Why you should go beyond qualifications to stand out from your peers and focus on differentiators with substance.
As social animals the most natural thing in the world for us to do is to more often the not is to 'follow the crowd'.
You see there's safety in numbers. There's safety in certain social conventions.
There's safety in agreement. I for one know that in a lot of ways that I'm influenced by my family, friends and peers.
It's why that the clothes I wear, usually dark suit and white shirt for work and then jeans and a jumper or T-shirt when casual, is the same as most of my family, friends, colleagues and peers (as well as being the same as the way most men dress in the western world).
You see, and I'm sure like you, I like to belong...
Of course I could mix it up and instead of my usual attire wear a white suit and dark shirt for work (in a vain attempt in bringing back 70s fashion) and have a casual uniform of a sarong, headband, leggings, doc martins and a bow tie with a sports jacket.
But of course I'd be taking a risk. Would I be taken as seriously? Would my peers, professional colleagues and friends treat me in the same way? Would it impact my business relationships and therefore my businesses earning potential? Would I still belong?
Now I've decided in this particular aspect of my life, and much to the relief of everyone around me, that I won't be 'different'.
The simple reason? This particular clothing related risk has no upside.
I don't think I'll feel better wearing a sarong or leggings, I won't perform better with a white suit on instead of a dark one and I won't be a better person just by wearing a headband.
I know they'll be plenty who disagree but just don't believe that clothes maketh the man (or woman) so I try to keep it simple and conventional!
However I often think that in certain aspects of our life, including our professional lives, conventional thinking can do more harm than good.
To provide an example let me tell you the story of two financial planners...
First there's Steve...
Steve has run as successful financial planning business in the home counties. He's been established for a number of years and has clients who are typically a few years older than Steve and it's always concerned him that for his business to be truly sustainable he'll need to find some key differentiators to his competitors and peers.
As a differentiating factor decided that he'll improve his qualifications. He therefore studied hard and achieved both chartered and certified status. He’s rightfully proud of these designations and prominently displays these 'badges of professionalism' on his website. He wants to help as many people as he can so decides not to niche in any particular area.
Steve has used social media but finds much of his time debating with other financial planners and is getting increasingly frustrated that it's not delivering the clients he expected to receive from it.
Steve has a loyal client base and good clients. However Steve also appreciates that as he is younger than the majority of his clients he needs to focus on the longer term sustainability of his business by bringing new clients on board.
Steve has a set of beliefs about the right way of doing things and on the whole he provides a massively valuable service to his clients. His peer group, which contains fellow financial planners he likes, respects and are similar to him in a lot of ways are also chartered and certified or on their way there and share the same professional philosophy.
When you ask Steve why he adopts a particular philosophy or worked so hard to chartered and certified he might give you a number of reasons. It might be that he believes his particular philosophy is the right thing to do for his clients, he might say that continued learning gives him a sense of self satisfaction or improving his knowledge allows him to serve his existing clients in a far better way.
However when you ask Steve why he both follows a particular philosophy or has worked hard to achieve additional qualifications he tells you "I want to show my potential clients that I'm different"
Then there's Dave...
Dave, like Steve, also thinks that qualifications are important and is on his way to achieving both certified and chartered status. Dave also runs a good business in the home counties.
However on certain things Steve and Dave do and see things in different ways...
You see Dave takes some of the best ideas from his peer group and agrees with some of Steve's philosophies but also tries to look at what a number of different industries and professions do and how potentially he can learn and apply some of these strategies.
Dave really likes social media and sees that it as both useful and fun however recently he's been focusing on how he's spending his time and thinks it's also often a distraction where comments can be misconstrued and therefore when he wants to express a professional opinion he prefers to spend some time writing an article on a particular subject designed to be more nuanced as well as more permanent.
Dave spends time with his professional peers but also carves out time in his month to spend some time with business owners from a range of different industries and professions.
The reason for this is that Dave believes that the often other industries and professions have better ideas on marketing, sales, service, process, administration and compliance and spends a decent amount of time thinking about how to applies these ideas to his business. Also he believes that the best business ideas don't always come from business books which is why he also tries to read as widely as possible.
Dave also believes that when it comes to his business he needed to "do something remarkable" and for Dave this meant doing something no other financial planning business had done before...
Dave had recently read how a business in Philadelphia was selling a Cheese steak for $100 dollars where the majority of places sold them for between $8 - $12.
This had created a massive buzz for the restaurant in question and loads of sales for this particular cheese steak as well as attracting business for the cheaper propositions in the restaurant. This gave him an idea!
He wanted to use the 'expensive cheese steak' framework and apply it to financial planning.
So Dave created a service with loads of benefits but with financial planning at its core. The benefits were numerous and included an annual meeting with celebrity speakers, a 24 hour concierge service, a virtual PA service, associate membership to a bunch of private members clubs as well as much more.
Dave priced this service at £89,999 per annum.
For this "ultimate life planning" package he would cram it with value and Dave had worked hard to collaborate with other services providers who would support these added value services if a client did engage...
Once built Dave also put a time limit on being able to apply for this package. 6 weeks to apply.
Dave also ensured that his more affordable financial planning propositions remained available but promoted the story of the '£89,999 annual service" started to spread.
Some of his peers told Dave he was misguided, he smiled and said the results would show whether he was or not and even if he was he'd still be pleased that he'd taken a risk and hopefully learned a lesson he could use in the future.
Some 'industry commentators' said that Dave was a profiteer - Dave said that he'd tried hard (by adding loads of ancillary benefits and a 24 hour concierge service) to make sure this package represented good value for money as well as the service and the cost was clear.
Many said that it would fail. In this version of the story it did.
Nobody applied for this ultra bespoke ultra expensive service.
Dave was dejected and depressed...maybe he shouldn't have bothered!
Then he started to receive calls from clients. Clients who wanted his standard packages but loved the idea of including elements of the 'ultimate' concierge package. He also started to collaborate with other financial planners where they didn't have the experience Dave had in bringing professionals together to build 'financial concierge' packages and received more referrals from the professionals he'd known for years who previously hadn't referred to him.
Dave business over the next few years built into a highly profitable niche bespoke business he could truly say was really unique.
The rest they say is history. Although on this occasion totally fictional.
You see neither Dave or Steve actually exist and whether Dave's idea would fly in the real world.
However what stands out more...
"A chartered financial planner."
"A chartered financial planner who is known for providing the most bespoke, more expensive, most comprehensive financial planning service in the UK."
On occasion I've been chatting with financial planners I like, respect and who have decent businesses who tell me the following...
"We're different because as individuals and as a firm we're chartered" they proudly tell me
"Okay" I say "Why does that make you different?"
"Well only just over 4,000 financial advisers are chartered and only just over 300 firms have corporate chartered status" they confirm.
"Right...got it!" I reply "So you're different because you're highly qualified, which I respect and admire, along with 4,000 odd other professionals and 300 odd other firms."
"Yep" they say!
Now I'm probably wrong here but whilst being chartered is a factor surely the idea of a differentiation is that it's the things that make you or your business, erm, different enough to REALLY stand out?
When I look at my own businesses I think we try to (but sometimes fail) to differentiate ourselves in a bunch of different ways both through the content we create and the services we provide.
However the reality is whilst in a lot of ways I'd like to think I'm a 'Dave' I reckon I'm more of a 'Steve'.
Maybe over time I'll become more of a Dave and continue to try to differentiate my businesses to ensure we're as unique as possible.
All that being said one thing is for sure...
You'll never catch me wearing leggings, doctor martins, a bow tie and a sarong...
…Not at the same time anyway.