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What a Difference a Difference Makes: How to Gain a Competitive Advantage Through Differentiation

Let’s start our discussion of differentiators with three questions:

  1. What makes you different?
  2. Can your competitors claim the same thing?
  3. How’s your firm’s growth?

If you’re wondering what that last question has to do with the first two, consider the fact that high growth firms are three times as likely to have a strong differentiator than their average growth counterparts. So if you’re looking to grow faster, take a long hard look at your answers to those first pair of questions.

A strong differentiator not only sets you apart from your competition, it gives your potential clients very specific reasons to do business with you. It not only makes you different, it makes you special. You may already have a differentiator. If you suspect you do, put it to the test. Does it meet these criteria?

  1. Is it true? You can’t just make one up. Your differentiator must be more than lip service to an ideal. It’s what you preach and practice.
  2. Is it provable? Boasting the most cost-effective services in your industry? Prove it. Crunch the numbers and show off the value you bring to your clients. This can be a tricky litmus test to pass than with softer claims, like “exceptional customer service.” But gather and present whatever data you can. If you can’t back up your claims, it might be time to find another differentiator.
  3. Does it matter? You have the only CEO in your industry to finish first in five marathons. Congratulations. You even have the trophies and the race stats to prove it. But will your clients care? Does it help them that you’ve got a fast runner on your team? No. They’re looking for a firm with a difference that matters to project performance, value, or industry expertise.

Still not sure if you have a differentiator? Here are some examples of where to look for what makes you different:

  1. Your offerings. Do you offer your clients unique services or a combination of services that they’d otherwise have to seek out from multiple vendors? Or do you use innovative technology that your competitors don’t yet possess?
  2. Clientbase. Are you particularly effective at serving a special group of customers? Does your firm have a deep understanding of the needs of accounting firms or engineers? Focusing on a particular client base helps you understand them and serve them better. This can be a great way to outshine the competition.
  3. Expertise. Maybe you only hire engineers with Masters degrees or higher. Maybe your founder is a high-profile industry expert (the Steve Jobs of your field). Whatever the expertise, certifications, or other credentials you bring to the table, you can leverage them to set your firm apart from the competition.
  4. Geography. Specialize in serving the needs of a region or community. Clients are often looking for firms with hyper-local focus and an understanding of the areas they serve. An architecture firm that serves coastal regions will bring a different set of skills and experiences to the table than one based in central Alaska.
  5. Combinations. Your differentiator might be a combination of multiple traits. There might be plenty of firms serving a client base similar to yours, but how many focus on the southwest? Or employ only PhDs? Find a way to build a unique identity from the building blocks that make up your firm.

Remember, whatever you think sets your firm apart might not be how your prospects and clients view your firm. Do your research. Find out what the marketplace delivers already—or better yet, find out what it’s lacking and fill the void. Deliver differently, truthfully, and meaningfully, and the marketplace will reward you with growth.