Client Case Study: Finetuning a Mid-Sized Consultancy’s Market Positioning

From January till mid-May 2022, I worked with a medium-sized tech consulting firm (50 FTE, just under €10M revenue) to help them finetune their market positioning and expertise narrative. I am disclosing here the playbook that we have used with 6 sprints.

We’ve now finalized Sprints 1-3. Sprints 4, 5, and 6 will be executed later to ensure the adoption of the initial changes. I hope to give you a solid understanding of such a market positioning review.

The main reasons for the project

  • Service overkill: the number of services gradually increased – each successfully delivered project became the basis of yet another new service - a pretty common challenge;
  • Tech language: too much tech feature-driven language instead of value proposition language (as I always say: “You are not in the business of selling tech features but in the business of solving client problems”);
  • Hitting the project wall: too much lower-value, smaller project work, not enough high-value strategic consulting despite existing upstream/strategic expertise;

    project wall

  • Business development challenges: too slow revenue growth, not enough organic new client development, not enough top-of-mind for the expertise, smaller projects don’t drive enough total revenue.

The starting point: a full business review

In the past 3 years, I was able to gradually develop a deep dive into the business profile of consulting firms. It consists of a 25-page consulting business review covering 3 pillars: 

  1. Positioning. The focus of this questionnaire is on the understanding and clarity of the 3 main positioning components:
    1) clarity of the target audience
    2) clarity of the prototypical problem(s) of this target audience
    3) clarity of the expertise and the value proposition that tackles the prototypical problem(s) of the target audience

  2. Revenue & business development. Revenue and biz dev-related questions are helping me to understand the context of the consulting business and the business development impact of the consultancy’s reputation in the market.

    My biggest focus during the business review is to get a deep understanding of the revenue growth strategy: how revenue is generated, how the demand is created & captured, and what the revenue structure is: total revenue, revenue per expertise domain, client concentration, revenue/FTE, revenue/project. I’ve learned that these 5 parameters tell me almost everything about how the consulting business is managed.

  3. Thought leadership: last but not least, I am checking out the thought leadership quality of the consultancy as a critical differentiation component of the positioning and authority in the market. The thought leadership should be closely linked to the value proposition and the problem-resolution expertise and a core component of the demand generation power.
Finally, I am also doing a deep dive into the following 4 components:

  1. Social proof: this is proof from existing clients that the expertise and approach have a measurable impact (referenceable clients and cases);

  2. Google signal relevancy: the quality of the signal relevancy for Google must be in sync with the consultancy’s positioning - what Google finds about the consultancy is the lens of the prospect;

  3. Owner story: the strength of the owners’ or partners’ story/stories reflects the ‘Why’ of the consultancy (how did it all start, where’s the expertise coming from, how the expertise gets further developed, etc.). The ‘About’ is extremely important to connect with clients and prospects at the level of the expertise (instead of at the level of the consulting brand). After all, consulting is a P2P business.

  4. Ambitions/goals: it’s essential to understand the ambitions for the next 3 years and the key constraints preventing the consultancy from getting there.

You can find more information about the business review process here.

Of course, I cannot go into the outcomes of the business review due to the confidentiality of the project. However, I’ve been writing about the typical challenges of consulting firms suffering from the substandard quality of their positioning and/or service offering. The article summarizes the most common challenges of poorly positioned consulting firms. 

Next comes the optimization process

It all started with the consulting business review, but we dived into the improvement project soon after this review. This part typically consists of 6 sprints (at least that’s how I go about it). You can read more about it in the following sections. 

The overarching objective of those sprints is to improve and finetune the market positioning of the consultancy. In case you are not familiar with the term ‘positioning’, here’s a short definition I am always referring to: 

Consultancy Positioning is the pivotal act of clarifying what problem(s) your consultancy is solving for which specific audience and how your approach achieves that.

In today's complex and rapidly changing consulting industry, creating high-quality market positioning may be the single most significant decision to make as an owner/partner. This decision holds the most significant leverage for long-term success.

Clumsy consultancy positioning, in my experience, weakens the result of everything a consultancy does in marketing, business development, value proposition design, service development, thought leadership, team management, recruitment, etc. 

Consider consultancy positioning as ‘The Strategy’. As Michael Porter would say:

Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different”.

That’s basically what positioning means. 

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Here are the 6 sprints, of which we have already finalized 3 in the current project (and case study).

After the business review, we decided to go for 3 overarching expertise domains for which we started the sprints in this case study. Important to understand is that each expertise domain has to be considered separately before starting the review. You got it. The reason is that target audiences, value propositions, and thought leadership can be different depending on the expertise domain. So, we did 3 sprints already for 3 overarching expertise domains.

I am not going into the outcomes of the sprints in this project, but here’s an overview of the 6 sprints.

Sprint 1: Definition of the audience, minimal viable product, validation

Why do I use the terms “Ideal Audience’ and ‘Minimal Viable Offering’? We start from scratch each time when we review an expertise domain and do an ideation exercise to select and test/validate future value propositions for specific audiences. I always use the IA/MVO approach, which you can read below. This is just a high-level summary of the steps that were taken. 

