By Brent D. Robertson (MARKETER, August 2015) Download PDF here

There was a time when looking and sounding competent went a long way toward helping your firm attract business. Today, appearing competent can be an inexpensive endeavor—just look at the self-serve website development technologies and their hundreds of attractive templates. Firms can also subscribe to third-party content marketing services that will ghost write blog posts and distribute your content far and wide. When looking competent is this easy and cheap … everyone can, and in fact pretty much does. Don’t believe me? Compare a few websites of A/E/C firms, including your own. Do any of their stories stand out as different to you? Would they to a potential client?

The Difference Is Your Story

The stories told by most A/E/C firms are based on two distinct components: what they know and what they’ve done. The typical firm’s website or brochure is just a listing of service areas and a library of projects they have been involved with, and sometimes the team and their corresponding credentials. These elements are important since a client is certainly going to need to know a firm’s technical capabilities and see evidence that demonstrates it. However, this tends to be the only story that firms tell.

Today’s differentiated story isn’t rooted in what a firm knows and what it has done. It is built on what the firm stands for and why it does what it does. So ask yourself, is what your firm stands for clearly articulated and understood? What does it believe in? What values does it uphold in everything it does? And is that story being told effectively to those that matter to you most? If not, you’re not alone.

Until recently, knowing and understanding what you stand for hasn’t been essential for the firm to win business.

The first step in bringing your story to life starts with an agreement among the leaders that this work is essential to the future success of the firm. The second is to work with your firm to reveal its most important beliefs, values, and commitments. The third is to establish coherent language to capture the essence of the story in a way that drives the organization. This is by no means an easy or quick undertaking, but the ideas below should give you a way to begin to see what might be lurking within your firm that could provide the basis and the leadership team’s confidence taking this work on.

It’s All About the Questions You Ask

The journey of discovering your “why” starts with an inquiry designed to generate an exploratory conversation. This conversation starts with leadership and continues deep into every level of the firm. Questions that provoke this kind of conversation include:

  1. What is it about the world that you and/or your firm want to change?
  2. If you could realize this change, what difference would it make? How would life be different?
  3. What are you and/or the firm willing to commit to creating the world it seeks?
  4. What are the values and beliefs the firm demonstrates and holds true?

At first glance, these questions may seem big and idealistic. But look closer. Don’t they really go to the heart of why your firm exists? Our industry is about changing the world and transforming what currently exists.

Discuss these questions with partners, employees, current and former clients, strategic partners, and others who are intimately familiar with your firm. You’ll find that you can learn a lot about your firm by seeing how others view you. Be observant of any patterns or themes that emerge from these conversations, as these are the clues that can begin to point you toward the answer.

Firms that don’t find their “why” are already on the path to commoditization or worse, irrelevancy. You can get a sense of where you stand on the basis of how your customers relate to you. Are you seen as a vendor performing a lowest bid transaction, or a partner that helps your client make the biggest difference?

Firms willing to invest the necessary time and resources to examine what they stand for, and to declare and demonstrate that to the marketplace can give themselves an extraordinary competitive edge.

The results of the investment can include:

  • More success attracting ideal business relationships, employees, clients, and partners
  • Clients that value what you stand for and pay a premium for it
  • A story that will reach much further, with more impact, than ever before
  • A firm positioned for the future, not limited by the past
  • A team willing to work hard, fight for, and defend what it stands for

In full disclosure, I do what I do because I seek to create a world of prosperity driven by joyful, meaningful connections. What’s your “why”?

About Brent

Brent works with leaders to design futures worth fighting for. A partner at Fathom, he champions an approach to strategic planning, employee engagement, leadership succession and market differentiation that prioritizes people and relationships. As a result, his clients don’t simply plan their futures, they bring them to life through the energy of organization-wide involvement in, and commitment to, generating valuable businesses that matter.


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