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Be a star: how to stand out from the crowd

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By Rob Addy, vice president, research, Gartner

Most technology service providers are indistinguishable, with claims and capabilities merging into one amorphous mass of marketing mush. Some providers make themselves look silly by creating complex convoluted explanations of their “uniqueness.”

Gartner believes, 90% of service provider differentiation efforts during the next three years will fail, as they will overly focus on the perceived “need” for uniqueness. The reality is, there are no truly unique providers: pretending otherwise convinces no one. Saying it repeatedly does not make it so.

Rob Addy is a research vice president at Gartner

Rob Addy is a research vice president at Gartner

Differentiation within the current service marketplace is difficult because many providers are similar and offer very similar services. Faceless providers of commodity services are expendable, which is not healthy.

Gartner analysts evaluate a lot of vendor and service provider presentations. It’s often hard to see the difference. More importantly, the buyers don’t see it either. In a Gartner survey, only 5% of technology buyers rated providers as being very effective or extremely effective at establishing differentiation from the competition.

Many providers overthink the selection process used by buyers to evaluate them against their rivals, especially in the early stages of the sales cycle. The many differentiators they cite are often immaterial or irrelevant in the buyers’ minds.

Being a provider that stands out from the crowd will get you into the game. And you need to be in the game to have a chance of winning it.

Winning in a crowded market

To succeed, it’s important to create a clear white space between your business and your competition in the minds of your buyers. Understanding a buyer’s pre-existing perceptions and biases, and learning to use them to your advantage is becoming increasingly important. Positioning is always relative: if the buyer cannot see any difference, there is no difference!

Softer differentiators such as “cultural fit,” “customer experience” and an “innovation-based DNA” are easy to ignore or dismiss. They rarely convince buyers unless they can be made tangible and demonstrable.

Pragmatically evaluating your business against competitors in the current commercial situation is the essence of real differentiation, whether the focus is on technical, operational, commercial, cultural, messaging, believability or quirkiness factors.

Being seen as different in every area in unnecessary, however, which is fortunate as it would be unfeasible. Each situation requires a different differentiation play. Tactically selecting which differentiation stories to leverage for a particular scenario or audience is a critical success factor.

Start by identifying one or two differentiators that separate your business from the subset of the market you are compared with, in the eyes of the buyer. By focusing on specific meaningful differences, and using evidence to demonstrate the nature and scale of the contrast between the various options, you can give buyers something to believe in and a fact base to justify their thinking when making a decision.

Irrational buyers like to give the impression they are making considered logical selections based upon a detailed analysis of all the available evidence. Giving them the supporting evidence they need to justify their decisions to themselves and their peers can help to ensure you are the provider that wins.

How to stand out

  • Resist the temptation to create convoluted stories that push the boundaries of credibility in your desperation to come up with something novel and unique
  • Benchmark your business against your immediate competitors and collect data points regarding your rivals
  • Prepare a set of messaging assets for your sales teams to deploy, depending on who they are up against
  • Make the intangible tangible and accessible through the use of customer reference stories and quantified indicators
  • Recognise that two separate and distinct differentiation plays will be required. Differentiating service offerings is irrelevant if you do not establish differentiation for yourself as a provider. Start there.

Rob Addy is a research vice president at Gartner, focused on commercial models and services marketing best practices. His research examines the industrialisation of service delivery, service productization and the use of value articulation techniques to drive growth.

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