Nine Ways to Dramatically Differentiate Yourself from the Competition
By Andrew Sobel
“How can I differentiate myself from my competitors?”
That’s a question I get asked a lot by my clients. The answer is usually, of course, not one single thing but many things. Here are nine to help you set yourself apart:
1. Know more about your client than anyone else. Learn more about their business, organization, and issues than any of your competitors. I call this their “agenda” of critical priorities, needs, and goals. 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.
2. 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. 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. Sound fresh, not bland and boring.
3. Be seen as possessing renown and recognition. Just the perception that you are well-known and a leader in your specialty will differentiate you. So you need to present yourself and your experiences in the best possible light. Tread carefully here, though. Many people try to project their expertise by simply screaming louder and, also, exaggerating. Today, everyone seems to be a bestselling author, world-renowned authority, and so on. The Internet is like a crowded restaurant, however: As it starts to fill up, it gets harder to be heard. So everyone starts talking louder. But that makes it even more difficult to hear, leading to a continuing escalation of the volume until diners are literally shouting, unsuccessfully, to be heard. Build your renown step by step. Develop strong points of view about the three to five most important challenges your clients face in your area of expertise. Publish and get your ideas out in front of clients through articles, blogs, Linkedin posts, and short white papers that you share. The key thing is consistency: Building your renown is like a flywheel that you have to keep turning. Over time, if you keep up your daily disciplines, it gains more and more momentum and is harder to stop.
4. 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
- Follow up. For example, what if you conducted a formal check-in with all clients, three or six months after concluding an engagement?
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.
5. 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 motor scooter. Because it’s difficult to carry a hard leather briefcase on a scooter, I used a soft Land’s 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 inexpensive and even downmarket, yet in their eyes, “chic,” Land’s End bag.
Maybe your personal style is always dressing well, no matter how casual the occasion–or, always dressing casually. My late co-author Jerry Panas used stationary that was unique and he sent a lot of personal, handwritten notes to people. As soon as you saw those beautiful black envelopes in your mail, you would smile and know that Jerry had written to you.
6. 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 commercializing them. 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 already have–but which hasn’t gotten off the ground–and make it a reality.
7. 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.
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.
8. Be seen as well-connected. When you make a new friend, or meet someone for the first time, your esteem for them can go up or down based on your perception of who they hang out with. Clients will look at you in the same light—do your business and personal connections enhance or detract from your personal brand and value? Don’t underestimate how powerful this effect can be.
9. 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 don’t have to be a master at all nine of these strategies. Pick a couple that you’d like to work on this year.