Differentiating Yourself from the Competition

It’s getting harder and harder to differentiate yourself from the competition these days. Especially when your competition is global, offer additional value through their stellar service, and look and sound similarly wonderful to your offering. Not to mention that the new buzz words – ‘adding value’ and ‘trusted advisor’ – are universal, making it even harder to distinguish what you bring to the party as being superior.

I recently read a quote by Daniel Pink in the Harvard Business Review 2/04 issue:

“Businesses are realizing that the only way to differentiate their goods and services in today’s over-stocked, materially abundant marketplace is to make their offerings transcendent – physically beautiful and emotionally compelling.” (page 21).
Interesting. What this says to me is that companies are having a difficult time closing sales, and still assume that buyers will buy either because of the product presentation or when they make an emotional decision. It also tells me that companies are still using their product to differentiate themselves. It’s a hard way to go.


Buyers buy only when they need to solve a (business) problem. A purchased item might be their best solution, but they won’t buy until they understand and resolve all of the systems complications that the purchase itself will create.

In other words, your product would be considered as a solution only if – or when – it would fit efficiently within a buyer’s culture and won’t rock the boat. Just because it’s a great product, or because they need it/love it/want it, doesn’t mean the idiosyncratic systems within the buyer’s buying culture can make room for any of the changes that the purchase would entail.

Let me offer very simplistic example. Let’s say I was house hunting; I find the perfect house for my family and our space and use needs, but my husband hates it, the kids won’t be anywhere near their school or friends, and my dying mother would be an hour away rather than walking distance. I wouldn’t buy the house no matter how much I liked the house itself. Nothing to do with the house, or the agent, or my passion. Just that it wouldn’t fit into the system – or culture, if you will – that I live within. Purchasing is a systems-alignment decision, not a product decision.


For those of you who have been reading my newsletters for years, or who have read any of my books, please be patient with me while I navigate this territory again:

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Buyers exist within a system. Whether it’s a woman buying a new brand of lipstick, a small company purchasing their first server, or a large company purchasing leadership training. All people, all groups, operate within systems (people, rules, relationships, initiatives, partnerships, beliefs, values, calendars) they have already set up. And systems don’t like to change. They just are the way they are. Are they healthy? Not necessarily. Are they effective? Not necessarily. Are they happy? Not necessarily. But they are stable because each element of the system exists as part of the fabric of the whole.

When change happens to a system, it faces chaos. Systems like stasis… they like being just as they are, for good or bad. You’ve heard of one member of a couple going to AA to get sober, and the other partner tries to get them to drink again to stabilize the system that has been. When one part of a system shifts, the whole system shifts.

Your clients would prefer to keep doing what they are already doing. They also would prefer to operate optimally without any additional effort. But any change to an existent system will create its own form of chaos.

To begin with, the status quo doesn’t understand there is anything wrong. It all seems so normal to them – it’s always just been that way after all. So before the system decides to do something different, it first must understand that it needs to change. Then it needs to understand how to manage the change with what’s familiar so there is a minimum of disruption. If it can’t find a fix for the problem with familiar resources, it needs to seek an unfamiliar solution. And that runs a great risk of creating disruption.


How will the static system bring in or manage something foreign if it doesn’t know what might go wrong? There is a very simple reason why CRM implementations cost $5 extra to manage the people issues for every $1 of software: the team or group or company did not have the skills in place to help the different groups (users, managers, techies) collaborate, nor did they understand many of the technology- or people-issues that this new software would uncover. The time it takes buyers to understand and recognize all of the variables that need to be managed when something new enters their established culture is the length of the sales cycle. It has nothing to do with the product!

Until or unless a system (a family, a team, an individual, a company, a department….) knows how to recognize, understand, manage, and solve the disruption issues that will arise when they make a change (such as make a purchase or adopt a new idea, for example), they will not do anything different. Hence the length of the sales cycle.

To give you an idea of how difficult it is for systems to even recognize a problem and face the confusion of changing what always has been, let me offer a simple analogy: Let’s say you have a TV but only watch Channel 4. You’ve never changed channels. You know every show on every night. Some you like, some you don’t, some you watch… but you don’t need a TV guide. It’s just familiar. Let’s say I come along and ask if you could turn the TV to Channel 10 for me. Channel 10?? You’ve never switched channels. You have no way of knowing if the TV will even do that! But you hesitantly turn to Channel 10, and see a show you’ve never heard of. So, what do you do? Do you sit down and watch everything on Channel 10? Or do you try to learn what’s new on Channel 10 that you would like better, and get rid of old familiar choices? How do you choose? Do you go back to Channel 4 because you’ve always done that? Do you give up everything you’ve ever watched because now you have a new resource?

My dad visited his parents every other week for 40 years. He drove an hour into New York from our house in Connecticut. He took the Triborough Bridge over to Manhatten, then drove through the City to Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge. The trip took him 90 minutes when there was no traffic, and 2 hours with traffic. When I moved to New York, I realized that my grandparents lived moments from the TriBorough Bridge, and all my dad had to do was to drive straight over the bridge and get off two exists past the bridge – about a 70 minute trip door to door – with no traffic ever. When I told him to try it, he just smiled patiently, and said, “Thanks. Interesting. Maybe. But I’ve gotten used to doing the trip this way. I don’t want to change.”



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