by Tom Cline

In a previous article, I used the term “differentiation” while discussing the need to focus on both the quantity and quality aspects of our sales efforts to ensure success.

This concept is the foundation of every successful marketing and sales strategy. At its core, differentiation is quite basic: How will you give potential customers an effective reason to choose your company, your product, or your service over all of the options that exist in the market?

My belief, based on experience that includes selling both products and services to individual customers (B2C) and to other businesses (B2B), is that you have to accomplish two things:

  1. Identify how you, your company, your product, or your service is truly different from your competition.
  2. Point out how those differences are valuable to the customer.

In his book, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, Verne Harnish further explains this concept when he wrote: “You don’t have a real strategy if it doesn’t pass these two tests”:

  1. What you are planning to do really matters to your existing and potential customers.
  2. What you are planning to do differentiates you from your competition—meaning they cannot make the same claim.”

In our industry focused on cleaning, restoring, and rebuilding people’s property and belongings, the default approach to gaining and maintaining customers is often based on how we do the work: The equipment and technology we employ, the experience we have, and the qualifications and certifications held by our employees. Guess what… that approach fails BOTH of the above tests. First, many of our competitors can make the same claims. Second, your customers don’t care how you do the work! They don’t understand, or care to understand, the technology and science behind what you do.

Apart from the way you produce your services, the equipment and techniques you use, and the prices you charge, what else is there? Here’s a hint: In his recent article, “Rule #1 of the Customer Service Experience,” Micah Solomon wrote, “The customer is at the center of the customer’s universe.” Translated, that means it’s all about the customer. They only think about themselves and what’s in it for them.

So, what are you left with? You can start by looking at the services you offer. Is your company capable of dealing with situations and providing solutions for events or issues that none of your competitors can? If, for example, you are certified to do asbestos abatement or to handle bio-hazard and crime scene situations and are the only company in your area who provides this service, that is a differentiator for the customers who have a need for those specific services.

The ability to handle large individual losses or a high number of smaller jobs — again assuming that your competitors cannot make the same claim — could be a differentiator for large commercial customers, high-rise and multi-tenant facilities or property managers responsible for a large number of properties that could be impacted by a single event.

Typically, these options apply only to a small group of contractors in a particular market.

Let’s go back to the two criteria for successful differentiation that I laid out earlier. To be effective at differentiating your company from the competition, what you are planning to do has to truly matter — to provide value — to the customer. So, we should start by developing a strong understanding of what is valuable to our customers and potential customers.

In our industry, the customer typically falls into one of two categories: 1) A property owner or 2) someone in business who either owns property or is providing services to other businesses or property owners. In some cases, the business people on whom we call are not the ultimate customer, but the customer relies on them for assistance in their time of need. The customers count on these people to look out for their best interests since they have more knowledge and experience in how to deal with the particular situation they are facing.

Consider the business people to whom we market. They may be from a wide range of industries, but some of the most popular are:

  • Carpet/flooring retailers.
  • Insurance companies — agents, adjusters, claims managers, area vice-presidents.
  • Property managers.
  • Trade contractors — plumbers, general contractors, roofers, basement waterproofers.

Step 1 is to research and understand each of these businesses and markets. What changes are taking place? What are their competitors doing? I’ll use insurance agents as an example. The following are some of the challenges and changes that are impacting the insurance industry:

  1. Increased competition from online sellers (GEICO, Progressive, etc.)
  2. The need for agents to justify their existence
  3. Inclination of younger buyers to purchase online — they don’t see the value of an agent
  4. Higher deductibles — an option for property owners to reduce premium costs
  5. Increased risk of cancellation for homeowners based on filing a claim
  6. Increase of exclusions and coverage limitations in policies — insurance companies trying to reduce payouts

Step 2 is to determine how you can effectively differentiate your company from your competitors based on this information. Are there ways you can help the insurance agents on whom you call to handle any of the above?

If you can provide a steady stream of information to the agents that can be passed on to their customers, or potential customers, and the customers find it useful, would that help the agent to justify their position in the distribution of insurance products? If you can feed ideas and information to agents on how they may be able to reach more customers and potentially sell more needed coverage to existing customers, wouldn’t that help them to offset lost clients and grow their book of business? If you were to offer—to some of the agents on whom you are calling — to be their eyes and ears at their customers’ properties when the agency receives a call stating “my home is flooded, and I need to file a claim,” could that possibly reduce the number of claims and help avoid the cancellation of customers’ policies?

Your marketing and selling strategy can be an effective differentiator for your business. You can set your company apart from others by establishing yourselves as the partner that will help those on whom you are calling to succeed.

Differentiation is the key to successful selling and a successful business. You can achieve that difference relative to your competition in a number of ways, including the way your business development people understand your customers’ business and figure out ways to help them succeed. It requires focusing your efforts, doing your research, and tapping into existing streams of information that are available.

Sounds a lot like what it takes to succeed in business!

Tom Cline has more than 30 years of experience in sales, marketing and operations. He is currently a business development advisor for Violand Management Associates (VMA) where he works closely with business owners and their key management staff as both a business consultant and an executive coach. To learn more about VMA’s services and programs visit or call (330) 966-0700.