1. Defining the IA1: the Ideal Audience #1 (there are multiple audiences for multiple tech expertise domains in this consultancy) - the assumed, the narrowest possible ideal audience for the specific expertise of the consulting firm;

2. The pain statements ideation of the IA1, getting an understanding of the pain points of the ideal audience that will be solved;

3. Expertise definition. Understanding the consultancy’s problem-solving expertise in the context of the specific pain points of the IA (to move them ‘from old to new’);

4. Defining the MVO1, the Minimal Viable Offering (=service offering) #1: “Here’s how we solve X and achieve Y outcome”;

5. Validating the MVO1 with the IA1, existing clients and new prospects were interviewed using the JTBD method to validate their pain points, challenges, jobs (objectives of the audience), and review the MVO. The validation process with clients and prospects takes several weeks and slows down the sprint. But it’s one of the most essential process steps of value proposition design. Here’s a great article from the famous Strategyzer guys about VP testing.

6. Final UVP. Finally, after a few adjustments based on the validation interviews, the MVO becomes the final unique value proposition (UVP) developed in the next sprint.

Sprint 2: Value proposition development, positioning statement, point of view

7. Define UVP. After 90% validation satisfaction, we defined the Unique Value Proposition, addressing the pain points of the target client. It looks like an easy exercise, but it’s not, in my experience. Teams always struggle to synthesize everything into this definition. 

Without going into all the details again, we strive to get to this short definition (the positioning statement) of the UVP, using these 4 components:

  • We are known by [target audience]
  • for our ability to solve [specific pain point(s)]
  • and deliver [specific outcome(s)]
  • thanks to our [specific approach]

8. Bold Point of View. This point of view will be used as ‘the context formula’ for all the future pitches, content development, etc. Consider it as a guiding concept for the UVP. Finally, I always spend quite a bit of time creating a bold Point of View with the following components (to set the context of the UVP). Here’s the formula I always use:

  • (Validity) Research says… (explain what research says about the prototypical client problem)
  • (Why) That’s why you need to … (to get to ‘the promised land’)
  • (What/if) Without moving to (the promised land), you will (risk, cost of inactivity)

So, that’s the end of the very intense 2nd sprint. After all, it often turns out to be a 5k run. 

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Sprint 3: Getting challenged & how to respond

This 3rd sprint is easy to explain but - as usual - not always easy to accomplish. I am always surprised that consultancies do not always know the answers to these questions top of mind. They should! 

9. Why hire us: explain the value proposition starting from other clients' outcomes

I wrote an article about this ugly client question: ‘Why should we hire you?’ But in essence, what we are preparing in this sprint is to give the correct answers to the prospect. Here’s what I trained the team to answer: “Here’s what our existing/former clients typically say about what they were able to achieve with our support”. Of course, that requires solid referenceable case studies, available top of mind and explained in 60 seconds. 

Steps 10 and 11 are easy to understand: we developed at least 10 prototypical questions and objections from clients and prospects. The consultancy team will systematically document and review them in the future. 

10. Key client questions and our answers: 10x

11. Key client objections and our answers: 10x

Sprint 4: Getting visible (still in process – I will update this article when Sprint 4 is finished)

12. Articles: we will develop 5 new key articles explaining the prototypical problems and the problem resolutions approaches of the prototypical client problem(s), linked to the value proposition with the lens of:

  • Shifting your audience’s thinking. Help them bring hidden problems and patterns to the surface and inspire your audience to shift the way they think about their fundamental or underlying challenges. Your audience doesn’t want to hear what they already know about their problems;

  • Creating a bold and contagious vision. A vision about the transformational potential of switching from ‘old to new’, switching to a different approach. Translate your expertise into the confidence that you can give to your audience about the positive potential of a transformation, picture them ‘the promised land’;

  • Explaining risks & opportunities. Make them aware of the risks and the costs of inaction or status quo. With your expertise, you are on the first row to explain risks and opportunities;

  • Clarifying the process. Explain the process of how they can get from ‘old to new’ and how they can do a successful transformation home run.

13. Build a content matrix for the first 2 months: content lens vs. leading topics. I’ve written a Linkedin post about such a content matrix.

14. Our 10 core sound bytes, linked to the key ideas of our vision and value proposition. Here’s an example of one of my sound bytes: “Business development in consulting is rooted in educating your target audience”.

15. Website: we will build new web frames for the consultancy’s website with:

  • Positioning statement
  • Client pains overview
  • Point of view
  • Value proposition
  • About the consultancy
  • Client testimonials & case studies
  • Articles

Sprint 5: Developing referenceable case studies (still in process – I will update this article when sprint 5 is finished)

16. Cases: we will develop referenceable case studies (linked to the new value proposition)

Sprint 6: Developing a discovery audit  (still in process – I will update this article when sprint 6 is finished)

17. Audit: we will develop a discovery audit as Trojan Horse (linked to the value proposition). I’ve written an article about developing such a discovery audit for your consultancy.

And we haven’t even talked about ‘the real business development’

What we’ve done up till now with the positioning and the value proposition design is creating the foundation for the future success of this consultancy. 

I didn’t even talk about business development as such. But without these foundations, consultancies will always struggle with something (see the overview of struggles in my article). That’s why it is so essential for every consulting firm to build (or improve) the right starting point to become successful. 

Remember: the positioning of your consultancy is the strategy of your consultancy! 

That’s it for now. The next phase of the project will be the Sprints 4, 5, and 6, most likely after the summer.

If you have questions or need information about the business review or the sprints for your consultancy, feel free to send me an email at luk.smeyers@thevisibleauthority.com

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Luk Smeyers

Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers and I’m guiding consultants through the journey of growing their business by helping them transform into visible authorities.  I have been in consulting businesses for almost 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a startup founder in an analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of the startup. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consultant and I never had to sell, persuade, or negotiate as a result. I have now bundled all those experiences, expertise, know-how, research, reading, successes, struggles, and failures from managing and growing that visibility in the past years. 

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