Cultivating Your Turf

Both mainstream and niche businesses share the problem of making themselves distinct in customers' minds. Here's how to do it

Businesses can be like teenagers -- they want to simultaneously fit in and stand out. When I consult with clients that naturally stand out, because they sell something really unique, they complain that their prospective customers aren't clear on exactly what they sell. On the other hand, when I consult with clients that fit in, because they sell something common, they grumble that it's hard to differentiate their businesses from the competition.

It's like the grass is always greener on the other side of the sales fence. However, to be successful, you need to market your own yard. Rather than bemoaning the advantages of having something different to sell, both situations can benefit from taking a page out of the other side's playbook.

For those sales reps who have unusual offerings -- like golf tournament consulting services or a medical data-collection system using headsets and the Web -- it's a challenge to show the value of your proposition when the customer doesn't get why they need something that does X but not Y.


  What to do? Find ways to pitch your idea so it fits into what's already in the customer's mind. One way is to brainstorm for analogies and metaphors. Remember, automobiles were originally known as "horseless carriages." Customers already knew what a carriage was and what it could do for them. They imagined they could have the benefits of a carriage without the disadvantages of a horse.

You can also borrow a well-known brand and apply it to your enterprise. Perhaps you are "the Wal-Mart of golf" or "the Brookstone of dog-training supplies." Since your customers are probably familiar with these vendors, they'll better understand your market positioning and more quickly decide if that's what they need or want to buy.

By the way, just because no one else sells exactly what you do doesn't mean you're without competitors. For example, if you sell shoes with wheels in them, you're fighting for funds from those who sell regular shoes, in-line skates, scooters, skateboards, and bicycles. In the bigger picture, you're competing with all forms of exercise and entertainment equipment.


  Just remember, the more unusual your offering, the more important it is to keep the sales message simple. A rule of thumb is to double your focus on the results you deliver -- faster turnaround, clearer drawings, or measurably lower costs -- and halve your descriptions on exactly how you get these results.

Customers won't accept a fuzzy "just trust us, we really can do this," but they don't need a detailed explanation of every minute step you perform either -- at least not in the early stages of the sale. Too much detail can reduce your sales momentum, which can ultimately kill a sale. It can also educate your client on how they could do your job in-house. Ouch.

For those whose sales propositions are more easily understood, like dry-cleaning services or women's shoes, it's difficult to show your value when the customer thinks they can buy the same thing down the street for less money.


  I recommend you find ways to sell so you stand out from those who sell similar products and services. As in the prior situation, invest the time to do some creative thinking about what's special or unique about what you sell, how you sell it, or the entire sales experience.

Say you're introducing some Mexican fruit-juice drinks to the American marketplace. Your customers assume they know what fruit juice is, so your product's message could easily be drowned out by those of traditional orange juice and other juice products.

You might want to pitch that these products will help the drinker appear more successful to their peers, bring special health benefits, or add variety to the menus of people on strict diets. Maybe they come in interesting containers, like Coca-Cola's (KO) original curvy glass bottles or perhaps one that's square or in the shape of a fish.


  If you sell a service such as printing, maybe you're open later or earlier, offer guaranteed translations, or provide unusual paper stock. You might want to make a list of 10 ways you could differentiate your company and then survey your potential customers to see which ones they would pay more for. Give them the opportunity to tell you what twists would give them added benefit too.

One word of advice in finding ways to be unique -- make sure it's something your customers directly benefit from and will pay extra or drive farther to receive. If your printing operation decides to be different by having all the employees dress in Goth or speak only in French, it could backfire.

Another idea is to consider flipping a disadvantage to your favor. Business writer W. Clement Stone once wrote: To every disadvantage, there is a corresponding advantage. His peer, Napoleon Hill, added: Your big opportunity may be right where you are now. Perhaps your out-of-the-way location can add cachet to your business, or maybe the unusual color combinations on your products make you more desirable to certain ethnic groups. This is another great application for creative thinking, brainstorming, and research.

Humorist Erma Bombeck once wrote a book called The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, which speaks to a truth in selling too. The real secret to increasing your sales is to sell something people want to buy and are able to buy now. Stop thinking about how much easier it would be to sell a different product or service. Help more clients buy more of what you're selling right now, and your sales volumes will soar. Happy selling!

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.