This article was originally published by Inc. on June 19, 2017

Trying too hard to please the wrong customers can lure you away from your sweet spot, and into unfamiliar territory that you can’t successfully navigate.


At a recent gathering of business-to-business executives, 78 percent admitted they are lured away from their sweet spot at least “somewhat” often by their desire to please clients. One out of seven admitted this is true “to a great degree.” The folks who said this had assembled for a webinar with the branding firm DeSantis Breindel. (You can hear the webinar here.) The firm asked us to talk about how companies can employ service design to address strategic issues in B2B sales and marketing. Both data and experience show that one of the biggest issues is staying focused on your core capabilities and expertise — especially when valuable clients ask you to do things outside your core.

Client experience is the key to differentiation for B2B companies. And a deep understanding of your buyer is more important than ever. Combine those two facts with the ethos of client service that is baked deeply into great professional service firms and other B2B outfits, and you have a dangerous recipe — one that tempts companies to do work for their customers that they really should leave to others.

The problem: The extra mile often leads to quicksand. As business-to-business competition intensifies up, and as AI begins to automate services that once were delivered only in person, it’s more and more important to focus where you have the right to win — even if that means turning down a good customer’s request. You can’t win unless you’re playing your game.

Service design offers three ways to help B2B companies avoid being lured from their sweet spot by client requests or by fads.

Develop an ecosystem of other service providers with whom you work.

Of course there are holes in your service offerings. Choosing what to do and what not to do is called strategy. You don’t have to plug those holes. Instead, use a service-design approach to strategy to identify other companies you can work with–referring business to each other, creating joint programs, etc. Communications companies like Weber Shandwick have done a great job of deciding which services to keep in house and which to contract out to specialists. If you do that right, you don’t risk losing your client; you actually become more important to them as a trusted advisor — and you ensure that those other providers are complementors, not competitors.

Bring some discipline to partners and other service-line leaders.

B2B leaders don’t take orders well and don’t like to follow a script. Nor should they. Their job is to orchestrate the activities and expertise of the firm to meet clients’ specific needs. Work with partners to map client/customer pain points (why they call for help — and why they call you in particular) and touchpoints (where and how you interact). Align company offerings up against both pain points and touchpoints. And then show your customer-facing leaders how to use the playbook you’ve just created.

Invest in different offerings with different price points and go-to-market strategies — and ring-fence them.

Back during the dot-com bubble at the turn of the century, some McKinsey partners begged the firm’s leadership to go after the fast-growing, high flying consulting gigs being won by upstarts like Scient and Viant. McKinsey wisely resisted chasing those fads (and those upstarts died the death of many a dot-com.) But today McKinsey has patiently built a “McKinsey Solutions” business that essentially industrializes some of its service offerings so they can be sold independently or as part of a larger engagement–and provides an umbrella under which the firm can experiment without endangering its core.

You can only deliver a truly differentiated client experience if you design one and do it in accordance with your strategy. Strategy isn’t about what you can do — it’s about what you will do.

© Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell

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