Bigness is Little Help for Firms With No Niche

NicheDear Niche Dr.,

I’m a senior partner in one of the largest public accounting firms in our region and you’d think because of our size that we’d have all the answers. The fact is, we are running scared. Our client base is shrinking and with it, of course, goes important revenue. We are bewildered and trying just about anything that will work to get more business. Recently, we had all our people get involved in a social media campaign, which turned out to be a fiasco. Two of our best accountants were frustrated and angry and quit because of it. Last year, we hired one of the top public relations firms to give our image a boost but here still are watching revenue go down, our associates leave, and our competition increase. Can you help?

I can tell you that your story is all too familiar. Being big these days is no indicator of guaranteed success. In fact, sometimes it can be a burden instead of an asset. In many instances, the larger you are, the less your potential clients know what you stand for. Some very big companies are perceived by clients as being close relatives of the federal bureaucracy – i.e., remote and with as much personality as a bloated fish. No wonder increasing numbers of strong clients seek out smaller firms to handle their work.

The issue is far more than quality. When big firms lose business, most often it is because prospective clients can’t tell what they stand for or what they are about. The only thing people know for sure is that they’re big. And as you’ve already found out, that alone doesn’t cut it. I advise my own clients in similar situations to do the following:

  1. Take stock of your human assets within the firm. Promote people, not just technology, to the public.
  2. Develop a grassroots communication system between your professionals and their clients. Each should do a personal blog or e-newsletter that might be included in your overall company newsletter.
  3. Commit to an overall corporate niche and stick to it. Individuals within the company should identify their own special focus in relation to promoting the organization’s overall niche. Above all, remember a good niche is far more than “image.” It includes conscious decisions about who your ultimate clients should be and who they aren’t going to be. If you don’t know, don’t expect the clients to figure it out.

Q: I’m graduating from college with a degree in liberal arts. My parents are really up in arms that I’m not getting a “practical” degree such as engineering. To make matters worse, I really don’t have a clue what I want to do, so it is very hard to go out to an employer and say “hire me” when I don’t have any direction at all. On top of this, I have a student loan that makes our national debt look modest. Any help you can offer will be greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, you have a lot of great company who are in the same boat with you – unfortunate in the sense that floundering with no direction is never fun. The good news, however, is that in some ways you have even more opportunity than those who have prepared themselves for a very narrow field of endeavor. To get started, here are some things you can do:

1.       Develop a list of possible internships for yourself. These can be experiences in both private and public sector situations. You need to get out and experience a range of situations. Finding out what doesn’t work, is often as valuable as identifying what will work for you. Since you are nearly out of college, don’t expect your school to set you up with an internship. You’ll have to do it yourself. This may mean volunteering in the community and/or helping out at non-profits.

2.       Be open to opportunities that weren’t in your original plan. The wonderful thing with a liberal arts degree is that you are less likely to be pigeon holed.

3.       Worry less about your parents’ expectations and focus more on learning who you are and gaining self-confidence in your own abilities.

4.       Talk, talk, talk to everyone and everybody. Let them know you are excited about graduating and making your way in the world. Don’t be grim and portray yourself as a victim of a bad economy or as someone who is desperate to get a job. Do whatever it takes to put a bounce in your voice and a smile on your face. In just a short time, you’ll know I was right saying, “Congratulations, graduate. You’re on your way to a great place.”

Q: We are a medium-size construction company thinking about starting what you’ve referred to as a “consulting profit center.” We’ve been giving away so much free advice that we think it’s time to get paid for our knowledge. The problem is that we don’t want to alienate our customers who might be offended when we tell them we have to charge them for what they used to get for free. Any ideas how to finesse this?

First off, you “finesse” it by being direct and very positive. You tell your clients in a blog, newsletter, or face-to-face that you are very glad to now be able to respond in a systematic way to all the questions you have been asked. You let them know that you are officially establishing a consulting center and that they are encouraged to bring their issues to you. The more direct you are, the more likely they are to use your services. By the way, congratulations! Sounds like a very smart move.

Dr. Lynda Falkenstein is the author of NICHECRAFT: Using Your Specialness to Focus Your Business, Corner Your Market, and Make Customers Seek You Out. To contact her with questions or comments, email or call 971.533.3815. Please note that the Vancouver Business Journal and Dr. Niche reserve the right to publish your letter or an edited version in all print and electronic media.


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