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March 21, 2023

The Case for Being a ‘Specialist’

Take a look around our industry… most research firms are generalists. They provide a variety of services to a variety of different kinds of clients. In fact, it’s kind of difficult to find one that is legitimately a specialist in any one area.

Occasionally, you’ll come across a firm that specializes in a particular industry vertical (or two… or three). It’s the firms that claim to ‘specialize in 14 different industries’ that are just fooling themselves. More than three or four… and you’re a generalist!

You might find a firm that specializes in a particular market segment, like ‘seniors’ or the ‘Hispanic community.’ There are a few that are specialists in a particular research methodology – online qualitative or in-store intercepts, for example. And you might even bump into one that specializes in a particular research application, like patient satisfaction or concept testing.

But the majority of firms are not specialists… and most do pretty well.

I happen to be a fan of specializing… in having a very clear focus for your business – for a number of reasons:

First of all, having a specialty brings a lot of clarity to other business decisions you have to make. Let’s say, for example, that you focus on research for the financial services industry. With that in mind, it’s a lot easier to know what companies to target with your sales effort, what associations to join, what conferences to attend, what magazines to read, what LinkedIn groups to join, what topics to write about in your blog, and so on.

Secondly, being a specialist becomes a true point-of-differentiation for your firm. In an industry full of generalists – and by definition, “sameness” – it’s hard to stand out. Having a specialty does that for you.

And because of that specialty, buyers seek you out. Think about it… if you’re research buyer for a mutual fund company, for example, would you rather work with a research firm that serves 15 different industries or one that specializes in financial services?

To be fair, there is one downside to specializing… sometimes, you have to say “no” to a project that just doesn’t fit with your specialty, even though you could do the work. And you have to be OK with that! Because the minute you start excepting work outside of your specialty, you start diluting it… and quickly heading toward becoming a generalist.

By the way, I genuinely believe – though I have no data to back this up – that the projects you turn down are more than offset by what you attract as a specialist.

I’ll admit that I’m a little biased… Harpeth Marketing is a specialist. We provide marketing and sales solutions exclusively to the market research industry. And we were purposeful about that from day one.

The fact is, we could do what we do for a lot of other industries, but we chose to specialize. And, like the key points above, it’s paid off.

  • I know what conferences to go to, what LinkedIn groups to join and what to write about in my blog.
  • It really is a true point-of-differentiation for us. In fact, there are literally just 4 or 5 firms in the entire world that do what we do.
  • And because of our specialty, we are sought out… not just by potential clients, but also by industry publications to write articles and by event organizers to speak at conferences.

Final Comment

Your firm may be successful, established and very much a generalist, and if so, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

But if you are intrigued about specializing – even a little – try this… go back through your project invoices for the past couple of years and divide them into the industries you serve (or market segments, methodologies or applications – depending on how you want to specialize). In essence, this exercise is the marketplace telling you what it wants.

And if there’s an industry whose revenue contribution is less than 10%, it might be one to not invest a lot of time in. To not proactively pursue. Instead, take the man hours and resources you’d spend on it and reallocate them to those other industries with a better opportunity for specialization.

Generalist or specialist? This is not an easy question to answer. It’s a very difficult, strategic path to go down. But I offer it up as something to think about on a quiet morning over a cup of coffee. Good luck!

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