Be the Johnny Cash of Your Professional Services Industry

Maybe you can’t sing a note. Perhaps you’ve never strummed a guitar.

But stay with me here.

Yes, you read it right. I want you, Mr. or Ms. Service Professional, to be the Johnny Cash of your industry — who Thrives — and not the Forgettable Me-Too Singer who Just Survives.

When you listen to music, which singers make you turn up the volume every time?

Why do you turn it up? Just because they sing in tune? Heck, lots of people can do that — and thousands more think they can.

No, it’s because they do something more for you. Instead of settling for basic competence, the great artists deliver added value. Just like the Man in Black. Johnny had his own distinctive style that made people feel something special and want to sing along.

Whether you’re a lawyer, accountant, or other service professional, always challenge yourself with this question:

What specific value do your customers get from you that they cannot get from any other service provider in your field?

Your ability to add value is key to becoming the true superstar of your field. Let’s take a look at why it’s so hard to answer this question, and four steps for discovering your “it” factor.

Why Service Professionals Sing the Same Old Song

Professional service industries have had to stare down many significant challenges in recent years, including tighter client budgets, tougher competition, and damaged trust.

The stakes have clearly been raised, increasing the pressure to offer unique value. But when you work in a service industry, there are many obstacles to setting yourself apart in a meaningful way.

What You Do Is Intangible

We can test drive a car to feel how it runs, or try on a pair of jeans to see if they fit. It’s pretty easy to determine which physical products give us the best value for our dollar. Intangible services are more subjective. It’s harder to objectively evaluate something you can’t directly see, hear, taste, touch, or smell.

There’s Little Functional Difference

Most service professionals have the same education and certification requirements — all attorneys must attend law school and pass the bar exam, for instance.

The methods commonly used for attracting new clients — like prospecting and networking — are also similar. Similar questions get asked, yielding similar answers.

Some of the same legal and/or industry requirements result in a sort of mandated uniformity – competing professionals must include some of the same disclosures and forms to sign in the course of day-to-day operations.

Within many industries, we also encounter similar standardized processes for performing the service correctly.

We Confuse Basic Competence with Adding Value

For service professionals, there is a tension between adherence to a standard and the need to stand out. We see this reflected in the same bulleted list that mysteriously appears in every brochure, website, and commercial for (almost) every professional services firm. It’s like a radio station that plays the same song over and over all day:

  • Relationships!
  • Customer-driven!
  • Our people make the difference!
  • Integrity!
  • Results-driven!
  • Detail-oriented!
  • Customized solutions!
  • Customer service!
  • Strive for excellence!
  • Look at our experience! Awards! Advanced degrees!

But Neal! We have to say those things. Clients expect them!

Believe me, I know first-hand that folks expect those things. After three decades with one of the largest accounting firms in the United States, including five years as the CEO, I’m right there with you on the need for integrity, customer focus, and all the rest.

But like being able to sing in tune, these attributes are the bare minimum. There’s a difference between what’s merely expected and what you might call the “it” factor – that intangible set of attributes that truly deliver meaningful value.

Four Steps to Discovering Your “It” Factor

It’s tough figuring out how to differentiate yourself in a professional services industry – in a way that brings added value to your customers. Here are four steps to help you identify the “it” factor that you bring to the table:

#1: Remember Why You’re Doing This

Maybe you or a family member were once injured by a drunk driver. Perhaps that inspired you to become an attorney so you could help others affected by the same tragic mistake.

Whatever motivated you to choose your career path – instead of just a job – your personal story is yours alone. When you weave your unique journey into how you work with clients and communicate with them, you show them why you’re different.

#2: Remember Who You’re Working For

A recent survey found that credit union members placed more value on their relationship with the organization – how they were treated – than the technical services – like handling loans (Byrne and McCarthey, 2014).

Your clients expect more than just technical competence – they want you to care about them, treat them with respect, and adjust your service for their individual needs. And just saying that in your brochures isn’t enough. Ultimately, it’s how your clients feel about doing business with you that makes the difference.

#3: Remember Who You’re Working With

The members of a band can’t just do their own thing – the drummer, guitarist, and singer must combine their individual parts to create the right sound. Your professional services organization needs the same thing – each individual working in tight harmony with one another – to deliver the experience your clients deserve.

Always remember the difference between a manager who bosses people around and a true leader who helps everyone Thrive. The leader focuses on the needs of the team over self-interest, practices what he or she preaches instead of just giving orders, and keeps everyone focused on meeting the organization’s goals for the future.

#4: Keep Reaching for the Stars

Remember these words of wisdom from radio legend Casey Kasem. In other words, do more than what’s expected.

Try this exercise: create a list of all the things that every professional in your field must do just to be allowed to do business:

  • All required education and certifications.
  • All forms that must be filled out.
  • All disclaimers that must be provided to all customers.
  • Include a list of the minimum attributes that clients expect – things like technical competence, integrity, and so on.

Now make a second list. What things do you offer that go beyond that bare minimum? What life experiences, subject-matter expertise, and specialized skills do you have that not just any other lawyer, accountant, or consultant will have? And what value do clients get because you possess those unique attributes?

You might have to do some digging, but believe me, it’s well worth the effort.

We both know the importance of professional services to the clients we serve and to society in general. And we also know how easy it is to blend in, like just another copycat singer in the music business.

But like Johnny Cash – or whoever your favorite singer is – there is something special about you. By taking the time to identify and capitalize on those unique attributes, and go beyond the bare minimum, you’ll have a better chance to Thrive as a superstar in your professional services industry – and not Just Survive.


Source: Byrne, Noreen, and Olive McCarthy. (2014). Value Proposition Preferences of Credit Union Members and Patronage Activity. International Journal of Bank Marketing. 32(6), 567-589.