Your differentiator must be true: Really?

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This is the second in a series of posts about the challenges and routes to differentiating your business in the marketplace

In the previous post, I outlined the paradox behind effective marketing differentiation. It is either so easy to do you don’t even need to think about it (because your business/marketing project has its own built-in differentiation) or it is a real struggle — because you are trying to force your solution onto the problem.

Perhaps the clearest example of where this paradox is extremely visible can be found with the observation in the Hinge Guide for Differentiation for Professional Services:

Your differentiator must be true.

The Hinge Research Institute writer then says:

Many firms say they have superior customer 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 that you won’t actually be different.

Oh yes, the famous “we offer great customer service” line that makes me cringe anytime a business cites it as competitive advantage. But the story is even worse than Hinge suggests. Say you actually implement special policies or training and really try to provide great customer service. Who cares, but the customers, and it is the customers who really need to (voluntarily) broadcast that you truly have “great customer service”. (Because you can introduce the special policies and training and no one really gets it, or they don’t result in “great customer service” that is truly exceptionally greater than your competitors.)

And that observation can quite frankly describe any differentiator you come up with. If is real it moves the needle quite dramatically — and you’ll know quickly, without pushing too hard with marketing studies — if you have the magic elixir that really defines a valid differentiator.

There is some good news in this observation. If your baked in differentiator is there and represents a true competitive advantage, you don’t need to invest huge resources in making it more effective (though as noted before, this results in an enhancement, not a true new differentiator.) And if you are looking for an effective differentiator that doesn’t require incredible effort and time to implement, you can eliminate many differentiators from consideration that might be good if true, but will take too much effort to introduce. Finally you are left with ones that require some systems tweaking, stand out loud and clear to your potential clients, and can quickly be tested for value/effectiveness.  The question then becomes: Do you really want to make the change?

Example:  Can you differentiate with a great customer service story?

In writing this post, I decided to key in the keywords combination:

“Construction industry really great customer service”

Not surprisingly, most of top posts come from marketing agencies/blogs rather than contractors, though one contractor’s blog from 2013 is on the list describing a then-new initiative to truly enhance its customer service. (However, there are no comments on the blog posting, so it seems at least the customers haven’t responded either in agreement or disagreement.)

The leading post (at least for me, because Google results will vary depending on your own search engine profile and location), which would represent a marketing win, comes from Katrina Beveridge of Strategic Online in Sydney, Australia. She offers these tips:

Always think quality. Strive to exceed your customer’s expectations at all times. Pay special attention to what the client wants, remember the details no matter how insignificant and deliver quality services at all times. These small details may seem unimportant to you but it could mean a lot to your client.

Deliver on time. It’s never a good business practice to deliver late. Your project timeline is there for a reason. Being on time and staying within the budget shows professionalism and good work ethics. Of course, if any problem arises, communication between the client and the contractor can help work out the kinks and avoid problems in the future.

Keep the dialogue open. The secret to a successful project is constant communication between the client and the contractor. This way, the contractor can share updates, issues and insights about the project while the client can give recommendations or opinion. It also makes approvals smoother and faster.

Talk in layman’s terms. Remember that your client is not in the same industry as you. They don’t understand engineering or construction terms so keep your words simple and easy to understand. This makes it easier for the client to understand the details of the project.

Offer free services. Going the extra mile makes your client appreciate your work more. You can provide small installations or other menial jobs for free to make your client happier. Clients love getting something free, no matter how small it is. This could also mean more projects for you in the future.

These are indeed solid ideas, but try to build them into a process to achieve marketing differentiation and you’ll probably tear your hair out in frustration — at least until the policies have become so deeply engrained in your corporate culture and are so exceptional from your competitors, that your customers are starting to publicly rave about your great customer service. Then, and only then, can you say your “great customer service” is your market differentiator.

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