Does your firm have an industry program? Most firms would answer affirmatively, but do they really have an effective and sustainable approach?
I began my professional services marketing career at Arthur Andersen and led marketing for one of the firm’s industry teams. Arthur Andersen, the firm’s founder, believed industry specialization was the key to superior auditing and client service. Almost all of the firm’s competitors followed Andersen’s example. After Andersen, I held senior roles at several of the top human-capital consulting firms. None of them had industry programs because management believed that “people are people” and that employee benefits and rewards were universal. When it comes to industry specialization and marketing, there is no right or wrong answer.
But, if your firm decides to go to market by industry, know that you either commit the resources and focus or you get out. Clients are smart and see through veiled “industry expert” claims. An ineffective industry program can destroy your credibility and erode your brand.
To shed light on what it takes to build and sustain an effective industry program, I have asked industry expert and former Andersen colleague, Paul Gladen of Muzeview, to be a guest blogger on Prudent Pedal’s blog this month. I know you will find his insight powerful and actionable.
Are Your Industry Experts “Competent”?
by Paul Gladen
Has your firm defined what constitutes industry expertise for your professionals? Does the firm have an industry competence model?
If your firm is going to position itself as industry-focused and establish teams of niche professionals to serve its industry clients, then it’s vital to set parameters around what industry expertise means for your clients, your firm, and its experts.
There are three categories or levels of industry capability or competence that we’ve found to be essential to effective industry-focused client service and practice growth (see below).
This hierarchy builds on itself and loosely maps to a professional’s career development. Typically junior professionals can focus on Level 1 capabilities and as they become more experienced develop their Level 2 skills to deliver industry-relevant advice and services. Level 3 capabilities become essential as professionals become partners and are expected to take on lead client relationship and business development responsibilities.
Industry Knowledge and Awareness (Competency Level 1)
- Competency Statement: the ability to be conversationally competent and aware of industry fundamentals and industry issues. This is “table stakes” for the firm to credibly claim an industry focus.
- Observable Behavior: Ensuring that professionals do not need the client to teach them their business and equipping professionals to effectively listen for and identify industry-specific issues that a client is facing.
Client Knowledge and Application (Competency Level 2)
- Competency Statement: the ability to understand a client’s industry-specific business goals, opportunities, and challenges and connect those to the firm’s expertise (and vice versa).
- Observable Behaviors: For example, identifying and exploring the various business risks for a food & agribusiness client making an acquisition in Brazil, or alerting energy clients to the business risks and obligations of a development such as the recent Executive Order on Improving Critical Infrastructure Cyber-security.
Build Client Relationships (Competency Level 3)
- Competency Statement: the activity of talking to clients and prospects and sharing insights around key industry issues and proactively engaging them in dialog around those issues and the firm’s insights.
- Observable Behavior: Teaching or alerting the client to something they don’t know, but which is likely important to them and the achievement of their business goals.
The over-arching principle here is that you can’t offer the most appropriate client advice if you don’t understand the industry processes, terminology, and issues that shape the client’s business and provide the context for the issue or opportunity you are advising on.
Here are some areas of expertise that should form part of an industry competency framework:
- Industry composition and structure
- Industry skills
- Industry key performance indicators (KPIs)
- Industry-specific business processes
- Industry-specific technologies
- Industry-specific laws and regulations
Defining the specific knowledge and capability requirements at each competency level for an industry is a process that can draw upon multiple internal and external resources.
- What is the knowledge that your more experienced industry professionals have found important in their client work?
- What are the industry issues, processes, or terminology commonly involved in the work you do for clients in that industry?
- Talk to industry clients and contacts about the things they consider to be important to understand about the industry.
- Look at industry news and research and explore resources that industry associations provide, which may include competency models.
Are industry competence and expertise assessed and tied to recruitment, performance evaluation, and career development?
With your competency model in place, your firm can begin using it to round out both team and individual skill needs.
Looking at the members of your industry teams, you can assess whether or not there is an appropriate balance of competency. Every team member doesn’t have to have the same set of industry skills. For some, it may be important to address strategic industry issues, whereas others may be more focused on industry-specific technologies or regulations. However, as a team it’s important to have a healthy balance of industry knowledge and expertise, closing industry skill gaps by setting development goals for specific professionals or hiring outside talent to close those gaps.
Clearly, industry-specific skills development or recruitment goals need to be aligned and coordinated with the firm’s overall development and recruiting skills. An experienced hire might be able to bring both industry and technical skills to the firm.
On an individual level, on-going industry skill development can be tied to yearly performance evaluations and incentives. (This, of course, assumes that your firm has a system in place for reviewing its professionals on a regular basis.) Professionals should work with their supervisors to agree on specific development goals for their continuing industry education. This might, for example, involve setting aside time for them to attend conferences or exploring opportunities to be seconded to a client in order to gain hands-on industry knowledge and experience.
Does the firm have formal programs and resources to develop the industry competence and expertise of its professionals, including keeping them abreast of the latest trends and developments in the industry?
Since professional service firms have relatively well-defined career paths, you can help your experts pinpoint what it will take for them to move up the ranks, including what industry skills may be important to their development. Based on your competency models for each job, what do they need to bolster their skills and expertise? How can you help them? What training and support do they need from the firm to move up to the next level?
Learning and development needs can be addressed in myriad ways: Industry seminars and webinars, in-house brown bag lunches with multiple practice groups, conferences, internal networking sessions, courses, or even informal mentor relationships with senior professionals will all effectively strengthen your experts.
Bottom Line: You can’t really call your firm industry-focused if you haven’t defined what that means and don’t have the mechanisms in place to ensure your professionals can live up to the statement.
However, making industry expertise a reality can be achieved in a structured and organized way by defining and then applying industry competency models.
Learn more about Muzeview.