Very few professional services companies can claim true competitive differentiation, according to the latest research from technology service marketing experts at ITSMA. So how should these firms differentiate?
ITSMA's new report, 'The Quest for Marketing Differentiation: 2005 Professional Services and Solutions Brand Tracking Study', evaluated the brand equity of fifteen professional services providers including Accenture, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, and SAP, and revealed new data about how customers perceive professional services providers, and the factors that most influence their purchases.
When ITSMA rated the professional services firms' market positioning across nine business-oriented messages, it found that no single provider was able to stake out a clear advantage for eight of the messages examined.
For example, Cisco Systems (renowned for its customer-oriented culture - see Sep. 8th, 2005) claimed sole ownership of the "drives business agility" message. But none of the vendors were perceived as able to "harness team power" or "empower customers to be independent" - messages around which leading providers are currently trying to create differentiation.
Other prominent messages examined in the report include: "Acts as a trusted business partner", "Aligns business and technology priorities", and "Delivers measurable business value".
Advantage to gain
But while the differentiation of professional services is clearly difficult, the study showed that 63% of customers actually do take notice of new providers that stand out from the crowd (for example, by demonstrating particular expertise relating to a current business need, and by leveraging existing references and relationships).
Interestingly - and perhaps as a timely warning for those that might be tempted to try - only 27% of customers said they take note of a new vendor for competing on price.
How to differentiate
According to Lori Weiner, the study's author and senior research director for ITSMA, "As the professional services market matures, many services providers are finding themselves in the unenviable position of being exactly like the company next door. But it is clear that sharp positioning, proven expertise, and good relationships are the keys to success."
Weiner concludes that good reference management, thought leadership, and techniques such as account-based marketing, are proving to be particularly helpful for professional services firms that are struggling to improve their competitive positioning.
The study was based on interviews with 401 US-based IT and business executives involved in the purchase of professional services and solutions, and explores the buyer decision process and benchmarks the brand equity of IT professional services and solutions providers. The following fifteen professional services providers are evaluated in the report: Accenture, BearingPoint, Capgemini, Cisco Systems, CSC, Deloitte, EDS, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Consulting, IBM, Keane, Microsoft, Oracle, Perot Systems, and SAP.