What Really Differentiates You From Your Competitors?


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In April, CustomerThink is focusing on How to Build a High-Performance Brand. In today’s crowded marketplaces we need to make it a priority to determine how we can rise above the fray and ensure we get more than our fair share of the business from our customers. How do we do that?

The “how” of selling is something I found fascinating to watch during my early sales career. In the late 70’s, fresh out of grad school, I went to work for IBM. During my first year, they educated me on how to sell IBM mainframes. The net-net of the training was: 1) leverage the brand – we were IBM, everyone knew us; 2) leverage the product – we were usually on the front edge of innovation during that time period; and #3) leverage FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) — the adage in the computer industry then was “No one ever got fired for buying IBM!” Did it work? It was a major shock when we lost a deal, not a surprise when we won one. And I was very successful at selling, or so I thought.

In 1980 I made the jump from hardware into software, going to work for the largest software firm in the world at that time; Informatics (doing a whopping $90M a year in sales). And believe me selling changed! When I called prospects; the most common response was “Infor-who” when I mentioned the company brand. When I talked about the products, people were shocked that I would expect them to pay so much for software, let alone maintenance. And I actually became the poster child of FUD; in those early years of the software industry companies were concerned about running software on their computers that their programmers didn’t write.

It took a long time for me to start to succeed again, and when I did it was because I went beyond the brand, and beyond the product, and began to emulate what the most successful people at Informatics were doing – excelling at building relationships with clients and going out of the way to support the hell out of them.

Fast forward to today. In CSO Insights’ 2008 Sales Performance Optimization survey of over 1,500 companies worldwide, one of the 100+ metrics we tracked was why companies win deals today. Figure 1 summarizes the responses we received.

This is a key chart for all sales professionals to really reflect on and understand. The vast majority of salespeople do not work for the GE’s, Coca Colas, or 3M’s of the world. They work for small to medium sized businesses which don’t have the financial resources to spend $3M for a 30 second commercial during the Super Bowl to get their company name known to the world. But that does not mean they cannot compete, or even outsell their better known competitors.

Brand is definitely an asset, and will help you get in the game. But other factors help you win the game. Seen in the chart above we find that relationships and service can be more valuable that brand or product. So how do you optimize relationships and the value of service/support?

For those of you who read our book The Sales and Marketing Excellence Challenge, you may remember being introduced to Joe Batista; Joe is the individual with the unique title of Director and Chief Creatlogist at Hewlett-Packard. When we interviewed Joe, he outlined how his group was responsible for creating innovative ways to work with clients. And his recommendation to others wanting to follow in his path was to do an inventory of all the things their company can bring to bear to help a customer solve their problem.

For those who have not read Joe’s insights before, send me an email and I will be happy to send you back the full chapter. But to briefly summary Joe’s recommendations, this inventory process goes beyond the product, and includes: intellectual capital you have in the minds of your employees; relationships you have with other suppliers or customers; internal intellectual property you use in your own business; etc. As you build this inventory you will start to see the wealth of assets at your disposal to share with customers above and beyond what they have been traditionally thinking about buying.

This to me is the new battleground where sales wars will be won or lost: optimizing the power of your value-add to your customer base. If that is not a focus of your differentiation strategy, then start to make it one.

Jim Dickie
CSO Insights
Jim Dickie is a partner with CSO Insights, a research firm that specializes in benchmarking how companies are leveraging people, process, technology and knowledge to optimize sales.


  1. Jim

    Interesting experience.

    However, I had a different experience. I have good relationships with a number of clients, but they won’t buy from me because they don’t have the needs.

    It is more important for the salesperson to either address existing customer needs or uncover hidden needs than build relationships based on the preconceived notion that only relationship matters.

    Daryl Choy
    Make Little Things Count


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