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August 31, 2021

How Differentiation Can Help You Win the Competitive Battle

Do a quick favor for me and read through the following statements (taken from actual websites in our industry)…

  • “Every project that comes through our doors gets senior-level attention every step of the way.”
  • “[We are] committed to working with clients to identify the right solutions to their specific challenges.”
  • “[We are] a full-service custom research firm that develops long-term partnerships with its clients.”
  • “We know how to truly listen and collaborate – so you gain a partner, not just a vendor.”
  • “We consult with Clients to translate what consumers say and do into insights and actionable recommendations.”

I’ll bet I’m not going too far out on a limb to say that your firm’s website likely contains several of the same sentiments, maybe using almost exactly the same words.

“What’s the big deal?” you might ask. Here’s the big deal… put yourself in the shoes of a prospective buyer who’s looking for a new supplier. She starts her due diligence by looking at the websites of several firms she is considering and comes across site after site all saying the same thing.

How does she choose? Or even just narrow down the list?

There is so much ‘sameness’ in our industry that it’s difficult for a buyer to buy… so many research firms offering the same kinds of services to the same industries & markets and talking about themselves in the same way.

To get on the buyers ‘short list’ of potential vendors, you have to cut through all of that clutter. You have to showcase your uniqueness… that one thing that makes you different, that explains why a buyer would want to buy from you. [By the way, saying, “We have great people and we do great work” ain’t it!]

Entire books have been written on how to differentiate your firm, but let me give you two critical ideas to get you started thinking about it.

  1. Think strategically about HOW to differentiate. There are dozens of ways to consider, but here are the three primary ways to differentiate your firm:
    • By the industry(ies) you focus on. Suppose you specialize in the financial services industry. You work with firms in that space, you write blog posts for FinServ companies, you belong to the appropriate LinkedIn groups, etc. By doing that, it won’t take long for you to become recognized as an expert in the financial services industry and become the ‘go to’ firm for companies in that space… helping you to easily standout from the other firms that don’t specialize. Again, put yourself in the buyer’s shoes… would you want to work with a generalist or a specialist?
    • By the services you provide. That is, some sort of methodology focus. Imagine your firm specializes in qualitative research… so much so, that you develop expertise in more than a dozen different qual methodologies. Like the industry example above, it wouldn’t take long for your firm to become recognized as an expert with those methods and stand out from all of the generalists in the marketplace.
    • By the ‘business issue’ you focus on. An example might be that you specialize in ‘employee satisfaction’ studies. You firm is method-agnostic, likely using several different ones to get a complete picture of a company’s employees. Back to those buyer’s shoes… if I’m the head of Human Resources for a Fortune 5000 company and want to better understand my employees… do I reach out to a generalist firm or one that specializes in giving me exactly what I need?
  1. Now that you understand some of the options for differentiation, how do you decide which direction to go? Again, there are a lot of ways to build your case, but here are two ways to easily gather information to help you get started:
    • Take a look at the projects you’ve done over the past 18-24 months. What sort of commonalities can you find? Were a large percentage done using a certain methodology, focused on a specific application or done for a certain type of client? You may be a bit of a specialist already and just not recognize it. This data will help you to see that.
    • Interview 10-12 of your current clients and ask them why they hired you the very first time, when they could have chosen any number of other similar suppliers. And don’t take an answer like “because we were referred to you” at face value. Dig down and find out why. What was that one thing that made you stand out from the others?

Differentiation is a challenging and critical topic… but sadly, one that the vast majority of firms don’t tackle. Most firms are content to be like every other firm, afraid of differentiation because they might lose out on some business. What they fail to realize is that when you differentiate your firm and specialize in some way – your firm is sought out. Buyers come looking for you because you truly are different from all the others.

So, what’s it gonna be… sameness or differentiation?

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