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Does Differentiation Matter?

“Differentiation" is a term frequently used in sales. Salespeople have been trained to search out, and sell, their "points of differentiation," and buyers have been wired to ask how one competitor is different from another.

In complex sales, I think we are all asking, and responding, to the wrong question. In today's commoditized world, replication of a new service, product or idea can happen in a heartbeat. A moment of differentiation is likely to be fleeting and lack any long-term significance.

When I think of myself as a buyer, assuming I feel confident that my needs or problems have been sufficiently satisfied at a reasonable cost, and that I like the people with whom I will be working, I don't care much how a product or service is different. My critical question is "What makes you the better choice for me and my particular situation?"

Answering the "fit" question is more complicated than the "different" question, as it demands a deep understanding of the client's situation and thorough analysis of the competitors' offering. It then requires the ability to effectively communicate and demonstrate that you are the better choice for the client. This can be a tall order.

Here are a few ideas that might make it a little easier:

1. Consciously explore the question, "Why are we a better fit for this particular client?" Don't be tempted to use generic "party lines" written for marketing brochures. Instead, challenge yourself and your team to come up with three to five reasons that are specific to this particular client. Your answers should be so customized that they would not be relevant to any other client.

2. Avoid overused and empty phrases like "trusted partner", "thought leader" and "best-in-class service." These kinds of terms have been so overused that they have become meaningless. Instead, focus on the intent of your message and describe it by using meaningful examples.

3. Emphasize core similarities like culture, size and industry with the prospect and clients for whom you are ideally suited to work. In doing so, be careful to let them know that you understand that they are unique. Prospects want to know that you will not put them in a bucket with other clients. Everyone likes to think that his or her situation is unique.

By all means, if you have a point of differentiation of which you are particularly proud, let your prospects know - just don't hang your hat on it. Focusing on why you are the best fit for your client will have a greater impact on helping you to close more deals.

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