On my way home back from a gig in Kiev last week, I read a truly enlightening, fun and excellent white paper from the smart folk of Wellesley Hills Group, posted at QuickArrow. The paper - or rather, collection of articles - entitled "Truth and Lies in Professional Services Marketing", argues that the dynamics of services business are different from those of a product business: consequently, the rules and mantra's of marketing need to be tweaked (or thrown out) when applied to professional services businesses.
I was particularly interested in because, in the last year, I have studied a Diploma in Business Development at the Irish Management Institute; I graduate next week (with distinction: hurrah!). The Dip Bus. Dev. is a great program, particularly for myself as a person of technical origin. Regularly I would meet with my assigned business mentor, who would administer a ritual and deserved mental beating as she questioned everything I had ever held dear. One of the most difficult things for me on this course was to let go of my need for scientific, clear reasoning, and embrace fuzzier, more intuitive business concepts.
But back to that paper! Let's say you're running a professional services firm that specializes in open source. What can you say is your Unique Selling Point? Hmmm. That you know the source? Everyone knows the source dude, that's the whole point! That you have committers on your team? Better... however, anyone with smarts can become a committer in an open an vibrant community, so if this is your USP and your open source projects are successful, then your competitors will quickly become committers: there goes your USP, gently flying out the window. The open nature of open source means that the barriers to entry are low; sure, becoming an expert on an open-source project takes time, but anyone with smarts and the willingness to invest the time can eventually break into your space. Back to the USP: you could talk about experience, customer-focus, reliability, ... but then, so will all your competitors, so they're not good unique selling point candidates either.
So: forget about "uniqueness" for now. The nature of open source services is that, if your project is successful, then your firm will become one of many others - an ecosystem, if you will - offering similar services around the code. Being a PS firm in open source is very much like being a law firm, or a chartered accountancy firm, or a doctor: all rely on an open body of knowledge at which they have become experts, and they sell that expertise for a price. It's not about "uniqueness": when you want a lawyer, accountant or doctor you do not care if they're unique or different: you care that you can trust these guys to solve your problem and make things right. A strong reputation, with credible proof of their expertise, is more important than a unique selling point.
Successfully marketing your services, then, is not about USPs; it's about having a genuine, credible, reputation. So how can you build this? By taking part in the community. By contributing fixes, patches, and documentation. By helping newbie users into the community. By speaking, writing and blogging about the knowledge for which you are expert, at community events (with your peers) and at industry events. By being clear about how you your services can help others, who don't have your level of experience or expertise. By being reliably, trustworthy, and professional with your customers - so that they're happy to endorse you.
Perhaps, it can be argued, this "reputation" becomes your unique selling point. However, it's a reputation built on real evidence, not on slick marketing material or finely-tuned elevator pitches.
Give that paper a read - it's well worth it!