Brand differentiation on Zoom?

How should a premium professional services firm transfer the richness of its face-to-face client experience to a mainly virtual world?

When asked about the Great Return in public, leaders of large professional service firms tend to extoll the unimpeachable virtues of regular face-to-face meetings with clients in the service of building successful relationships – and why not? That was their experience.

But hearing this, I’m reminded of conversations I’ve occasionally had with my adult children about the virtues of phone calls over WhatsApp or texting. “Why don’t you give them a call? Surely it would be quicker and better?” They sigh wearily and carry on tapping.

Professional service firms have gone to great lengths to build brand differentiators into their physical client experience to project what they stand for.

Of course, the future of client interactions won’t be 100% virtual, but it’s equally unlikely that clients will ever want to go back to the way it was before, even when that’s allowed. For many clients, in many situations, virtual isn’t a poor substitute experience; it’s a better experience for them for many or even most things.

Especially now that virtual meetings are mostly high-resolution video and crisp audio on reliable and ubiquitous platforms that are simple to operate. Not clunky VCs or difficult to manage dial-in conference calls with at least one participant either in an elevator or going through airport security.

So, to what extent will digital/virtual client meetings replace physical/face-to-face ones in the future – once Covid restrictions are no longer a factor? And what does this mean for premium professional service firms who pride themselves on projecting and curating a differentiated and branded client experience?

For decades, professional service firms have gone to great lengths to build brand differentiators into their physical client experience to project what they stand for.  Expensive offices in great locations, plush meeting rooms with everything from cappuccino on tap to Fritz Hansen furniture, art collections that ooze sophistication and taste, professionally printed documents produced in-house, reception videos and publications to showcase their expertise.

Currently, the way most firms are projecting themselves virtually is the physical equivalent of the TV show, The Office.

What an experience that was

The most influential knowledge-led businesses — from West Coast game designers to City law firms — think about their branded client experience on two levels:

  • Category expectations — the hygiene factors they know are expected of a premium firm in their sector (pet dogs in the game designer’s open plan studio, fewer dogs but more of a concierge welcome experience in the City law firm).
  • Differentiating features — the finishing touches that project individual personality and branding (an LA ad agency with a full-size basketball court or a London law firm with its own indoor swimming pool).

Compared to the thought put into the physical client experience, most professional service firms have hardly begun to think about their digital client experience.

Down at heel 

Currently, the way most firms are projecting themselves virtually is the physical equivalent of the TV show, The Office — a low-rent, bland and generic office on the outskirts of Scranton, Pennsylvania / Slough, Greater London (no offence to these places, that’s just where these shows are set).

The Zoom experience that the New York management consultancy gives its clients today is just about identical to the experience that millions of teenagers get playing Minecraft with their friends. The software they use to create, distribute and collaborate on work product offers the Microsoft/WebEx brand experience, not theirs. And the elements that are not off-the-shelf (e.g. individual firms’ online data rooms and user interfaces) are most likely clunky, non-intuitive and often unreliable.

Not at all the same sophisticated and bespoke vibe they were aiming for with the Fritz Hansen furniture.

Now for something different

Now is the time to rethink and reinvent the virtual client experience to reflect your brand personality and service ethos. As with the physical client experience, there are two levels to think about:

  • Category expectations — How to be digitally seamless? What are the best practices for our sector? How to institutionalise them to deliver consistency?
  • Differentiating features — How to project beyond ‘standard practice’? Where can we stand out? How do we project our brand personality virtually?

The race is on, and it will be interesting to see which firms manage to innovate a differentiated virtual client experience.

That special touch 

Rainmakers know how to sell their firm’s services face-to-face. It’s subtle but powerful when done well and may often be almost unconscious. How they greet the clients, how they navigate the conversation, bring in their colleagues at critical points, read the room, knowing how to project authority without veering into arrogance.

Most leaders will acknowledge that this subtle mix of skills is what separates exceptional from average when it comes to convincing clients and converting opportunities. But most will also say that 99% of these skills are face-to-face/analogue skills that can’t simply be cut and pasted to a digital virtual situation. And right now, many of them might be worried about how they will adapt.

The race is on, and it will be interesting to see which firms manage to innovate a differentiated virtual client experience. It will also be interesting to look back and see what emerges as the virtual equivalents of the basketball court and swimming pool.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, bringing deep expertise and experience in strategic branding to the unique challenges of the global professional services market.