I got a cold call the other day from someone working on business development for a consulting firm. After he explained that he was calling on behalf of one of the company's principals (Robert) who was interested in introducing himself, I asked what I thought was a reasonable and straightforward question: What does Robert do for businesses like ours that should make me eager to give up time to meet him?
Well, you would have thought I asked this guy to explain the impact of shifting quantitative easing policies on the value of the Euro, and the corresponding effect on the US trade deficit. I could almost feel him overheat as he stammered, "Well, he can do, you know, pretty much anything your business needs, you know, to, you know, run better." What? All I could muster in response was "Oh."
So the same guy would be happy to help us develop and launch a voice of the customer program this quarter, and give us guidance on improving cash flow management as a followup? I don't think so, and I'm not buying! And neither do your best customers, prospects, current employees, or even potential new hires. The cold reality is that professional services specialization is attractive to all categories of constituents, and it's not at all surprising. Think about what specialization means, both as a buyer and a seller, and what it delivers, and it becomes a pretty compelling desired direction for anyone selling their services in a competitive marketplace.
Specialization is a deliberate decision to focus your work in a relatively narrow direction that allows you become very skilled in that direction. Focus allows specialists to draw boundaries that help them avoid distractions from matters outside of the boundaries they've drawn. If you're a recruiter focused on senior level engineers for pulp and paper industry, your decision to focus means you won't accept assignments to fill sales and marketing positions, even with current clients, because that's outside of your strategic focus and isn't where your experience and knowledge have the most leverage. Focus also means knowing where to look for the next generation innovations that will keep you at the cutting edge. Focus has a forward-leaning bias, and allows practitioners to see beyond the horizon to what could come next.
Practice & Expertise
By focusing in a narrow direction, specialists create unending opportunities to hone their skills and grow their knowledge deeply instead of broadly. That's why some orthopedic surgeons choose to specialize in knee reconstructions following sports injuries; if they do three ACL repairs every day, five days a week, the odds are definitely in their favor that the next knee they see will look very similar to a hundred that they've already done, putting them way ahead in terms of practice to the surgeon who see sports injuries as part of a broad mix of patients. In the book Outliers: the Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell identified focused practice (specifically, at least 10,000 hours) as a key predictor of success. Specialists understand that principle, and derive confidence in the knowledge that they will perform a complex task far better than 99.9% of the human race because they've dedicated their professional lives to these specfic types of projects, and they know there's no substitute for the knowledge they've gained from practice.
And because all that concentrated practice makes specialists better at performing their expertise better than generalists, it's a surprise to no one that specialists command and earn higher prices and margins than generalists, from customers, clients and patients who willingly admit they pay more because the services provided by specialists are superior and worth it.
Not only are specialists more skilled than generalists, they also learn the best way to accomplish the desired outcome, which often means reducing the number of steps or finding ways to go from A to Z quicker. A specialist in Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) design for small manufacturing firms knows exactly what information they need, the questions to ask to get it, and who in the organization will have what they need when they need it. There's no trial and error happening; the process and path forward has been honed to perfection, and as a result is the best possible experience for the client company. That means the least business disruption, minimal involvement of other professional service providers, and timelines that are established and hit with confidence. Oh, and these are also quantifiable measures of value to point to as justifications for a premium price. Whatever your business, when you can demonstrate the ability to operate with an efficiency your customers will appreciate, you reduce price pressure because you become more indispensable.
When your business needs help, can there be anything more reassuring than finding a professional who can declare with authority and validation, "I solve that specific problem for businesses exactly like yours every day." Whether you have a tax dispute with your state sales tax commission or need help improving lead generation, you know you'll sleep better when you find the specialist who understands your problem better than you do. Do you think it's difficult for specialists to communicate their mission? No, it's a piece of cake!
For well-positioned specialists, their elevator speech is simple: "We do (insert specialization here) for (insert target here)." Think back to the ESOP consultant example. "We create and administer ESOP plans for small privately held manufacturing firms." And since they didn't use up the 30 seconds usually allowed for elevator speeches, they could add: "And because we're specialized we do it better than anyone else!"
That kind of mission clarity makes marketing easier, and it also supports employee recruitment and retention. Stronger teams are built around clearly understood mission, because people want to understand what they're working to accomplish, and what it means to be good at what they and you do. It also makes it easier for all employees to be an active and engaged part of recruitment and selling.
Specialization can be a difficult strategic decision to make, because it means saying no to some new business that you were happy and willing to take in the past. It's probably easier to think of specialization as the natural evolution of business; just starting out, most businesses will take whatever customer says yes. Marketplace power begins to develop when you can say no to the distractions of generalist thinking, and begin to turn your committed attention to developing the kind of deep expertise that allows you to say with conviction, "This is what we do, and we do it better than anyone else."