We were recently engaged by a client who wanted our help to raise their profile. During the introductory phase I questioned this new client about the company’s business. One of the first things I asked was, “What sets your company apart from the competition?”
The response was agonisingly predictable. They were different because they provided good customer service and had loyal clients. As this is what nine out of 10 companies tell me, it’s hardly a point-of-difference we can hang a campaign on.
In the desperate hope of being able to get a fix on their unique selling point (USP), I asked who the company’s top three competitors were. The response almost made me fall off my chair (and it was said in absolute earnest): “We don’t have any.” I didn’t have the heart to ask the obvious: “If you own a company with great customer service, loyal clients and no competition, why are you calling me?”
The most unfortunate thing about this story is it is fairly typical. Too many business owners (and employees) believe they’re different simply based on their own mythology: ‘We are the best at what we do’. It is a ‘fact’ they cling on to as the nature of their market dramatically changes. The ensuing ‘lack of visibility’ is never anything to do with what they (or their competition) might be doing, but magical external forces beyond their control.
To someone outside the business, such as a customer or prospect, where you sit in the market is obvious. Even if you have the most unusual offering in the world — and by definition most companies don’t — you will have competition and be compared with them. With the internet, although your competition may be thousands of miles away and while they may not sell directly to your customers, the competition still provides a benchmark for the quality of your offering.
So how do you find out what your USP really is? It’s Business 101, but talking to your existing customers is a good idea. Why do they do business with you? If it is only apathy keeping them there, you need to take action. Sitting down with your staff and completing an honest SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis is another good place to start. Try to view things as your customers see them and ask your staff why someone should do business with you.
This point of difference might be as straightforward as the cheapest price or as complex as your brand image. In the eyes of your customer the difference is real and you absolutely have to understand why it is important to them.
Too many companies who say they don’t have competition take a very limited view of the world. They generally tell us that no one sells their equivalent of a ‘two-dollar, pink mousetrap with inbuilt alarm and optional cheese’ – a market in which they genuinely don’t have competition. However, as their customers are simply trying to buy a mousetrap, the competition is suddenly extensive and all too close to home.
If you haven’t taken a close look at your competition lately, act like a prospect for a moment. Google your key competencies and see what comes out. Better still, think what your customers would search on. Start out with the broadest possible search criteria and then gradually narrow it down until you identify your company. It’s an interesting exercise and one that can bring to light not only your generic competition but, as in the case of one client, another company with the same name, providing an almost identical service located only 40km away.
What makes you different and where you sit in the world is constantly changing. Today’s colleague can be tomorrow’s competition. The most successful companies and brands are those that recognise this and engage in a regular review; not only of what currently makes them different in the market, but also what they can do to enhance that position.
One of the most valuable services we can provide is to be some eyes and ears outside of a business. Regular, unbiased third-party feedback of how your clients perceive you is something we all need — and if you don’t ask these questions there will always be a danger your USP is all in your head and not at the heart of your customer.
Bob Pinchin is the director of Sway.tech, a specialist communications house for technology companies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org