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Do Differentiation Differently

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The marketing and sales Holy Grail: Customers come to believe you are different from the competition in a meaningful way.

The marketing and sales real-world challenge: Customers believe that most products and services can be easily substituted with other similar products and services.

If it's so hard to differentiate products and services in customers' minds, why not focus on a kind of differentiation that is easy for customers to see? Focus on what your customer already thinks is different: Himself. In addition to trying to show your customer that you are different, show him that you recognize how he is different.

The best way to differentiate yourself is to show your customer that you think he's different.

I remember when my father wanted to switch investment advisors. He interviewed five different firms. After some perfunctory questions about my parents' life and investment goals, the first four firms spent most of their time with my father describing their own credentials, track records, strategies and service offerings. Each firm seemed talented and well-resourced, but to my father they all seemed interchangeable. The fifth firm he interviewed took another approach. The entire conversation was about my parents. Each time my father asked a question about the firm's investment strategy, they answered, "It depends," and proceeded to relate different investment approaches to what they had learned from him during their conversation.

Here is a story from my book We: The Ideal Customer Relationship that illustrates the same idea:

A young woman from our family, still in her teens, needed surgery. The first doctor she and her mother visited presented a very comforting and confident manner. He explained the surgery very well, describing all potential complications and options. He gave them all the information they needed. She and mom returned home assured that he was the right doctor.

On the advice of another doctor in our family, our patient also interviewed Dr. Elisa Barak Fisher, even though she was totally happy with the first doctor. The meeting with Dr. Fisher was completely different from the appointment with the first doctor, in a way she and her mother couldn't have imagined after the first visit.

Dr. Fisher didn't just explain the surgery to her. Sure, Dr. Fisher did that- she covered all the basics. But she also asked her young patient how she felt about the surgery, and about what worried her. She listened well and expressed sincere concern and empathy. They had a conversation. The young girl told me later, "I felt like Dr. Fisher wanted to learn as much from me as I wanted to learn from her. She was the only doctor who took notes."

Your customer doesn't really care if you are different. But he will be blown away if he sees that you think he is different.

Most marketing and sales theory doesn't approach customers in this way. We talk about target markets and demographics, which, instead of recognizing what makes each customer unique, is a way of grouping customers by what makes them similar. We talk about product positioning and unique selling propositions, which is all about us and only incidentally about the customer.

Flip your thinking around. Focus on differentiating your customers.

Take Notice

Put your customer hat on: How much effort do companies expend telling you about themselves vs. the amount of time they spend trying to learn what makes you different? Are there companies that demonstrate that they understand what makes you unique, by interacting with you in a way that is singular and relevant only to you? How do you feel about these companies, relative to those that clump you together with the rest of the "target market?"

How do you compare?

How does your company compare? How much effort do you expend telling your own story vs. learning the unique stories of individual customers? How much are your interactions with individual customers influenced by what you know about those individual customers? Do your best customers believe that you understand what makes each of them unique?

Try this

Put 10 sheets of easel paper on the wall of a conference room, and write the name of one of your top customers near the top of each sheet.

Next, under each customer's name, write things about this customer that are defining or unique, i.e., things that distinguish this customer from others. For a business customer, these could include particular quirks you've learned about their business, their plans for future growth, special challenges they are facing, complex competitive threats they are dealing with, strengths and weaknesses of their team, things they do extremely well that their customers appreciate, etc. For a consumer customer, they might include analogous issues but related more to the customer's personal life, such as what's important in their lifestyle, what their personal values are, how your product or service fits into their life, what they like to do with their free time, what the make-up of their family is, etc.

As you look at these lists, ask yourself whether you understand enough unique features of each customer. Can you, in your own mind, distinguish them from your other customers? ... really distinguish them?

Ok, so now you've summarized how much you know about each customer. But do your customers know that you know these things?

Pick up a different colored marker, and, on each list, circle each of the differentiating factors that the customer knows you understand about him or his company. Does the customer understand that you recognize what makes him or his company different?

Don't ever forget this sad but true fact: Your customer doesn't really care about what makes you different and isn't willing to put a lot of time into noticing what makes you different. But ... your customer thinks he is much different from everyone else. So why not focus on what he thinks he is different? Don't just differentiate yourself, differentiate your customers!

Steve Yastrow
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Steve Yastrow

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Don't Differentiate Yourself, Differentiate Your Customers: The blog post that created the spark for this newsletter.

The Differentiation Ladder: Steve asks, "What do you want to know about your customers?" and gives advice for moving up the differentiation ladder in your customers' minds.

The connection between customer beliefs and profit: It doesn't matter what you do. It matters what your customers do.

Your Brand Can Only Be As Good As... No matter what you do, your external brand can only be as strong as your internal brand.

We: The Ideal Customer Relationship

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The best way to differentiate yourself in your customer's mind is to develop a relationship with her - where you recognize what makes each of you different.

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