The Professional Services Brand
Consumer goods and their brands are largely inseparable in their markets. Coke and Pepsi deliver globally recognized products to customers using a rigid formula for production and packaging that never varies, no matter where in the world the product is sold. Neither soft drink manufacturer would imagine doing it any differently. Any mongrelization of Coke or Pepsi products would be swiftly halted by either company, because they know how brand integrity contributes to success.
A professional services brand comes with no packaging, no distinct flavor or aroma and generally has nothing the customer can feel with their hands. Professional services brands are further governed (and homogenized) by professional standards often guiding billing rates, processes and methods of service. In many cases professional services brands are further homogenized by the habits of their employees, virulent carriers of the ménage of behaviors learned at an average of three other firms in their career. And what goes around comes around—when a brand relies on the experts working for the company, inevitably an expert will defect.
How can a firm stand out?
The first step is to recognize the challenge. An engineer or architect’s “secret sauce” is comprised of a set of distinct, repeatable behaviors demonstrated consistently in services delivered to all clients across the company. In other words, the A/E/P firm must identify a method of service delivery that differs enough from that of competitors to be recognizable to clients. The method must add value to be worthy of brand loyalty and all employees delivering services must deliver the method every time in every way. It won’t be accomplished overnight.
Think of Disneyworld, where all employees, from the tall to the small, are taught that each interaction with a customer is part of the Disney “experience.” Every transaction must be like wishing upon a star, a veritable fairy-tale for the price of admission, because Disney execs know that as soon as a customer meets a cranky janitor, the dream is shattered. No Disneyworld employee starts their job without first stocking up on happy. Rigorous customer service training defines the work experience at Disney, because these people are the variables that define the theme park brand.
Four key words should guide brand management for professional services: value, consistency, simplicity and ubiquity.
The word “value” fails to grab the attention of the professional services firm these days. It’s simply everywhere and so widely misinterpreted that no one finds epiphany in it anymore. But in professional services brand management it is critical. The thing that defines your brand must be valuable to the customer in some way, and more than that, valuable enough to make it distinguishable from competitors. Any senior guru or project delivery system must be more or better than what they can get elsewhere, or it isn’t a brand, it’s an industry baseline.
Your services may be delivered from multiple offices in multiple regions from multiple business units. This should never mean that customers perceive multiple brands. The global reach and dominance of the soft drink sellers was achieved because they understood this. It doesn’t mean your brand can never evolve; it just has to as one company. When you have rogue regions or business units, gel their successful strategies with the brand and quickly phase out what isn’t working. Make consistency a priority.
Brand management is a global responsibility in a professional services firm, stewarded by all employees. Resist the urge to complicate the issue with graphics and diagrams and process. A globally-adopted system is more successful the simpler it is. You don’t even have to call it “branding”; just like people (particularly the technical types) switch off when they see complex process diagrams, they tune out marketing terminology. Teach your people to make every conversation with a customer a pleasant and productive experience. Customer service training is a must for hotel chains, theme parks, food services or airlines – why not for professional services? Consider how deeply you could trust your brand integrity if project management training was delivered concurrently with customer service coaching. (The two ARE different, by the way.)
One thing that plagues the multi-disciplinary firm is the inclination to brand different services separately. Some companies even try to dream up a new expression of the company’s logo, thinking this will bolster the fledgling business unit’s brand. Think of this as Cherry Coke or Clear Pepsi. It does the opposite, and also erodes the integrity of the company’s global brand. It also quickly fizzles flat in the market. Your firm has one brand offering; multiple services, not several brands, each offering its own services. Imagine what happens when you cross-sell. You would have to prove the quality of two brands instead of one! And when purchasing, the customer’s mind has to process many brands as it is. Never complicate his or her task.
Rather than think about how rewarding a ubiquitous brand can be, think for a moment about the damage that can be done by a project manager who doesn’t get it. If flattering stories about service quality travel at the speed of sound, unflattering ones travel at the speed of light. They go further and last longer too. If your dream brand lives in the service provided by the project managers, then every last one of them has to know that dream and how to live it…the same way, every time.