Professional services companies can only win on the basis of differentiation. What does differentiation mean? You have an impact on some specific aspect of your client’s business that no other firm can deliver. That is it. Sounds simple, but we all know that it is very hard to deliver.

How do you deliver real differentiation? There are two things you have to do.

  1. Say NO to work that does not draw on your differentiated skills and help to build differentiation.
  2. Assign people to teams based on their skills and aspirations and not just on availability.

Saying No to work is always hard. But if your firm is good at what it does and has positioned itself in a growing space there will be work. And if your firm has serious skill gaps or is operating in a shrinking market grabbing at every job that comes along will not solve the problem. As we note in our post on “You have to make forward choices about deploying skills” you want to invest in the skills required by segments that are growing fast and where you have a high market share, and you want to figure out if you can win in segments that are growing fast but you have only a small market share.

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One reason firms say Yes to work that is undifferentiated is that they are trying to optimize utilization. Anyone who has run a professional services firm understands the relentless pressure to keep utilization rates high. And consultants know that their careers are at risk if they are spending too much time on the bench. But this is one of those cases where chasing the goal directly leads you to miss. Optimizing utilization by prioritizing availability when selecting people for teams leads to a downward spiral. The result is an undifferentiated company subject to price pressures and the markets whims is a firm that has lost control of its destiny.

What is the alternative?

The key themes

Build teams that draw on your strengths and help you to build new capabilities. Choose the work that let’s you do this and say No to everything else. If you do this you will establish a differentiated position and will be able to command a price premium. With the price premium you can invest in your people and their skills. The spiral will be up.

TeamFit’s TeamBuilder module helps you do this. It searches through your company and your extended talent network to find the best people for each role, optimizing individual TeamMatch scores, so that the team as whole will have a high TeamFit score. Let’s watch this work.

Sally Ngobo is the managing partner of a mid-sized strategy consulting firm. A new opportunity to devise an innovation strategy for a new materials company has come up. Normally the team building would be done by the resource manager Jack Hall together with the innovation practice leader George Vancouver, but as this is a critical new client she is directly involved. So she goes to TeamBuilder, invites George and Jack to collaborate and begins to build the team.


She starts with a quick description and then begins adding generic skills that she wants to see on the project like innovation management and design thinking (the firm as a strategy to promote itself as a global leader in design thinking).

Jack steps in to design the team roles and skills.


George wants to choose the team himself. He can’t find a materials scientist in house so he expands the search to people who have worked with Insite on projects in the past.


Before the team is finalized Sally takes one more look. A TeamFit score of 61 (upper right hand corner) is not bad but Sally and George decide that they have enough budget and the client is important enough to add a senior consultant in. Charlie Zo looks like an excellent choice so they add him in and the TeamFit score goes up to 70.


Why is Charlie such a good choice? Let’s look at his record. We are interested in Design Thinking and New Materials for this work and he has worked on a project where he applied both.


The lesson? If you want to build differentiation and win higher rates you need to prioritize people and their skills over availability as you select people for teams.

Start with Your Skills and Your Company’s and Try TeamFit