Brand differentiators on Zoom?

Professional service firms have for decades gone to great lengths to build brand differentiators into their physical client experience to project what they stand for — cool/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 US & UK versions of The Office

What an experience that was

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

  • Category expectations — the hygiene factors that they know are expected of a premium firm in their sector (pet dogs in the game designer’s visible and 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).

However, with social distancing and wfh being the norm for the foreseeable future, the vast proportion of the brand experience delivered to clients will be a virtual, not a physical one. And most professional service firms have hardly begun to think about how their firm is presented virtually compared to the thought put into the physical client experience.

Down at heel 

Currently, the way most firms are projecting themselves virtually is the physical equivalent of the US & UK versions of The Office — a low-rent, bland and totally 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 doing lockdown quizzes with their friends. The software they use to create, distribute and collaborate on work product offers the Microsoft brand experience, not theirs. And the worst bit is that things that are not even off-the-shelf generic (e.g. individual firms’ online data rooms and user interfaces) are most likely clunky, ugly and unreliable.

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

People expect tech to work these days, and when it doesn’t, they get fed up

Now for something different

Now is the time to rethink and reinvent the virtual client experience to reflect your brand personality and service ethos.

Just 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?

There’s enough in the first level of category expectations to wrestle with because these expectations are rising all the time:

  • People expect tech to work these days, and when it doesn’t, they get fed up.
  • People also get annoyed when your tech makes their lives difficult (e.g. mailing large documents in weird formats).
  • Zoom meetings that are well facilitated (with someone there to troubleshoot and chair the session) and everyone knowing how to avoid mistakenly exposing their gym gear in their camera shot.
  • Thinking ahead about sharing content so that everyone comes to the call with the same background and time isn’t wasted getting others up to speed.
  • How to make introductions smoothly in business development situations.
  • How to forge virtual connections between your professionals and prospects (facilitated by marketing but not just marketing).
  • How to ensure that all your communications (from digital marketing through to work product and client communication interfaces) have a consistent branded look and feel.

But just as with the physical client experience, when your competitors are wrestling with the hygiene factors, how can you differentiate?

  • Making it easier than other people do (e.g. links that enter the conference code not just dial the number – that’s been possible for ages and I’ve personally only come across one firm that uses it consistently).
  • User interfaces for secure sharing systems that are easy, intuitive and seamless to use the first time (designed by designers, not just IT teams).
  • How to differentiate the look and feel of standard applications (an early example is WeTransfer – once a novel way to share, then became a utility, then they offered the ability to customise/brand your firm’s WeTransfer interface with clients).
  • How to adapt utility platforms to provide a seamless and branded/controlled experience (the same way they might in the client receptions in large offices).
  • The opportunity is to get your team there first for clients, which will come across as ‘excellence’ not staged if done well and at the very least will avoid awkwardness and inefficiency.

The process for creating a branded virtual client experience isn’t an alien one, but it does require conscious effort

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 mostly unconscious. How they greet the clients, how they navigate the conversation, bringing in their colleagues at key points, reading 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 how they will adapt.

Marketing teams have a significant role to play here, even if they start with little direct control. You wouldn’t leave the client reception experience totally up to the building maintenance and security team, and you shouldn’t leave the virtual client experience totally up to the IT team who have little or no direct client experience.

The process for creating a branded virtual client experience isn’t an alien one, but it does require conscious effort.

  • Start with an understanding of your differentiation (strengths vs the competition that you do well when you project, and clients perceive) and capture these in a structured way (i.e. purpose, proposition, personality).
  • Then think about all the client touchpoints paying much more attention to the virtual ones.
  • Identify where the gaps are and the opportunities to shine exist.
  • Create tools.
  • Some can be implemented directly (e.g. the design of the client interface to your documents spaces) others involve training and influencing of client-facing teams (the modern equivalent of presentation training courses only with more urgency).
  • Storytelling can be a great way to share best practices and help institutionalise them.
  • Identify and recruit a team of brand advocates/ambassadors from across the firm who can be given additional ’training’ and then influence their colleagues directly on the front line (“I’ve got an idea for this pitch call. Let’s think about what we want to get across and design a one-page agenda we can send in advance that sets them up to hear those key points when we present the proposal?”).

The race is on, and it will be interesting to see which firms manage to innovate and evolve a strong and differentiated virtual client experience ahead of their competitors. 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, the world's leading strategic consultancy specialising in brand-led transformation for knowledge-led businesses.