Seven Ways to Differentiate Yourself and Stand Apart from Your Competitors

By Andrew Sobel

This is one of the most common questions I get from my clients:  “Our market is commoditizing and getting more and more competitive. How can we differentiate ourselves more clearly and effectively?”

There are, of course, many corporate-level strategies that can be used to make your company more competitive. But let’s leave those aside and focus here on what you personally can change, right away. So in the rest of this article I’m going to share seven things you can do to better distinguish yourself–and at the same time, your firm–as you work with clients.


Know more about them. Learn more about their business, organization, and issues than anyone else. Also learn more about their personal aspirations and challenges than anyone else. When you do, you will no longer be a commodity. This is why most people rarely fire their personal physician or personal accountant–they know us, our history, what’s important to us, and what we need. They are worth more to us than the next doctor or accountant off the street, who may have a fancy degree but zero understanding of who we are.

Be Fresh. I don’t know about you, but I am oh-so-tired of clichés: “You need to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others”; or, “The Chinese word for crisis combines the characters for opportunity and danger (actually that’s not even true)”; or, questions like “What keeps you up at night?” and “What would it take for us to win your business?” These are uninspiring expressions–hearing them is like listening to one of those 1970s FM radio hits for the 10,000th time.

Be fresh. Be original. Be provocative. Don’t just repeat what everyone else is saying. You don’t have to be a Peter Drucker or an Albert Einstein: Take your experiences, pick a topic of interest to your clients, and boil your ideas down to four or five incisive points to share with them. Go against the grain: Is there a so-called “best practice” or technology that’s all the rage? Tell your clients why it may not last or be right for them, if believe that’s true. Sound fresh, not bland and boring.

Have a Unique Relationship Process. One way of differentiating yourself is through the actual process you use to interact with your clients and manage your relationship with them. This contributes to a sense on the client’s part that “working with them is different.” This can start with the business development process, by the way, and how you handle it–the client doesn’t have to wait until they’ve hired you to experience the difference. You can engineer, standardize, and carefully manage many different aspects of your client interactions–for example:

  • Telling versus asking: The way you balance advocacy and inquiry in your conversations, and the kinds of careful, thought-provoking questions you ask
  • Speed of response: How quickly to you get back to your client with things you’ve promised? How quickly do you answer your emails and phone calls (even if to say you’re tied up with a client but will thoughtfully respond the next morning)?
  • Collaboration: How you involve them in the upfront problem-solving and solution development around your products and services
  • Education: How you create opportunities to transfer your capabilities to the client’s own people
  • Meeting management: Using an efficient and effective process to make meetings more productive and collaborative

The sky is the limit in terms of the ways in which you can structure a consistent set of client interactions that convey your unique stamp.

Develop a Personal Style. Adopt a few, small habits and ways of communicating, and they will become a kind of signature for you. When I lived in Rome, I got around using a small motorscooter. Because it’s difficult to carry a hard leather briefcase on a scooter, I used a soft Lands End blue canvas bag to carry my papers as I went around the city visiting my clients. Inadvertently, I developed a certain style that my Italian clients found quite endearing (so they told me). I was wearing custom-made Italian wool suits like them, but instead of using my own driver or taking a taxi, I was riding alla Romana on a scooter–and carrying around that downmarket, yet in their eyes, “chic” Lands End bag.

Maybe your personal style is always dressing well, no matter how casual the occasion–or, always dressing casually (my friend and CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith consistently wears tan Khaki pants and a button down shirt at workshops, for example). My co-author Jerry Panas uses stationary that is unique and sends a lot of personal notes to people–as soon as you see those beautiful envelops in your mail, even before you see the return address, you know Jerry has written to you.

Bring Their Ideas to Life. Innovation is a big topic, and much has been written about how to stir more innovation in large organizations. I love coming up with new ideas myself–however, many top executives will tell you that their challenge is not coming up with new ideas, it’s taking some of the ideas they already have and doing a great job of implementing them and turning them into real business. You will stand out from the crowd if you can be seen as someone who has the patience, discipline, and practical know-how to show a client how to take a concept they have–but which hasn’t gotten off the ground–and make it a reality.

Show You Really Care. Your clients are living their businesses and their organization 24/7. This is their professional lifeblood. They know you care about YOUR business–of course you do. But do you really value and care about THEIRS? Or, is it just another job for you–another day, another dollar–as the expression goes? This is something else that sets the personal physician or personal accountant apart from the person who makes the one-off visit to your house to fix your clogged sink. Clients want to work with advisors and service providers who are interested in and care about what they do and about their people.

How do you show you care? Take an actual interest in their business–its history, how it works, the customers they serve, the products they sell, the people they hire, and so on. Be curious. Spend time “off the clock” to understand their organization. Go talk to a few of their clients or customers. Learn about their values and beliefs as an organization–about their culture.

Build a Better Relationship.  This had to be on my list, right? This isn’t about just being “liked” better than the next person. A strong relationship provides many powerful benefits–here are just two: First, it enables you to accomplish point 1 on my list–to know more about your client than your competitors. Second, it creates a personal connection that strengthens a client’s loyalty to you. Remember, we don’t really root for someone until we feel some kind of personal relationship with them.

You have control over all seven of these factors. You don’t need to change your company’s strategy, revamp your measurement and reward system, or reorganize–you can start getting better at these tomorrow. 

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