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There is no escaping change. Firms in the engineering field have experienced more change during the last five years than in the last 50. One of the more pronounced changes is the number of firms competing for the same business. This is the age of choice: From smaller virtual firms able to serve larger clients to huge national firms playing in smaller and smaller ponds, clients now have more options than ever when hiring an engineer.

From a marketing and business development perspective, most firms look and sound the same. Here’s a simple test: Do an Internet search of “engineering firms” in your state and print out the home pages of a few firms, including yours. If you cover up the logos, do they look and sound similar? Chances are they do. If they are different, could a potential client tell the difference? If so, does the difference matter to them?

Looking competent is cheap

It used to be that if your firm looked and sounded competent (and had a project portfolio as evidence of its competency) that was enough to stand out. In the age of choice, however, looking and sounding competent is merely the cost of admission, and it’s cheap — you can purchase high-quality website templates and subscribe to third-party content marketing services that will ghost write blog posts for you and distribute your content far and wide. And when looking competent is cheap, everyone can and, for the most part, does.

Most organizations’ stories are based on two distinct components: what they know and what they’ve done. The average engineering firm’s website or brochure is just a listing of service areas and a library of projects they have been involved with. Both of these elements are important, since a client is certainly going to need to know a firm’s technical capabilities and see evidence that demonstrates it. However, this tends to be the only story that firms tell, leaving only a few options for how to make it relevant — constantly redesigning the website or collateral, continually increasing the diversity of services, or endlessly cataloging every possible project in elaborate detail.

None of those efforts will differentiate a firm successfully. In fact, since it’s just more of the same material that all the other firms are putting out there, it creates more noise and dilutes your message further. If this seems like an endless battle with no winner, you are right. And that doesn’t mean that anything is wrong, just that something is missing.

Differentiation lives in your ‘why’

Most firms don’t include the part of their firm’s story that is critical to differentiation: what the firm stands for and why you do what you do. This is where true differentiation lies. In his TED talk, Simon Sinek does a wonderful job of simply and elegantly explaining the power of declaring your “why” as the “Golden Circle.”

If engineering firms transform communities and make life more enjoyable, healthier, more livable, more productive, and more sustainable for all of us, then why does this story remain hidden? One of two reasons:

  1. The firm doesn’t know what it stands for, or
  2. The firm has a sense of it, but hasn’t found the language to be able to put it forward in any coherent form.

The journey of discovering your “why” starts with an inquiry designed to generate a conversation that might be new territory for the firm. This conversation needs to reach beyond the firm and out to those who you are in a relationship with or whom you impact. Questions that provoke this kind of conversation include:

  • What is it about the world that your firm wants to change?
  • If you could realize this change, what difference would it make?
  • What is the firm willing to commit to in creating the world it seeks?
  • What are the values and beliefs the firm demonstrates and holds true?

At first glance, these questions may seem big and idealistic. But look closer. Don’t they really go to the heart of why your firm exists? Engineering — more so than other vocations — is about changing the world. It’s about transforming what currently exists.

Discuss these questions with partners, employees, current and former clients, strategic partners, and others who are intimately familiar with your firm. You’ll find that you can learn a lot about your firm by seeing how others view you. Observe any patterns or themes that emerge from these conversations, as these are the clues that can begin to point you toward the answer.

From conversation to differentiation

What does it take to convert this inquiry into language that best tells your unique story? First and foremost it assumes that your firm has an established reputation of being able to deliver on its promises reliably and predictably. If not, you have operational issues to deal with first.

Second, it takes commitment from the leadership team that declaring what you stand for and will live up to is essential to the success of the firm.

Third, it is imperative that the firm does not attempt to facilitate the discussions and do the work to generate this story alone. Like trying to read the wine label from inside the bottle, it is impossible. Ideally, a firm should hire a trusted partner (such as a brand strategy or brand transformation firm) with expertise helping organizations articulate their vision and establish brands that have meaning for the marketplace.

Firms that don’t find their “why” are already on the path to commoditization, or worse, irrelevancy. You can get a sense of where you stand on the basis of how your customers relate to you. Are you seen as a vendor performing a lowest-bid transaction, or a partner that helps your client make the biggest difference?

Firms willing to invest the necessary time and resources to examine what they stand for, and to declare and demonstrate that to the marketplace, can give themselves an extraordinary competitive edge. The results of the investment include:

  • more success attracting ideal business relationships;
  • clients that value what you stand for and pay a premium for it;
  • a story that will reach much further, with more impact, than ever before;
  • a firm positioned for the future, not limited by the past; and
  • a team willing to work hard, fight for, and defend what it stands for.

Brent Robertson is a partner with the brand transformation firm Fathom (www.fathom.net). He can be reached at brentr@fathom.net.