If you’re like many business professionals, your source of financial stability – a steady flow of repeat work – is also your greatest source of risk. This post will give you some ways to add some predictability in your life, so that you can rest easy (or at least “easier”) about keeping that client base intact.

We’re talking about “commodity” work – projects that have four things in common:
  • They’re repeat projects, which means that they’re important to keeping you billably busy, and keeping your refrigerator stocked
  • But … other service providers can do the same work, so your client sees no reason to choose you as opposed to another service provider
  • Many projects including income tax returns, financial audits, environmental impact assessments and emissions audits, are being done to meet a regulatory requirement – the steps are specified, so it’s hard to stand out or reduce your fees
  • Your client isn’t thrilled about buying them, because it’s money they have no choice but to spend – so once again, you’re vulnerable to price-cutting.

Many business professionals lose a client engagement when their primary contact within a client retires, takes another job, or something else changes. The new manager or owner may want to bring in their own people. Or it could be that your current client gets dazzled by the promises made by one of your competitors

This means you must show that you can offer better value than your competitors provide – to “de-commoditize” your commodity service, so to speak. This way, you’ll be able to keep your existing client work, and the confidence you gain through that can help you win more clients – and have the chance to pursue work you may find more interesting and rewarding.

Here’s how you do that.

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Find ways to add value

This subject came up while I was working with a client who is a financial auditor. Of all the possible professional services, a financial audit is among the most vanilla – in two senses of the term. One reason is that the client would rather be spending time and effort on just about anything else, and the other reason is that it’s hard to distinguish between services; an audit is an audit is an audit.

About the only way to distinguish one audit from another is who does the work, and that is the main reason why the large international firms are able to charge more; a Big Four audit is seen as reassuring and credible.

In our conversation, I gently probed the auditor for ways that they can offer insights, through the audit, that their client might value. From this, a methodology emerged.

Take note of what skills your professional training provides, which might be useful to your client. For example, any accountant is probably well-versed in key ratios and performing risk analysis. While you don’t want to give away what you normally sell, you do have an opportunity to be seen as helpful and full of useful ideas, if you create content that provides useful comparisons on what are acceptable results, and where there might be problems.

Record some of the insights you have gained from working with other clients in the same industry – unique risks (such as a bakery that is vulnerable to shifts in key commodity prices – flour and sugar, for example, as well as FX exposure) or opportunities (maybe, how other companies are using online sales as a way to provide revenue that doesn’t need a lot of staff time).

Consider what problems and concerns your clients have expressed, during your work with them – maybe a problem with finding and retaining skilled staff, the risk of disruptive competitive business models (think Uber, Airbnb). Also consider opportunities – such as maybe some of your clients are seeing success in applying these disruptive models to their business, or using new cloud-based solutions to shift costs out of capital and into operating.

Think of the trends you’ve seen. For example, you may have seen more retail stores using their bricks-and-mortar stores as a support system for their online sales – customers can pick up and return at the store the merchandise they bought online, maybe picking up on or two incidental items on their way to the service counter.

What areas of value and advantage might they be missing? Your understanding of their business, and your experience with similar companies, may point to opportunities where your clients can add more value. It could be, for example, that they’ve been providing customer service and support on an informal basis, but you’ve seen some technology solutions that would allow them to provide service on a more formal basis, with a training component, and charge for it.

Look for ways to include insights with your service

Many financial auditors will include, as part of their package, an analysis of the company’s vulnerabilities and strengths. You can do this too – develop as a standard part of your service offering an analysis of their situation. Three key elements can make this more “sticky” so that your clients will see a reason to continue working with you:

1. Provide analysis that includes data over time

Once a year, once a quarter or however often you can provide this, create an analysis of previous and current data. Point out the trends you see over time, and indicate if they’re a problem that needs to be solved, or an opportunity to be grasped.

