When I think of competitive differention—of standing out—it reminds me of an old saying that goes something like this:
There is no room for sour grapes if you sell the same tomatoes as everyone else.
Now, let’s take that further.
When I visit my local farmer’s market, it always seems like every stall looks pretty much the same.
Recently, it was piles upon piles of fresh end-of-season tomatoes.
Which makes sense because produce that can be grown regionally at any given time of year—and that buyers want to purchase—is well-defined.
And the same can be said for many businesses, including those in the communications industry.
While some businesses may engage in certain subspecialties, the fact is the services they offer aren’t that different from their competitors.
That’s because there is no competitive differentiation.
Again, this makes sense. Most buyers really don’t want something unique when it comes to professional services.
The thought of hiring a “unique” accountant or lawyer should give you pause.
Competitive Differentiation Can Be Difficult
Even though it is hard, businesses need to find a way to stand out against the competition.
Otherwise, buyers will simply make selections based on price, feeding an endless downward spiral.
But how do you establish that competitive differentiation and make sure you stand out from the rest?
How do you differentiate your communications services to prospective clients?
How are your tomatoes any different than the others?
It’s all too easy to make the claim that your business can do it all.
Want traditional PR? We have you covered. Need social media support? We’re here for you. A new website? Sure, why not.
Not to mention, being able to serve any client from a local hair salon to a national pharmaceutical firm.
The Reality: We All Have Specialties
You can’t be all things to all people.
By finding focus, you can express your competitive differentiation more clearly.
Start with the who-what-where-when-how-why construct that so many of us in communications grasp intimately.
WHO Do You Serve?
Your background, previous clients, and team’s knowledge all shape the types of organizations from whom you can deliver the best results.
While the principles for promoting a restaurant may be similar to those you’d use to publicize a new tech product, there’s no doubt there are nuances in the communication, planning, and execution which specialist businesses handle better than others.
Similarly, you may work best with small organizations where you have direct CEO contact.
Or, you might excel at partnering with CCOs who manage global communications operations.
It’s important to know what your ideal client looks like.
WHAT Services are You Offering?
Unless you’re a larger company, you probably won’t be able to provide every service needed for a full-blown PESO solution at every stage of an organization’s life.
Your expertise might be in creating digital media, or maybe handling crisis communications, but probably not both.
You need to know what you and your team are good at and focus on those services.
And it’s much better to provide a referral or outsource business you can’t do well, rather than risk ruining your reputation by promising the sun, moon, and stars.
WHERE are Your Clients?
While we all like to note we live in a global economy, most businesses aren’t prepared to service clients from all over the world.
However, there are many different possibilities.
Do you work mostly with local businesses that you can see in-person regularly?
Does your geography incorporate businesses that are easily reached from your home base, or where you travel regularly?
If you provide services remotely, what are your main geographic obstacles? Timezones, language, culture, and legal or regulatory structures?
WHEN Do You Provide Services?
Some communications businesses specialize in ongoing retainer-based work for clients.
Others, like web design agencies, may generate revenue primarily through project work.
These delivery methods play an important role in crafting your organization’s competitive differentiation and communicating it to prospective clients.
HOW Does Your Process Work?
Is there a particular method you use with clients? A multi-step approach? Team-based or one-on-one? Different businesses work differently, and you should be able to explain this to your prospects clearly.
Gini told me she uses a two-day intensive on-site evaluation with new clients before determining the ongoing scope of services.
A design firm might have a clear, iterative process they use for creating a new website or advertising creative.
A marketing agency I’ve worked with emphasizes the importance of overall project management.
And they’ve designed an entire process around that because they believe it delivers better results more efficiently.
WHY Do Clients Hire You?
This last point speaks to the overall value proposition your business provides.
Clients don’t hire you to generate clips; they want their clips to achieve a business goal (even though many have a hard time expressing this).
Understanding the perceived value you are delivering is an important part of finding focus and defining competitive differentiation.
And it also drives another key component of the sales process: pricing.
If you know the value your prospects perceive, you can match that to your revenue model.
Is it hourly? Project-oriented? Value-based? Resource-based? Something else?
Ultimately, if YOU can’t explain why clients hire you, then your prospects won’t understand why they should.
Competitive Differentiation: Put it All Together
If you can answer these key questions, you can better tell the story of your business.
And you can use that story to figure out whom to pitch—and what services to pitch them.
You can also use the story to make critical resource decisions which will drive future growth.
Most importantly, you can use the story to explain your competitive differentiation as a business, without claiming to have invented some new style of communications.
So, you can still sell the same tomatoes as the guy next to you as long as you can clearly describe what is different. It might be the soil, the fertilizer, or the basil you sell along with it.
But if you can’t do that, all you’ll be left with is sour grapes.