What it takes to be great

28 March 2017

Tony Young, Partner, Business Services |

One of the overarching trends for the course I completed at the Harvard Business School was getting to the bottom of what makes a professional services firm great. To become great and grow their appeal within a market, leaders within a firm need to have a direction and identity for the firm, including being well aware of its strengths and weaknesses. However, they also need to be aware of what the firm is not, so leaders aren't chasing traits or attributes that don't reflect their firm's identity or genuine abilities.

Leaders also need an accurate sense of what clients want and what their needs and motivations are. This allows them to respond to their requirements with tailored offerings rather than assuming they'll eventually end up knocking on the door. This requires regular adjustment and reviews as markets change and customer preferences evolve. At BDO, we use a number of tools, including Beaton research, to obtain a deeper understanding of where we sit in our preferred markets.

There can be a ‘sameness’ about professional service firms despite how they may view themselves. The concept of the “fallacy of uniqueness” was one thing that struck me. We all think we have these unique set of issues within our own practice or region, but really they're pretty consistent across disciplines, around the world and throughout practices of varying sizes. The question then becomes: "What can we compete on if being unique is not enough on its own?"

Depending on a business’ position within the market, prospective clients do assume a certain level of capability and competence, so they're going to assess you on things such as how easy they think it will be to develop a rapport with you, how responsive and proactive you can be and then how well you can demonstrate a knowledge of their industry. In that case, being unique isn't a result of a marketing ploy or other gimmick, but is instead developed through reliable services that are of a high quality. A tax return is a tax return, that doesn't change too much between providers, but if one provider is able to show a deeper understanding of the client’s industry or business, they can offer unique insights and stand out from the competition.

The Harvard course was an excellent way to bring the challenges and opportunities for professional services firms to life, providing a way to understand why some firms are the way they are, and how we can help them evolve in an ever-changing world. If you would like to talk about any of the information from during my time at the Harvard Business School please feel free to contact me.