As businesses head into another uncertain year, Lisette Howlett, from Sandler Training in London, a centre of excellence, looks at how differentiation could be the key to success in 2012. Sandler Training is one of the UK’s leading sales, management and leadership training organisations.

As businesses head into another uncertain year, Lisette Howlett, from Sandler Training in London, a centre of excellence, looks at how differentiation could be the key to success in 2012. Sandler Training is one of the UK’s leading sales, management and leadership training organisations.

Has the word “differentiation” started to sound a little tired within the common business lexicon? If so, this is because it is both misused and over used.

“We need to pause and think about what differentiation actually means to businesses. In business, it’s about separating ourselves from our competitors. We want to achieve two things by doing this. Firstly, is to attract customers to buy from us, and secondly, to buy at our price. Working with SMEs from a number of sectors, I see that businesses don’t often realise that a key differentiation element is to maintain your price point, so end up selling themselves short. This doesn’t look like real success to me.”

Differentiation is therefore no longer possible in its traditional sense; it's essential to understand how to create a unique selling point (USP) that can adapt to today’s tough and increasingly cluttered marketplace.






The Social Sales-scape

The rise and rise of the social web has been a key factor to the need for businesses to truly examine how they differentiate themselves. Digital technologies and social networks have dramatically changed the roles of buyers and sellers, their cycles and how they interact. The features and benefits of a product or service can be quickly and easily debunked as not necessarily unique to one’s business in what is now an open access market. This undermines the possibility of selling within these parameters, making price one of the only discernible differentiators.

“In today’s fast evolving buyers’ market, true differentiation needs to be found in new places. You need to get beneath the skin of your brand’s essence to connect with what truly makes your business different. This often comes down to sales; it can be how you run your business and your sales strategy, how you approach and sell to prospects, how well you equip your people to take your business forward and how you manage client relationship strategies. These all need to be structured and systemic as are what will set you apart from the crowd.”

Getting these strategies right will be critical for businesses of all sizes in 2012. Businesses tend to invest too much time, resource and creativity in creating brand differentiation, despite a simpler, more elegant strategy that focuses on the organic, systemic way a business sells often being more beneficial.









Know your competitors

Understanding your competitors is at the crux of differentiation – it’s only by doing this, that you can carve out your own market segment. However, this again requires a new way of thinking.

“Your competitor isn’t necessarily the shop next door. You need to think wider than this – yes there are obvious variables here such as similar products, geographies or employee pools. But really recognise your competitors, know what they offer and know what you have to do differently to deliver a more attractive proposition for your customers.”









We’re all grown-ups here

When it comes to differentiation, It's essential to treat your customers like adults, and build the expectation that you should be treated like an adult.

“This sounds odd but an adult-to-adult relationship is critical to building engagement and trust. This is what will strengthen your position in the buyer-seller framework. We talk a lot about communication being at the heart of our relationships. What we forget is that, when it comes to differentiation, it’s about what you do, not what you say and I see businesses failing to recognize this time and time again. Delivering on your promise – at all times, without fail, that’s what drives customer trust, customer commitment and customer loyalty. That’s differentiation.”

“Your customer has a role to play in this too. Let your customers know what’s expected of them in the process. A classic example here is when companies in the services industry pitch for new business. Very often, the pitch process becomes an extended programme of free consulting with no real return. By having the guts to draw the line under the process, making the rules of engagement clear with your prospect, you are setting yourself apart with buyers who have expectations of the norm. You are also saving your business a lot of time and money. In this way, the buyer and seller start to treat each other with equal business stature – as adults. Changing your behaviour and attitude by holding your nerve against pressure from buyers to devalue your business will be critical next year.”









Authentic differentiation

Your USP, like differentiation, is a concept that can come across as trite and pedestrian in customer engagement as we all work so hard to prove how different we are from competitors and as a business. As brand-savvy consumers, expectation of differentiation had grown.

“There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to crystallising your USP or point of differentiation. I quote Steve Jobs here when I say, quite simply, “Brands are themselves”. You need to know – beyond making a profit – what the purpose of your business is and believe in it. There has to be that authentic core at the centre of what you do, rather than merely focusing on “What will sell more?” Customers today are sophisticated and discerning – they will see through the empty promise. Working with CEOs and business owners, I constantly encourage them to go back to the seed of their business, get back in touch with yourself and your business to create that consistent and genuine proposition."









Going into 2012

Economic uncertainty makes this a tough environment for businesses and the temptation is all too great to compete on price. We all know that in the longer-term, this isn’t sustainable for businesses looking to grow.

“Businesses need to have the guts, the courage to remain true to themselves. Understanding their competitors, understanding their customers and understanding their own place in the market will help them map out their differentiation strategy. Communicate this right across your business to ensure your customers get a consistent, cohesive message. Going into 2012 with a sense of ownership around your business’ authentic point of differentiation is a great starting point.”