Managing the gap between reputation and identity

When a firm's reputation among clients and potential clients varies wildly from its identity, it runs the risk of a reputational crisis.

In professional services, which provide intangible services rather than tangible goods, clients rely heavily on reputation to make judgements about which firms to engage. In many cases, there is a gap between a firm’s reputation (how others see it) and its identity (how members of the firm see it). If the disconnect between identity and reputation becomes too large, professionals struggle to deliver the services that clients expect, and lose credibility. Firms have to try to maintain consistency between identity and reputation. How can a firm manage the risks of disconnect and maintain some sense of consistency?

This question becomes especially important when firms are trying to change their reputation in response to competition, to outside change or in a time of crisis. Tim Morris and his co-authors, Will Harvey and Milena Mueller Santos, conducted research with a leading management consulting firm to see how the firm managed the process of changing its reputation and the impact on the firm’s identity. The authors interviewed employees from across the firm as well as clients, competitors and intermediaries. They also analysed employee surveys, internal and external documents and media coverage.

The research revealed that there are three main ways in which this firm managed the gap between its reputation and its identity: through the individual reputations of its employees, by projecting high-profile thought leadership and by achieving precisely the right amount of over-delivery on projects.

Professional service firms rely on the expertise of their core professionals to build a client base, and it is these people who are best placed to broker reputational change. As these employees worked closely with clients and put more detail around the broad reputational change the firm sought to project, Tim and his co-authors found that it was easier for the firm to shift perceptions so that they aligned more closely with the firm’s own identity. This helped client-facing professionals to persuade and convince clients that the firm's reputational claims were plausible.

Thought leadership also helps to bridge the divide between reputation and identity. By engaging in high-profile debate and comment in leading media outlets – particularly those associated with quality and prestige such as leading newspapers and broadcasters – the firm was able to cut through the noise created by social media and establish itself as expert in the subjects with which it identified.

The authors also found that what some clients and consultants called ‘over-delivery’ on projects could be a useful tactic to help smooth the way for clients as the firm brought their reputation in line with their identity. This only worked, however, when the over-delivery was seen as proportionate: clients became suspicious when the firm went ‘over the top’ with its delivery and the firm came across as desperate. 


Reputation and identity conflict in management consulting is co-authored by William Harvey, Tim Morris and Milena Müller Santos, and is published in Human Relations.