Differentiation – it’s only human

We all know we have to stand out from the crowd if we want to thrive, but how can a company differentiate itself positively? Clifford Ferguson of The PACE Partnership advises getting back to basics and stressing the human side.

Marketing guru Philip Kotler defines differentiation as “ the act of designing a set of meaningful differences to distinguish the company’s offering from competitors’ offerings”. Marketers of all backgrounds have spent considerable amounts of money in their efforts to achieve such distinction. Why then do these efforts generally fail to make any real difference to the bottom line? What is the key to making differentiation real and measurable?

Is communication the answer?

Arguably, the development of visual branding and communications has been the focus of many marketers in their efforts to differentiate their offering from that of their competition. Some have spent considerable amounts of expenditure to incorporate the use of leading-edge communications into their communications mix, while others have attempted to reach as wide an audience as possible in efforts to explain how their offering is different.

Champion of independent thought, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said: “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I can’t hear what you say.” We can easily forget the individual amongst the masses. Time, money and resources can be excuses for a lack of personalised communication, however they may also be reasons for it.

Also, our perceptions and memories are highly selective. Our minds are not able to handle infinite numbers of stimuli. This means that in a highly competitive market, such as construction, positioning ourselves as different is not enough unless it is seen to be real.

Did you know:

  • According to Scientific American every day the Internet grows by a million electronic pages?
  • The total of all printed knowledge doubles every four or five years?
  • One edition of The Daily Telegraph contains more information than the average person was likely to encounter in a lifetime in the seventeenth century?

We work in an environment where many of the messages delivered are similar. Even more alarming is the fact that many of these promises are untrue or not delivered. 

At a recent chief executive’s forum, the managing director of a major retail chain stated: “Construction people still make claims that they cannot deliver – then wonder why we are not loyal to them”.

Differentiation, like any aspect of marketing and business, needs to be done by people with core values in tact. Effective communication should express those values and uphold the company’s position as a trusted partner. However, more importantly, it is up to the organisation’s people to deliver these promises in a personalised and considerate manner, in order to build profitable and long-term business relationships.

The importance of trust

The word ‘trust’ has become the carrion call and it provides us a start point for differentiation. Building trust can be visualised as a staircase with each stair representing a stage in the process of building that trust. The steps to building this trust are:

  1. Making initial contact – How professional, personal and honest is our approach?
  2. Building credibility – How do we demonstrate that we are truly different and will deliver as promised’?
  3. Demonstrate interest and knowledge – Just being good at what we do is not enough – the client expects that. We have to demonstrate that we are really interested in helping them to achieve their objectives.
  4. Add value – We can only really build trust if the client believes we do more than just ‘turn up and do the job’. Where are the true and worthwhile benefits in working with us?
  5. Create confidence – This is particularly important if the target market believes that we will not deliver what we promise. We have to give them demonstrable signs that we are different.

The key to building trust is to demonstrate that you are different rather than simply telling the clients so. This is not to say that we should avoid the normal communication channels, but consider using them differently to support you efforts in business development and customer relationship management. Always put people first. 

Walking the talk

Behaviours are far more powerful than words. Have you ever seen plaques or heard phrases like “the client is king” or “we put the client first”? It is unfortunate that conflicting actions and behaviours often denigrate these mantras. Let’s consider two examples.

  • Look at where client parking is situated at your offices. Are the ‘best’ parking spots, those nearest the reception area, are reserved for partners or directors? Are visitor parking spots populated by late arriving staff who cannot find a parking place in the main car park? These behaviours do not demonstrate that the ‘client is king’, rather the opposite. Instead, it says: “Visitors are not as important as us”.
  • How are prospective clients treated at seminars and similar events? Do your contacts – those people you are trying to get onto the bottom rung of your ‘trust staircase’ – leave with a positive feeling on departure? Are there enough people from the company ‘hosting’ the event? Are the firm’s representatives ‘cornered’ by existing clients who want to talk about existing or past work? Do the potential clients receive sufficient attention? Do they believe that you are interested in them? Do they believe you care?

The importance of leadership

To differentiate successfully we should focus on changing behaviours to demonstrate to clients and prospective clients that we are different and that we truly care. The good news is that this may incur less expenditure. The bad news is that changing behaviours is not as easy as it sounds and is almost always driven from the top of the organisation downwards with good leadership. As once said by Ed Nixon, former chairman of IBM UK: “water never runs up a pyramid”.

Getting partners, directors and senior managers to change the way they operate is often difficult and frustrating, but the results can often be dramatic. People who have risen to the top of any organisation are usually good managers, but may not be good leaders. Management is about rules, procedures, guidelines, performance management and discipline. Leadership is about providing vision and being able to demonstrate the behaviours that turn that vision into reality.

Are the senior people in your organisation demonstrating the necessary client-focused behaviours to show that they believe the “client is king”. These behaviours are equally important inside the firm as they are to the outside population of clients and potential clients.

Successful differentiation requires strong leaders who:

  • Articulate the ‘vision’ and demonstrate the values required for change and differentiation
  • ‘Walk the talk’
  • Identify negative behaviours and eliminate them
  • Reward the right behaviours
  • Build systems that encourage people to ‘do what is right’ for the client
  • Train and develop people, enabling them to identify and develop the behaviours and values required for successful differentiation
  • Develop programmes that are strong enough to change wrongly held perceptions, ingrained in culture 

The human way to differentiate

In many ways, this is the common-sense approach to successful differentiation – getting back to basics by remembering the human side to business, business development and successful differentiation.

Such a focus will allow you to open the doors to positive change in your organisation. It may provide an opportunity to:

  • reconsider your approach to business development and client relationship management,
  • align your communications with your firm’s values,
  • seek tailored ways in which to increase awareness of your offering,
  • demonstrate that you have a genuine interest in your customer’s business,
  • develop your offering to add further value for your customer,
  • identify the true leaders in your organisation,
  • explore areas of service enhancement,
  • achieve greater levels of customer satisfaction, and
  • create partnerships with your customers that are solid and long-term.

Differentiation based on confidence and trust will have a measurable impact on the bottom line. This achievement may require more than just the development of communications. However, one thing is certain, your customers and contacts will notice and appreciate the attention.


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