What’s Different?

When the phone rings at my desk, I always have that slight hesitation about whether I should answer it or if I should let Bea (my executive assistant) take it.  I tend to like answering my own calls.  I’ve never been very good at playing “executive” by having my staff run interference.

The typical types of calls I get fall into two categories.  The most common are internal calls where someone is asking for my thoughts/input or responding to a request I made looking for information/status.  The second category are external calls that almost always fall into the “I have the best idea in the world and you would be an idiot if you didn’t [BLANK] “.  The blank is filled in with the word invest, acquire or merge.

The typical dance on the phone then falls into a predictable cadence:

Me:      Give me a high level understanding on what you have?

Them: It’s best if we could meet.  Are you available for lunch today?

Me:      First – my schedule is booked and Second – give me some background so that I can make sure you are talking to the right people.

Them: It does ‘X’

Me:      ‘X’ sounds a lot like ‘Y’ that is already in the market.  How is yours different?

Them: Its better – trust me.  When can we meet?

That’s where the wheels fall off the cart.  That magic question about what is truly different about what they have invented stumps the best of companies.

What is it that I’m asking for?

To truly qualify as having something different, their products or services must pass what I call the “rules of differentiation”.  These rules are:

1)     Each differentiation must make a proposition to the customer.  Not just words and not just product puffery.  Each differentiation must say to each prospective customer:  “Buy this product and you will get this specific benefit”.

2)     The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not offer.  It must be unique in the minds of the customer.

3)     The proposition must be valued by the customer in such a way as they are willing to pay you more than the cost to invent, produce and deliver the differentiation.  What the spreadsheet jockeys call margin.

4)     The proposition must be so strong as to move the market.  Otherwise, why bother.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone I talk to fails on passing the “rules”.  What I am saying is that I’m shocked by how many companies have failed to design, implement and communicate true differentiators into their products (or services).

For some reason, it’s the communicate part that seems so hard to get right.  Here’s an idea, why not ask the customers what they value in using your product (or service).  The answer may be shocking.

Flikr photo by Jurvetson


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