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November 24, 2015

Why are Firms Afraid to Specialize?

afraid1Part 3 of the ‘Retreat Series’

Prior to our first corporate retreat a few weeks ago, I conducted a survey of our current clients, as well as some of our past clients. One of the questions I asked was, “What, if anything, do you think makes Harpeth Marketing unique?”

Across the board, they all said the same thing, “… your focus on the market research industry.”

Now, we’re obviously not a market research provider, but as I look across the MR landscape, I see four primary areas where [a few] research firms tend to specialize:

  • By the vertical industry(s) they serve (e.g. specialists in the automotive industry)
  • By the specific methodology(s) they espouse (e.g. qualitative specialists)
  • By the application(s) of MR (e.g. focused on patient satisfaction research)
  • By the market segment(s) they serve (e.g. conduct research on children and teenagers)

So, with all of these opportunities, why are the vast majority of MR providers generalists? Why is their business model to provide a wide variety of services to a wide variety of client types?

I think there are four primary reasons…

  1. There is the fear that by specializing, they will miss out on some revenue opportunities.
  2. The firm just sort of evolved that way… and that’s the way it is.
  3. They don’t believe they have in-house expertise in any particular specialty.
  4. They already believe they specialists.

Missing out on revenue

Yes, if you decide to specialize – and truly commit to it – you might have to say ‘no’ to a project occasionally. But two other things are also true:

  • If you position your firm as specialists in a certain area… you will attract and only deal with sales prospects that fit that specialty. It’s self-selecting.
  • Because you’ll build a reputation as a specialist, the increased number of project opportunities from that specialty area will more than compensate for the few you have to say ‘no’ to.

It’s how you evolved

While your firm may have evolved as a generalist, there’s a good bet two other things are also true:

  • That you probably haven’t gone through a strategic planning exercise to see where it might lead you (i.e. down a ‘specialty path’).
  • That your revenue base isn’t as diverse as you might think. Try this exercise… look back at your firm’s revenue for the past 12-24 months and sort it across these parameters:
    • By industry served
    • By methodology used
    • By application
    • By market served

I’d be willing to be that your analysis will show that within at least one of those categories, a majority of your revenue comes from just one or two areas. Seriously… do the analysis.

Not an expert

So, you don’t have an expertise? First of all, if you do the exercise above and discover that you actually have been specializing in a certain area, then you likely have a lot more expertise in that area than you think.

But even if you don’t have that hidden expertise… you can learn. Subscribe to magazines, read the right blog posts, go to conferences, even hire the expertise.

You believe you’re already an expert

I don’t know what the formal definition of a ‘specialist’ is, but in my mind, after 3 or 4 ‘specialties,’ you start looking more and more like a generalist. I have been to scores of websites in our industry claiming that the firm specializes in certain areas – only to get into the details and find they’re claiming to be specialists in 12 or 15 different verticals, for example. Sorry… that doesn’t count!

Here’s the bottom line…

If you continue NOT to specialize… by definition, you’re trying to be “all things to all companies.” Which also means you’ve chosen to compete with the vast majority of all market research providers out there.

Look at it from the research buyer’s perspective. Here’s what she’s saying… “You’re just like everyone else… why should I choose you?”

But when you develop (and appropriately promote) an area of specialty… you can now claim a true Point of Differentiation – something to help you stand out from the others and provide a clear answer to that research buyer’s challenging question.

Good luck.


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