Now more than ever, firms are struggling to determine what makes them different in the eyes of their clients. For clients, when multiple firms appear to be equally technically competent, it can be difficult to distinguish one firm from another. Many firms spend countless hours trying to determine their differentiators, value, and benefits — with very mixed results.

In this issue of The Friedman File, business partner Sally Giedrys of Artisan Communications shares a wonderful, effective process for tackling this difficult task. Sally is a deft researcher, ghostwriter, and PR/communications consultant who has collaborated with me on numerous projects for architects, engineers and environmental consultants. — Rich Friedman.

During my many years of working in the marketing realm, there have been three mainstays that infuse everything I do — from coaching to copywriting to assessing and reviewing communications efforts to setting strategy and developing brand voices.

One is the power of a good question. The second is the importance of drilling down to the essence. The third is something I call the real why.

How this trifecta works.

Take, for example, how you talk about what your firm does — on your web site, throughout your business development process, in your sales pieces and proposals. It doesn’t matter how clever the wordsmithing is. If your message didn’t start with a solid understanding of what you most need to communicate, why you need to communicate that (and not something else), who exactly you need to communicate it to and how they might best hear it, your final result won’t be as effective as it needs to be.

Now, think of it in terms of communications strategy. Who are you trying to influence, and what is it, really, that you are offering to them? An idea? A solution? A new type of experience? (It’s always more than a plan or a building or meeting a deadline.). What is it that your firm can confidently deliver that others may not? Where do your firm’s – and your leadership’s — natural strengths lie? How can you succinctly get that message across?

It sounds almost deceptively obvious. And yet, this foundation is the number-one thing I see missing from many marketing communications efforts within the design and construction industry.

Ask yourself a few good questions.

A few years ago, I developed a tool — a very targeted list of questions — that pulls all three of these keys together, with the goal of drilling down to what really matters.

I initially created it to help my clients get clear on the unique sales story (otherwise known as the unique sales proposition or USP) of their firms and their individual service areas. This isn’t a “nice to have.” It’s what we must do before setting strategy, before launching a new service, before trying to interview with clients and most definitely before designing a web site, creating a positioning program or writing a single speck of marketing copy. And it’s proved itself to be insanely useful time and time again.

I invite you to run your firm and service areas through a similar filter. Use it when you’re launching something new, re-branding a service that needs a new lease on life, updating your messaging, going after a new market, revamping your web site.

These questions can also be useful as part of your year-end check-in, as a crowbar for when you’re feeling stuck on your message or as a place to begin when you need to re-think what you’re doing.

They may seem simple. But each of them is capable of unleashing many interesting conversations about your services and how you’re selling them. They can uncover new ways of positioning what you do, for whom and why. And they’re invaluable for pulling you out of the inevitable internal, organizational mindset and planting you more firmly in your clients’ shoes.

Answering them with thoughtfulness will get you where you want — and need — to go. Here are some to get you started:

  1. What is the real service you are selling in 3 to 5 bullet points?
  2. What are the 5 major strengths of your service? Of your firm?
  3. What do you not offer that your competition does? What do you offer that they don’t?
  4. What is your clients’ mission? How are you helping to meet it?
  5. What are the 5 most important features of your service?
  6. How can you translate each of those into 1 tangible benefit for your clients? (What’s in it for them?)
  7. How do they feel when they’ve received those benefits? What do they really gain?
  8. Does your service head off potential problems or headaches for your clients?
  9. How do clients feel when they avoid that issue? What do they gain?
  10. Which words do your clients use when describing the problems that your service solves?
  11. What are your prospects’ top 5 reasons for buying this service? What are they really looking for?
  12. When you ask clients about their experience with your firm, what words do they use? (You’re asking them, right?)
  13. Which values guide your business? How are they visible in the work you do with clients?
  14. Name 3 positive side effects of your services. Do clients understand the value of those effects?

Try it. Run through them and then, taking all you’ve learned, describe in 1 or 2 sentences what gives this service (or maybe your whole firm) its unique value in the marketplace. We’d love to hear your experience. Email us at or