The professional service industry—any third-party consultancy or support service that helps businesses operate better–is massive. In the United States the professional service industry is comprised of almost 20 million people, which is roughly 13 percent of the total American workforce. Those 13 percent are in grave danger; they might find themselves jobless in as little as 10 years time.

The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation mean that professional service businesses don’t only have to worry about human competitors; they have to worry about machines as well. The professional services sector will face an onslaught of new competition, and when it does, service-based businesses need to be able to set themselves apart and prove their value – or die trying.

As technology advances and the world shifts, every professional services business will be put under the microscope by its clients and forced to distinguish itself. Unfortunately, the fields where differentiation is most critical can also be the ones that are hardest to showcase. Often there aren’t metrics to point to, and firms can’t compete with algorithms in terms on price.

To be truly successful in the new marketplace, businesses need to find new ways to set their services apart to save themselves. The following are three ways firms can achieve this:

Demonstrate expertise

One of the biggest value-adds that any professional service can offer is its knowledge—industry expertise, experience and understanding of your clients themselves are hugely important, and aren’t something that other players can easily replicate. That said, knowledge at firms can easily become siloed if resources are limited. Even the smallest companies these days often need to operate globally, so having access to knowledge from all over the world is also a massive asset, lending firms provide extremely valuable insight that competitive alternatives might lack. One way to diversify knowledge is to alter corporate structure; for example, Grant Thorton UK moved to a shared enterprise format to give voice to all of its employees. Firms should also take a closer look at software to engage and interact with remote teams and leverage their expertise as well, without relying on workflow-slowing email back-and-forth.

Get creative

Another way professional services firms can distinguish themselves is to highlight their creativity. Creative contributions can’t be outsourced, automated or devalued. A company’s creativity will always be a powerful leveraging point with clients. Finding the creative areas where a firm’s creativity flourishes and how to showcase that creativity can be a huge boon. For example, this might mean hiring diversely, providing creative resources, or even acquiring a whole new company, like PricewaterhouseCoopers did last year. Creativity is one of the few assets that is completely irreplaceable, and therefore priceless.

Engage clients

Most importantly, service-based companies must learn to dissolve the wall between themselves and their clients. Good service experiences ultimately boil down to relationships built on communication and trust—they’re what make or break any client engagement. According to Robert Eccles, author of "The Value Reporting Revolution," the more information firms disclose, the more likely they are to win confidence and investment (within reason, of course.) Corporations are being held to increasingly high transparency standards, and they'll expect their service firms to adhere to the same level of disclosure.

There is good reason for the rigorous expectations that businesses will have for their chosen services , as illustrated by the fraud behind the European rotation. Client companies have a lot at stake. They're entrusting some aspect of the future of their business to the care of an outside entity. The less a professional services firm is seen as an "outsider," the easier it becomes to win a client’s long-term confidence and retain their business.

When business is going well, it’s easy to sit back and be complacent. But truly successful organizations are constantly evolving, with an eye to how things might change in the future. Professional services are incredibly nuanced. They add indispensable value and the more they can clearly demonstrate this, the more they’ll thrive, even in the face of a more competitive environment.


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