Thought leadership IS brand in the outsourcing industry
Ever hear about the International Index of Thought Leadership? It asks “opinion formers” in the U.S. and the UK to rank companies based upon characteristics common to thought leadership or high-impact organisations: pioneering spirit, rigour, objectivity, authenticity and clarity. No surprise; ranking high on the list are companies such as Apple, Google and even Southwest Airlines. Each of these brands consistently connects with its target markets in new and different ways. When customers engage with them, they perceive they are obtaining a product or service that by association makes them all the smarter. Here’s my take on the importance of creating thought leadership in the outsourcing industry.
Last month I ranted about the lack of brand in the outsourcing industry, and with apologies, my rants are not over. Seems to me that such a simple thing as having a point of view, consistently expressed, which either gives the prospective client new information, or a different slant on a commonly held belief, or develops parallels between one process or industry to the experience of another would be a high-value, low-cost way of differentiating an outsourcing service. But few of our compadres take the time to invest in thought leadership, or when they do, the so-called PoV is a repackaging of the industry’s collective existing knowledge, expressed in fairly complicated English, with the thesis buried deeply in page four. And, since it appears suddenly and episodically, never again expressed again in any other collateral or even linked with the provider or advisor’s value proposition, the reader cannot help but think “hmmm, a little downtime and a few extra marketing dollars, et voila…an attempt at thought leadership!”
What a waste of precious hours at the computer! Thought leadership is not an episodic diatribe on the virtues of streamlining order-to-cash processes, or the challenges faced by emerging providers in the healthcare arena, all of which can naturally be solved by entering into an outsourcing contract. A thought leadership brand is embedded in strategy, in delivery, in products and services, in interactions. It’s the ability to express how an outsourcing will attack specific client challenges, developing solutions which go beyond staff arbitrage and streamlining workflow. It’s not an occasional whitepaper
Arguably, even without recognition in the International Index, in our industry, it’s hard to find a obvious winner. Spend a few hours on the web and you’ll quickly realise that even some of our biggest players don’t have a thought leadership brand. And remarkably, some of our smartest folk – those in the consultant and advisor ranks – haven’t done a stellar job of creating thought leadership brands either. Is it because we think we’ll miss out on an opportunity if we have a point of view or a method of solution that someone might not agree with? Or do we really believe the way to compete in a hyper-competitive market is to be all things to all people, a sort of intellectual tofu. Are we afraid to pioneer new ideas because we fear a maturing industry will reject them? Or is the problem more basic: we have nothing to say?
Why is thought leadership so important for every player in our industry? Firstly, it goes without saying that in an era of undifferentiated “trust me, too” marketing, consistent thought leadership shapes a seller’s brand and aids buyer recall. Implicitly, a provider of operations or advisory services that can commit to a point of view can perhaps demonstrate the leadership that most clients are desperate for…and deserve. Thinking through a problem or solution in a new and different way not only supports a value proposition, but gives the client insights into the quality of the resources which will solve his problem.
Second, although we have pockets of data on this industry of ours, we have very few actionable insights. Much of what we know in the industry is forensic: volumes, industries, deal size. Yet we know very little about the how and the how well, and that is where not only the rigour of thought leadership is so critical, but what customers will actually buy. And only providers and advisors have the scale and experience on which to devise new approaches. Being able to inform the industry by synthesising experience into lessons learned is their good citizenship.
Third – and this is a hard one for both provider and advisor to swallow – there is a tacit belief that what we do and how we do it is top secret, and if we go public, someone will steal our USP. But when we don’t add to the collective knowledge of the industry, we dumb it down, leading the buyer to think that outsourcing is merely an undifferentiated commodity, the business services version of “all cats are black in the night.”
If we were to have an Index of Outsourcing Thought Leadership, by which criteria should it be judged?
