During my 30 years in the Printing Industry, a HIGHLY competitive space, I was constantly challenged to illustrate how we were different. What differentiated us from our competition. As a coach, I am very fortunate to work with people in other industries now. Not a surprise, the challenges are the same. Here are a few ways I approached it and some ways my clients have taught me. I hope something resonates with you.
There is NO blanket answer to the question, “how are you different?” Business is complex and we all took a different path to arrive where we are today. In fact, I’d argue that most companies have redefined themselves more than once in the past decade. At the heart of these changes, executives ask themselves, “what makes us different?” Before I go too far let me say that there are commodity products. That often there is very little that differentiates one can of corn from another. Maybe Price. Maybe Availability. Set commodities aside as you read this.
A companies ability to shift with changes in customer buying preferences. One of my sales reps would say “we are nimble.” He was right. being flexible and adaptive is a very strong competitive advantage. The challenge is that a customer won’t experience this until after they purchase from you. Many times not until there are bumps in the road and they can experience how you respond. Create a story narrative that illustrates this. Customer testimonials are really important here. When you are telling the story, don’t glaze over the pain your customer was feeling, or going to feel had you not adapted. Be visceral. Your potential customers need to feel themselves in that position.
This is connected in part to the point above. If you are very responsive, you are probably pretty good at innovating. Industries can vary on how strong of a differentiator this is. There is a bell curve to innovation. [insert picture here] Depending on your industry, “new/cool/useful” things can move to SCALE IT quickly. That might mean the market views the innovation as standard. There was a window in the printing industry where we were early adopters with digital printing technology. That was a tremendous competitive advantage. It wasn’t long until we had to focus on scaling. The market no longer considered it innovative. It really became part of the expected offering. I know innovation can be a very good factor that separates you from your competitors. If that is what you are going to hang your hat on…don’t sit back. The market is always asking “what’s next.”
There is a trend in business these days to be hyper-focused on a segment of the market. It is easiest to see in the non-brink and mortar businesses. I recently took a client through a “What’s Your Market” exercise. It is designed to help the business get very clear on who they serve. That is so important today. It is worth saying again…THAT IS SO IMPORTANT TODAY. For one, you will be able to speak directly into the ear of your ideal customer. Our lives are full of noise. We scroll endlessly. An image or headline that speaks to me…. is what makes me stop to look further. That is harder to do the wider your market. From personal experience, being able to sit across from a potential customer and show how our serving ONLY their market would bring value to their business. It is a conversation that truly, few others can have. Your business might be Niche – adverse. I get it. As you are working on your marketing and sales processes, pretend that you ONLY serve that market. You will come up with ways to articulate your value.
In my previous life, I was able to use this as a differentiator. While we produced many types of books, we were known as the experts at Spiral Binding. This put me in conversations with customers I might not have been able to, had we not been. A word of caution though. As I found out, this can work against you. Meaning, you can get painted into that corner. Only being seen as the “x company.” If you truly are highly specialized in one thing, then run with it. In my case, we were known for a product that was profitable for us. Thank goodness…that wasn’t a deep category within our customers. Specialization can be a game-changer setting you apart. Use with care because it can also limit opportunities.
I have a love/hate relationship with this. More hate than love the older I get. Let me get to the elephant in the room. Yes, if you can go in and position yourself as the low-cost supplier you will get traction. In many industries, you will have people lining up to give you money. One of my clients is relatively new to sales. Sophisticated sales. He wants to go with LOW COST every time. I see that a lot with inexperienced sales/marketing. Why? It’s easy.
Now, go back to my commodity statement above. Having the cheapest can of corn is a fine strategy. Setting commodities aside again. I don’t like going in as the low-cost alternative. There is nowhere to go, but down. I learned the hard way early in my career while I was green. I thought I would use the low-cost angle to win the work and then find ways to make money.
WRONG. My clients had expected that we were the low-cost provider, every time. When we were not, they went with someone else. Even if you are willing to have the price be the strategy, I’d encourage you to not start there. In fact, ALWAYS start with any position of value. Once you have done that, you can always work to match your clients’ budgets.
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