas, desired positioning and clear marketing message based on that strategy.
  3. Base every decision, hire, business process and piece of marketing content on your defined strategy.
  4. Have the courage to remain true to your defined strategy. If you’re not saying ‘no’ to opportunities on a regular basis, you either have no strategy or lack the courage to stick to it.

We’d love you to share your thoughts and experiences around ‘differentiating’ (i.e. uniquely positioning) your firm. Enter your comment or question below. What challenges do you see in adopting a niche marketing strategy? Do you have any fears about it? What successes have you experienced, or perhaps observed?

And if you’d like to find out how we help your firm truly differentiate—or rather, position—itself in the marketplace, get in touch to arrange an initial chat with us. You can book a time here.

  • Jay says:

    Though every business wants to jump on the USP bandwagon to differentiate themselves, your article rightly emphasizes on the need for focus and creating a niche in the market which eventually will lead one to probe within and helps understand where a business’s true potential lies in being succesful.

  • Paul Dunn says:

    Right on MC.

    I mean seriously right on!

    I was writing a piece for a program I’m doing where in part I talk about the Myth of USP. I just wish I’d had the guts to come out and say what you said ……. “it’s crap.”

    Well done you.

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