Sales professionals all know to find and leverage differentiation. The problem: far too few know that not all differentiation is equal.

Remember, any differentiation you have doesn’t turn into value until it “makes a safe landing” in a customer’s brain and connects to a customer-desired outcome. It only turns into differentiated value — that changes a buying decision – when that value is offered by only one seller. Differentiation that a customer recognizes is the source of all value.

The other key point is that information that doesn’t create differentiation crowds out your uniqueness. If you shower a prospect with true differentiation hidden within a flood of “same as everyone else” features and benefits, you’re asking them to play “Where’s Waldo” with your value.

My clients learn that a single product advantage often drives value in multiple value “landing points” throughout an organization (for example, lots of departments care that your product lasts longer, and for different reasons), and that most sellers work to leverage only the most conventional and expected of these “landing points” in their selling strategies.

An idea from my upcoming book:

If you differentiate using the same properties as your competitors, you aren’t differentiating as much as you think. If you differentiate only in ways your competitors have dealt with before, you aren’t doing much better..

Companies – and sales professionals – fight commoditization with differentiation. Not all differentiation is the same (Get it? Even differentiation has differentiation!) 

Layers of Differentiation and Their Value:

The graphic above represents different ways that organizations differentiate their value. Let’s go through them from left to right. As you read these, give yourself a good hard look in the mirror.

Table Stakes

Confirming the basic function of your product or service is of some use in selling. There are personas (Buying Influences) who need to verify that your offer “checks the boxes”. Such requirements are useful in order to play the remainder of the game. They are only “differentiation” insofar as they prevent you from being excluded. They have little or no role in a final buying decision, because they are not differentiation, strictly speaking. This kind of information should reside in spec sheets – it should enter sales conversations and demonstrations only when those personas/Buying Influences are present and confirming table stakes issues –preferably after offering to take those specific questions offline.

3 Sellers, 3 companies, Same Product

I often hear customers (and insightful sales leaders) complain that the main competitors all claim the same advantage. A customer once told me “I have three different reps’ business cards on my desk, but they all sell the exact same product”. Brochures and websites are often big culprits: “decades of tenure being an award-winning leader in this market”, it isn’t differentiation when multiple companies can claim the same thing. Sellers lulled into using False Differentiation messages harm their chance in two ways:

  • False differentiation communicates a dangerous message to a prospect: At worst, it’s “I’m proving to you that I don’t have any real advantages for you to consider”.
  • At best, false differentiation crowds any true differentiation out, forcing the customer to pick your value out of a pile of sameness…you’re making them play “Where’s Waldo” with your value. This is making them work too hard.

False differentiation actually harms your chances…it has negative value in your selling process.

Fist Fighting In a Phone Booth

The middle layer represents selling to the obvious/conventional advantages.

  • The obvious pro to this approach: customers readily understand and analyze obvious pitches because they’re well-trained (often by your competitors) in the associated value propositions.
  • The pitfall: Such conventional differentiation drives the same conversations every competitor has developed expertise in countering. When every competitor uses the same consistent approach, selling has the feel of fist fighting in a phone booth to the same obvious value everyone else does.

You can win sales in this area, but seldom at satisfactory margins, because “value premiums” of the different offers are small enough to be vulnerable to competitor discounting.

In complex selling, one often tries to find someone (more is better) in the buying organization who provides leverage into the group buying dynamic. A key question when building a selling strategy: who is your lever? In the phone booth, who at the customer cares enough about small differences to become the lever? Without meaningful differentiation, people start using price to decide.

That’s the trap of the middle layer: easy to sell, hard to differentiate. I colored it yellow in the diagram to denote the hazard to selling in the phone booth: mediocrity. This is your basic, least imaginative value proposition. It is one level above table stakes: the minimum acceptable requirements to play, but at least it fights through the delusion of false differentiation. You can win deals in this ring, but seldom at impressive margins, or with high customer preference for your offer.

Trusted Advisor

The fourth layer is where greatness starts. In this layer, sellers leverage Unconventional, yet predictably found differentiation. Combining general business acumen with an understanding of an offer’s differentiation, sellers find more “landing points” for value. Value networks (Chapter 10 of my upcoming book) help sellers predict ways in which their product or service’s unique attributes affect a customer’s business. Some landing points will be conventional, and fit in the third (conventional) layer, but many of these uncover fresh selling approaches that address previously undisclosed value. Using this tool makes unconventional value discovery more systematic and predictable

Because uncovering unconventional value puts a seller’s general business acumen on display, they build credibility as a trusted advisor, someone who can provide insight and perspective into the customer’s broader business issues, which creates a cycle of credibility building for the seller and the selling organization.

Differentiators that produce compelling value for the customer invite somebody in the buying ecosystem to become a decision lever. Value networks help sellers predict value drivers repeatedly – opportunity after opportunity (at least in similar customers). Thus, you can build marketing and predictive sales strategies around them.

Becoming Legend: Personalized and Situation-Specific Value.

Far right layer refers to differentiation and insight that wins opportunities, but rather than predictable, systematically replicated value propositions like in layer four, sellers uncover and leverage personalized, or situation-specific differentiation. Often, these differentiators are personal rewards or wins.   An example I’ve experienced: my commercial real estate loan was structured to save a business owner almost $80,000 in resolving a particular estate-planning issue obviously, this had nothing to do with the business, the property, the underwriting criteria or the loan structure of the loan, but had a huge personal impact on one (highly important) Buying Influence.

Individually, this category of differentiators aren’t anything to build a repeatable business on, but, sellers who know how to consistently uncover and recognize them are able to take advantage and use them to win opportunities . They are just as leverageable as layer four impacts when they are uncovered, but uncovering them takes slightly different skills. These highly individualized value drivers further cement the seller’s credibility as a true partner: somebody with deep insight into the business as well as the individual interests of those involved in the decision dynamic…and who brings value to the client.

How Are You Differentiating?

A Seller’s job is to find value that competitors don’t, and sellers with a keen “nose for value” regularly go into upper layers to bolster the Full Value Picture (read the book), and achieve a higher win-win price with stronger customer preference.

The interplay between these differentiation layers and business acumen….That is, sellers with the ability figure out which areas of the company are high-probability value hunting spots, and which are less likely to land can efficiently position themselves as trusted advisors and true partners. Each selling company has its own Obvious/hi/low layers, and you and your company need to figure those out (although I’m happy to help you work through it).

Share your thoughts below, and reach out if you would like to discuss if more detail.

To your success!

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