By Elizabeth Harr
You may have heard — or even said yourself — your IT solutions company’s most important asset is its people. But that’s only part of the story. In fact, your people have little to do with why companies choose your firm over another.
A firm’s brand will endure even as people come and go. While your people are indeed vital to your business, they are not the reason your firm differs from your competitors. And if you aren’t seen as different, you will be just another face in the crowd.
Communicating your differentiators is a critical part of marketing: they help buyers remember you and pick you out of the crowd. A differentiator is not the same thing as a value proposition. It doesn’t have to say you are better (though a good one can imply it). But a differentiator does have to separate you from otherwise similar competitors.
When firms brainstorm on their list of their differentiators they often unwittingly fall back on characteristics that feel comfortable, and ones that other firms claim, too. The problem with these so-called differentiators is not so much that they are overused (which they are), but that they don’t actually say anything of material importance — so they don’t have much influence on buyer behavior. Here are a few examples:
- we are trusted advisors to our clients
- we offer exceptional customer service
- we have a proprietary process
- we hire only the best people
- we have a passion for innovation
- we provide great service at a fair price
Except in very rare situations, these aren’t differentiators. Without strong evidence to back them up, they are limp platitudes.
3 Differentiator Tests
So how do you uncover strong differentiators — characteristics you can build a marketing program around? To begin with, you need to understand how to evaluate a differentiator. Strong differentiators must meet three criteria:
- they must be true
- they must be relevant to your target audience
- they must be provable
A differentiator that fails any of these tests is a skunk on the road: prospects will wrinkle their noses and keep on driving.
What do good differentiators look like? Of the top differentiators, specialization is the most impactful: usually in solving a particular problem, service or audience type. Other firms differentiate themselves by their industry focus, becoming thought leaders or use of technology to deliver services in a differentiated way.
One thing you should know is the vast majority of IT solutions companies don’t have many, if any, true differentiators. They offer a similar set of services to a similar set of clients in a similar way. If that sounds like your firm, take heart: there are techniques to create differentiators where none exist already. I’ll talk about those at the end of this article, but first you need to find out if you have any existing differentiators.
Develop A Working List
To draw up a list of potential differentiators, start by identifying your audiences. Consider the industries you serve, the roles you help in your client’s organizations (CTO, CFO, etc.), strategic partners, prospective employees, and industry influencers.
The ideal next step is to hire a reputable third party to interview the roles you just identified. This kind of research provides an invaluable perspective on your marketplace — and counter-balances your insider’s view of the situation.
If time and budget don’t allow for that, a second best option is quite simply to sit down with a small team of people from your firm — those who have direct contact with your audiences in particular — and ask yourselves what makes you different or better. As you brainstorm ideas, consider how you speak to each audience. Don’t worry if your list is long at this point; you’ll do some heavy pruning in the next step.
Vet Your List
Whether your list contains two items or twenty, you’ll need to give it a hard look and be brutally honest. First, measure each item against the three differentiator tests. Eliminate any items that fail even a single one. Then subject each remaining item to one final test: could one of your competitors claim the same thing? If so, then it’s probably not a true differentiator.
What If You Don’t Have Strong Differentiators?
So what if you determine there’s nothing unique about your IT firm? You have a couple of options:
- Change your business to focus on an area of strength: an industry or service, for instance. This is the hardest but most powerful approach. Look for an opportunity to be different and take it.
- Differentiate your firm in some other way. For example you could build your brand around a characteristic that, while not unique, nobody else is talking about. Or try expressing your personality in some memorable fashion. For many years, MGO, one of the nation’s fastest-growing CPA firms, embraced the tagline “Proud to Be Boring Accountants.” It was very effective, and they changed it only recently when they had outgrown the designation of “accountants.”
Now’s The Time To Build Your Brand
Your differentiators can serve as the foundation for building a client base. Because these components are so critical to any IT solutions company’s ongoing success, it’s important to focus and invest time in addressing these factors.
The good news is most of your competitors are no better differentiated than you. That means you have an opportunity to market your IT business to stand apart and get noticed. And that’s where growth begins.
Elizabeth (Liz) Harr, a nationally recognized expert in high-growth marketing, leads Hinge’s Technology and Consulting practices. She writes regularly on marketing, branding, and high-growth strategies for top industry publications and Hinge’s blog. She is co-author of two books: The Visible Expert® and Inside the Buyer’s Brain. In addition, Liz speaks at conferences around the country.