The Fatal Flaw in Full Service

LinkedIn Article by Tim Williams 
June 30, 2017

In the age of disintermediation, no firm that plays on a national stage can claim to be a monolithic stand-alone resource for its clients. Rather, the best professional service firms are part of an increasingly complex and interdependent ecosystem of specialized solutions providers.

Describing your firm as “full service” (as most unfortunately do) is not only inaccurate, it also unwittingly repels prospective clients. Clients so not want or buy “a wide range of experience;” they want experience in their industry. Your claim of “full service” inspires incredulity, not interest. No firm — no matter how big — can claim to offer every kind of service to every kind of client. 

Furthermore, the use of this term does absolutely nothing to differentiate and distinguish your firm from the thousands of other firms who make the same exact claim. How many professional firms do you know that don’t say “full service” somewhere on their website?

Partial Service?

Why do so many well-meaning professionals fall into the “full service” trap? Perhaps they’re worried prospective clients will assume their firm offers only “partial service?” It's a nonsensical waste of words.

If by “full service” you really mean “good service,” then say so — only in more colorful and distinctive language. If you intend “full service” to mean “every service,” you’re being unrealistic about what your firm can do well. You can be good at something, but you can’t be good at everything

Some firms use the term in an effort to promise “full service” thinking; meaning they tackle client problems in a holistic way, unconstrained by the fact they have myriad individual disciplines within the organization. This type of collaborative, multidisciplinary approach is actually highly valued by clients — and a worthy competency to cultivate — but there are much better ways to describe it than using the tired, shop-worn descriptor “full service.” 

No Such Thing as End-to-End

Venture capitalist Anshu Sharma coined the term “The Stack Fallacy” — the tendency for companies to overestimate what they know and venture into territory in which they have little or no expertise. While this concept is meant to describe primarily what happens in the software industry (“software stacks”), it applies equally well to professional firms, who develop and sell competency stacks of their own. To promise to clients a “full stack” of services (an end-to-end solution to their business problems) doesn’t strengthen your sales pitch, but weakens it. 

To quote a brand marketing executive from a recent article in the trade press, “I wish agencies would stick to what they are good at. They try to do everything, and they would be better served to narrow their focus. You can’t do everything, and if you try to do everything, you do nothing… It drives me crazy when the agency is trying to pitch every single service available.” In other words, smart clients don’t buy your full-service sales pitch. 

More Is Not Better; Only Better is Better

The lessons of over-diversification have been learned over and over again by companies in almost every sector. It’s usually the pressure to “scale” that leads them down this precipitous path, believing the more products and services they offer the more customers they’ll attract. 

After diversifying into the equivalent of reality TV shows (“Fat Guys in the Woods”), The Weather Channel watched its leadership position erode and viewership decline. In a misguided pursuit of growth, it had expanded into “strategic adjacencies” that didn’t complement its core competencies. “Sometimes you wake up and realize how far away you’ve come from your core,” said Weather Channel executive Dave Shull in an article published in Digiday. “We have a mission, and that’s to cover weather and severe storms. We want to make sure we’re the best in the world at doing that.”

That’s the question you and your colleagues should be asking: in which area can you be the best in the world? Instead of adding yet one more voice to the ubiquitous “full service” chorus, how can you calibrate your competencies to essentially be a category of one? Developing a strategic focus isn’t easy — in large part because it involves deciding what not to do and what to give up — but the first step on that path is a simple one: stop using the claim and language of full service.