BD tips and insights

Why second place can be better than first

April 20, 2016 | Posted in: Grow your business | Tags:

Back in 1962, car hire company Avis was struggling. They had only 11% market share, and hadn’t turned a profit in 13 years. Under the direction of new CEO Robert Townsend, the company launched their famous campaign theme of being number two in the market, with the slogan “We try harder”, drawing positive attention to their position behind market leader, Hertz.

Within three years of launching, Avis’ market share was up to a profitable 35%. So successful was this second place positioning that Avis ran with “We try harder” for 50 years, only dropping the tag in 2012.

Why second place can be better than first

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How does this apply to professional services firms?

Large and significant clients frequently engage multiple professional services firms to provide the same services (e.g. legal). Some formal panel and informal provider relationships often award “first place” or primary provider status to one firm, and secondary status to others. Sometimes, panel appointments effectively put every provider into a kind of “second place”. Maybe there’s no clear first-placed incumbent at present – just a field of second- and third-place-getters.

If you’re a secondary service provider to a large client, it could be because you’re a local, smaller business competing against global players, or you don’t have the full range of services your client needs and wants – or maybe they just don’t know that you have. Potentially, your secondary status derives from limitations on your capacity to service their entire work volume, or their unwillingness to put all their eggs in one basket.

Make the most of second place

Whatever the reason, second place puts you in a good position to improve. Here are our tips for getting the best value out of a second-place role:

Invest in the relationship

Be willing to really get to know the client’s business, the key players, their business strategies, and their challenges and risks. Value-added training, secondments, and in-depth relationship reviews are just three of many areas for investment you can provide that clients will notice and appreciate.

Promote your specialist expertise

Make sure the client knows about what you do especially well. Even if you’ve told them before, find new and interesting ways to communicate your specialist expertise in areas of current or future relevance to them. Carefully tailored training workshops and targeted seminars are value adds which can work well to create awareness and generate need recognition amongst clients.

Do the work you’re given extra well

Even if you’re capable of providing the high value and specialised work, do the routine and non-specialist work extra well. You may be qualified to do far more, but don’t expect to ever get it if you underperform on what’s allocated to you.

Create favourable economics for your client

Turn your lower overheads, or efficiency and reliability, into both profits for you and economic advantage for your clients.

Don’t be precious

Don’t be offended or whinge about the work you haven’t got. Don’t be resentful of the primary provider. Be gracious about working alongside another capable firm. Are there opportunities to team up with other providers to deliver more to the client? Investigate and seize them.

Know your limitations

You may not have the big brand, large size, impressive pedigree, or market clout which the client wants to access. If you’re a local firm, regard a second place appointment by a large national or international client as a big win. If you’re a small firm, you may never be able to get more than a small slice of work for a significant client. If you are a narrow specialist, stick to your expert area and don’t pursue work for which you’re ill-equipped.

Think carefully about whether to play for first place

Realistically assess your prospects of success. Recognise that first place is often accompanied by sometimes onerous obligations and expectations. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of displacing long-standing incumbents.

Above all, value second place



Second place can be great, as long as you know how to obtain optimal benefits from this spot. Position your offering as one that comfortably co-exists alongside the client’s primary provider, and wherever possible, piggyback off their efforts – consider co-hosting a seminar, offering to organise and host provider meetings, or teaming up on initiatives to cut costs.

So, there you have it. Deliberately choosing to play in second place – and for second place – can be a smart and strategically savvy move for professional services firms.

If your firm’s positioning strategy could use a re-direct, please get in touch.


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