What goes into differentiation?

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Chicago Construction News
An example of differentiation at work. There are many different media outlets and resources, including well-established services, but there is only one Chicago Construction News. (The name had been used many years ago by another publisher, but it lapsed.)
Chicago Construction News
An example of differentiation at work. There are many different media outlets and resources in Chicago, including well-established services, but there is only one Chicago Construction News. (The name had been used many years ago by another publisher, but it lapsed.)

One of the foundations of successful marketing is differentiation. That is, achieving first-in-mind status as the leading/original/most effective enterprise or individual in your field. If you fail to achieve this uniqueness, you must fight the crowd and often race to the bottom with hopes for “low price wins the job” results. (It often doesn’t — and if you win the work with low prices, you may lose your business shirt or, at best, eke out a marginal existence.)

Then how do you achieve differentiation when there are several others with competence and capacity in your field of endeavour? Hinge has been pushing the “visible expert” concept — asserting that if you define your expertise and then let everyone know about it (through social media, blogging, white papers, conference speeches and other recognition-seeking initiatives), you can achieve true differentiation.

In a recent blog posting, Lee Frederiksen explained some of the prerequisites: (Notably Frederiksen adds the PhD to his title — but I’ll pass on that, reflecting my early journalistic training that these suffixes don’t belong in the journalistic context — as I whap out all sorts of professional designations from the narrative here.)

1) Is it true? You can’t just make up claims of differentiation. Apart from the moral hazard of making something up, it is simply too easy for people to see through your exaggerated claims. Your firm has to live it each day. And remember, you’ll need to deliver on all claims.

For example, many firms say they have superior client service but do nothing special to make it a reality. No special policies. No special training. Nothing to ensure it actually happens. The bottom line is they are no different than their competitors making the same claims.

2) Is it relevant? Any half-decent differentiator will resonate with prospective clients. If your point of distinction doesn’t matter to them, it won’t work in getting you more business. More importantly, what is ultimately most important is what plays into their selection criteria and decision-making process. Any non-relevant differentiators are wasted effort.

We once had a client that believed their strongest differentiator was the lack of conflict of interest. Their competitors certainly could not make the same claim. But, when we dug a bit deeper, we realized their clients (both current and target) didn’t value the impartiality as highly as the firm did. So much for a strong brand differentiator.

Going back to our example of client-side service. It is all too common to claim “Customer service is our main priority.” A lack of customer service may be a reason why you lose a client, but did you know it rarely plays into the initial selection process?

3) Is it provable? This is the often the hardest test of a differentiator. You may have identified a true and relevant point of distinction, but it is useless without proof. Even if everyone says a differentiating statement is true, without a way to prove it, it will be ignored.

“We have great people” jumps to mind as an example we frequently must dissuade clients for using within their differentiation strategy. It is a trap! Why? Well, have you ever heard a firm claim they have average people?

Didn’t think so.

I think you can put these three questions to good effect in testing whether you have achieved a true level of differentiation. You should also review the stereotypes, everything from the silver shovels at formal groundbreaking events, to the “free estimates” assertions that invite you to deal with bid-shopping lowballers.

Don’t be afraid to ask the questions you need to ask in planning your differentiation strategies.

You can reach me at buckshon@constructionmarketingideas.com, leave a comment below or learn more here.

 

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