2. Provide analysis based on aggregated data

Everyone likes to know how well they’re doing, compared to their counterparts in other companies. You are in position to provide this benchmarking service – and again, provide some analysis and recommendations.

3. Become a subject-matter expert

I’d recommend this only if you want to develop a focus on working with one particular kind of client, maybe within a specific industry. But if you help clients develop landscaping that has a low water footprint or maybe needs little maintenance, for example, you can take steps to become a subject-matter expert in other aspects of building management. That way, you can help your clients become more a source of solutions for the companies they serve. You can build your understanding of their world through reading their trade media in print and online; maybe attending industry events (also a good place to find new clients… just sayin’).

Use your insights to pull in new clients

The third step in this “de-commodification” process, helping you show the benefits you provide as regards your me-too services, is to create and publish useful content based on what you’ve learned. It will help you demonstrate the difference you offer, for existing clients – it shows them that you’re someone who adds value. It will also bring you to the attention of prospective clients, and they’ll also see you as someone who can help their business succeed.

This content can take a wide range of forms, most of which I’ve discussed previously in Your Expertise Edge. Three of these are:

Three ways to design content that shows a difference

Three themes for this content are particularly useful for helping a commodity service stand out as offering extra value: newsjacking, trendspotting and case studies.

1. Newsjacking – news that matters to your clients

The term “newsjacking” is from the world of content marketing, and involves creating content around the news. This makes it more likely that your client will see your information as useful for solving a problem they’re facing right now.

For example, a client in Pittsburgh recently produced a blog post that talked in depth about draft legislation in the state of Ohio, about management of wastewater from oil and gas operations. Anyone involved in shale operations, which involve a LOT of wastewater, would want to know about this – particularly if they’re involved in the Ohio parts of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

I call this “narrowcast newsjacking” in that it focuses on content that your clients are not likely to find much on elsewhere. In post #49, I talked about the importance of creating content that focuses on Red Alert problems your clients are facing.

Good newsjacking content describes the news, says why it matters, provides your informed opinion on the future, and makes recommendations on how to avoid harm or gain a benefit.

2. Trendspotting – showing you can safeguard your clients’ interests

A trend is a slow-moving development, and in post #70 I went into “trendspotting” content in depth. For example, you may find that your clients are reversing the “offshoring” trend, bringing back work to their own country – they find that the quality just isn’t where it needs to be, and automation now helps keep labor costs down. Your trendspotting content might give them your recommendations on how to design their products so they are more easily built by robots.

Trendspotting content is designed much as newsjacking content is designed. You describe the trend, and you may need to add some evidence that the trend is real (I find that statistical comparisons, maybe in chart form, can help convince them the trend is happening), make some projections about the future, and then make your recommendations.

3. Case studies – real-world insights for your client

The third kind of content that helps you get leverage for your commodity practice is the case study. Many business professionals get case studies wrong. They use them to show how clever they are, or maybe to edify their colleagues – sharing professional knowledge. Neither of these purposes succeeds at the aim of persuading clients to work with you. A case study needs three elements to succeed in its business purpose:
  • A case study needs to be a story – with a beginning, middle and end. It helps if there is some drama or suspense involved – “we tried this and it didn’t work, tried this too – and then we found a way that worked.”
  • It needs to show your character and tenacity – your willingness to keep trying, even in the face of adversity. Clients want people who will
  • It must have lessons-learned that can be applied by the client. If your case study lacks that element, it’s not going to be useful, and so it’s not likely to get read. It certainly won’t do much to retain existing clients.
A case study starts with the situation at the beginning, and what problems ensued so the change was needed. It looks at the steps involved in the resolution, challenges that were met along the way, and the end result. An important element is the lessons-learned – and as I said earlier, those lessons need to be something that can be applied by the client.

So those are my ideas on how you can use content strategy to help protect your repeated, “commodity” revenue stream. Of course, you still need to do good work, and provide excellent client service – returning their calls promptly, and doing what you say you’ll do. But generating useful content is part of that effort.