There’s this place in town I love called The Muffin Shop. Despite the name, The Muffin Shop doesn’t exclusively sell muffins, but also coffee, donuts, breakfast sandwiches, eggs, pancakes, waffles, and more. It’s a perfect little stop for breakfast. Oh, and they serve lunch, too.
When it first opened, this tiny storefront branded itself as simply “the place where you buy muffins.” But over the decades, it’s transformed into a full-service café—a one-stop shop.
I know this isn’t a totally unique or surprising story. Businesses expand their offerings all the time. It’s what we as consumers have come to expect. We want more options with better prices. Expansive services with minimal complexity. A solution for every problem. A muffin store that also serves meatball subs.
However, we’re talking about a business-to-consumer operation here. For many business-to-business providers, these expectations can come as a serious strain.
Expanding B2B services isn’t as easy as adding a sandwich to the menu.
And yet clients and prospects continually hunger for more. I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced this firsthand.
Maybe you run a consulting firm, and a client has assumed you’re capable of providing not just business guidance, but also legal advice.
Maybe you’re an IT provider who’s been asked to design a website.
Or a videographer whom clients presume must be a brilliant animator as well.
Or a marketing studio expected to do everything.
It may be your bread and butter, but your specialty can cause friction when clients want sandwiches. B2Bs in this situation often doubt themselves. You may wonder:
- Am I doing enough?
- How can I expand my business while maintaining client trust?
- How can I expect to succeed in a competitive marketplace if I don’t have the resources to provide consistent 24-hour customer service?
- How can I do all this without pulling my hair out?
Practically every business right now is dealing with the same uncertainties, which can be boiled down into a single question:
Specialization or generalization?
What’s more successful for a professional or organization in the long run: specializing in one thing or generalizing?
Business analysts, investors, and academics have debated this subject at length in recent years. Harvard lecturer Vikram Mansharamani, for instance, believes the “future belongs to the generalists”:
“If you’re relatively new to the workforce, my advice is to manage your career around obtaining a diversity of geographic and functional experiences. The analytical capabilities you develop… in the process will fare well when competing against those who are more focused on domain-specific skill.”Harvard lecturer Vikram Mansharamani, CNBC
In other words, Mansharamani asserts that the most successful people are the ones with skills in various fields, as they can tackle diverse, complex problems as they arise.
Bestselling business author Marcia Layton Turner, on the other hand, argues “specialization is the way to go to maximize profits (corporate or personal).” She points to the fact that many of the most successful companies today—including Apple, eBay, and Spanx—were built to offer one solution:
“[B]uyers tend to gravitate towards businesses that solve a specific problem, such as a broken water pipe, a car that won’t start or a snow-covered driveway. They turn to specialists with the expectation that someone who is an expert in a particular field is more likely to do a better job of diagnosing and fixing the problem faster than someone who is more of a generalist—someone who knows a little bit about a lot of things.”Marcia Layton Turner, Forbes
Frankly, I side more with Layton Turner here. I understand where Mansharami is coming from—and there’s wisdom in the idea of gaining diverse experiences—but the world is too complex for generalist solutions. We need experts, not know-it alls.
It would be naïve to suggest there’s one right answer for every business. So, ask yourself which kind of business you would like to run: a one-stop-shop or a specialized service provider? Do you want to build a full breakfast menu with pretty decent options overall? Or do you want to focus exclusively on baking the tastiest muffins in town?
If you believe, like me, that the money’s in the muffins, here are a few ways to maximize success as a specialist:
1. Know your worth.
Recognize that the pressure to overextend yourself and provide services beyond what you’re currently capable of can arrive both internally and externally. Internally it could be a thought like I should do more. Externally, maybe it’s a client or multiple clients who are asking too much of you in your current position.
When these internal and external forces meet, B2B providers can say “yes” too hastily and commit to services they can’t effectively provide.
One way to avoid to this issue is to honestly confront your inner critic. Consider whether the pressure you’re putting yourself under arises from a deep motivation to grow, or a temporary feeling of insecurity. Make a decision in line with what you truly want to happen rather than what you fear will happen.
2. Set clear boundaries with honest communication.
Expressing your limitations to a client may feel more daunting—but the underlying emotions and considerations are the same. Perhaps you fear that, if you don’t expand your offerings, your client will seek an alternative to your services. Truth is, this is always a risk, even if you provide the greatest services, the most comprehensive solutions, and the lowest prices.
In the vast majority of cases, retaining clients isn’t about doing more for them, but communicating with them better. The foundation to all solid client relationships is trust. This demands transparency and authenticity. Be careful not to overpromise. Make clear the boundaries of your services while continuing to remind your clients of your value.
“You have to know what you’re doing—that’s what you’re being hired for. But together with that, there’s a big emotional component around explaining what you’re doing and why it’s valuable, being responsive to what your clients—perhaps their fears about what might happen with a project or even what might be going on with their business. [It’s also about] being responsive to the fact that usually clients hire you because they don’t know very much about a certain area and they don’t have the expertise.”Justin Dunham, Ercule
3. Remember: other options exist.
It’s one thing to understand the intrinsic value of your business. It’s another thing entirely to communicate that value to demanding clients.
If you feel a disconnect between your clients’ expectations and the services you provide for them, it may be time to consider an audit. Take a step back and ask if continuing a working relationship is worth the time and sacrifice required. Don’t feel guilty about letting go if, deep in your heart, you know it’s the right thing to do. Remember: you aren’t required to service every client who comes to you.
Delegation is another option for handling certain requests from clients. Perhaps you don’t have the time or the resources to handle a specific task. Look to your team members or outside parties if you need help tackling a large request.
Above all, don’t be afraid to charge more for your services when a client asks more from you. Remind your clients that your free time is valuable. If a particular request comes through that you know can be accomplished, but will require more time to get right, inform your client that your services will cost them extra.
Some business experts believe that strategic collaboration is the way to handle clients with high expectations. On the limitations of the “one-stop shop” model for businesses, My Accounts executive director Matthew Rowe writes:
“There’s a lot of talk about accountants and financial planners being in competition… It’s like we’re being asked to assume that the advice market isn’t big enough for both accountants and financial planners… I think that strategy going forward now in professional services will be around both competing [and] cooperating at the same time.”Matthew Rowe, My Accounts
In other words, instead of working to transform your business into a one-stop shop, seek other vendors who can help share the tools you need. Look into automation, outsourcing, and partnerships.
4. Ask for help.
No matter what you specialize in or the breadth of services you offer, client communication takes time, energy, and expertise. It’s a job unto itself.
At Ruby, it’s the job we specialize in. We’re here for you and your business. Ruby acts as a seamless extension of your business’s team, brand, and voice. Spend more time creating and collaborating while you’re on the clock—and more time enjoying your life when you’re off.
Answer only the calls you want to answer, and breathe easy knowing the rest is taken care of. Ruby keeps your business communications humming, and your clients happy and informed. It’s all completely tailored to the unique needs of your business and the people you serve.