Good outsourcing thought leadership presents new ideas or evidence with a point of view, not repurposed commentary. There is a reason McKinsey is the only professional services firm making the TLG: they are deemed the only player with new ideas, and an opinion, giving them high-brand high-impact. By contrast, read through the purported thought leadership of any one of the leading finance and accounting providers or advisors to find much originality. The thesis of most is either a survey of the propensity to buy outsourcing, or a variation on: “Finance is strategic. Finance operations can be offshored. We can help you do it better, and even better if you allow us to deliver end-to-end. Outsourcing drives continuous value through deep domain and process expertise and scale.” Where’s the originality, a new slant on a persistent problem, a moving of the dial, a safe journey to a new frontier?
Imperative for action…with a solution
If thought leadership does not address what the industry perceives – or equally should perceive – as a problem, it may be a nice diversion, but it won’t resonate as a key component of brand. Outsourcing providers and advisors should position themselves as prescient or able to connect the dots in new and different ways. What better way to sell than to be one of the first to say “Houston, we have a problem,” then develop a suite of applicable solutions and services, and flog the ideation through a range of marketplace channels.
Focused and consistent
Thought leadership brands are created when the proponent sees an opportunity in the marketplace, and there is a burning platform to develop and package solutions to exploit that opportunity. Investment in ideas and concepts to meet identified needs is consistent, and constantly pervade all strategy and resultant messaging. This delivers recall. To foster recall – and as a result brand – from thought leadership, it is critical to push the PoV through every artifact and channel, through every interaction and message, through every sales pitch and panel discussion. Staying on message is a critical.
Most outsourcing organisations want to play it long, and be all things to all potential customers, so putting a stake in the ground is difficult when the industry’s propensity is to see which way the wind is blowing. But organisations with a clear leadership message flogged consistently become the go-to option when their target customers have a need.
There’s no ambiguity for the customer, but rather a clear line of site between the Index brands and the value they deliver. You know what you get with Apple: leading-edge technology in a well-designed wrapper. You know that Southwest Airlines push the envelope when it comes to boarding planes, hitting on-time departure windows more often than not. What do you really get when you engage one outsourcer as opposed to another? It would be helpful to be able to quickly identify the value proposition.
Tricks of the trade to create a thought leadership brand
The secret? Simply priority, discipline, innovation, organisational focus, the usual drivers of corporate success. Nothing magical. Here are just a few suggestions.
Stay on top of both industry and outsourcing delivery trends constantly on a corporate level. For most outsourcers, identifying trends is an individual event. We independently trawl websites and analysts’ reports to figure out what’s going on, then shape our actions and messages into what everyone else is saying. And outside of the strategic planning process, where the major purpose is to give some credence to the next year’s budget, there are very limited resources invested in figuring out industry challenges, and developing a leadership brand accordingly. Allocating resources to actually formulate innovative responses to market conditions would be a departure. Perhaps it’s time to reinstate the chief innovation officer, and give him some responsibility for brand development.
Take the thought leadership test during the strategic planning process. Thought leadership should come out of strategic planning and investment, and be realised by marketing, not vice versa. During annual strategic planning, it makes sense to ask the following questions: what problem does it solve? Can this solution dominate its market? how cutting edge is it; can we push the envelope? What do we need to do to differentiate? If we cannot lead or differentiate, should we push the solution? Are we prepared to invest? If these questions can be answered in the affirmative, and there is a commitment to focus, only then is it time to call up the marketing forces.
Measure thought leadership contribution. And if the organisation is committed, it’s then time to get everyone on board. Each and every principal in the business must then take on a personal mandate to ensure his or her actions support thought leadership in tangible forms, such as speeches and white papers, as well as behaviour. Adding this factor to performance measurement signals that the organisation is serious about becoming a thought leader.
When does an outsourcing brand become a thought leadership brand? In other words, how do you know that creativity, investment and discipline are paying off? Firstly, when the name of your organisation is virtually synonymous with the service being offered, you’ve got a thought leadership brand. When your organisation is considered the gold standard and your buyer’s peers automatically understand why your company was selected, you’ve got a thought leadership brand. When the customer’s first industry recall is your company’s name, you’ve got a thought leadership brand. When your brand represents cutting edge thinking – delivered – you’ve got a thought leadership brand. When the message is so clear that the market can describe you in a few simple words, you’ve got a thought leadership brand. And, most tellingly, when your sales cycle is short, sweet and is generally sole-source, your brand is synonymous with thought leadership.