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September 18, 2014

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Don’t Just Differentiate, Be Distinctive

Dictionary.com defines:

Differentiate: to become unlike or dissimilar, change in character.

Distinctive: having special quality, style, attractiveness, etc. notable.

For years I’ve written about the need to differentiate your business from the competition. I’ve suggested that one should be authentic in this differentiation—to discover what one’s firm does best and build a brand around this essence. Recently, I have become aware of a word that describes what I’ve been advocating much better than my use of the word differentiate. A far better word is distinctive.

In his book, Collapse of Distinction, Scott McKain writes:

“If you cannot find it within yourself to become emotional, committed, engaged, and yes, fervent about differentiation, then you had better be prepared to take your place among the vast throng of mediocre who are judged by their customers solely on the basis of price. It is the singularly worst place to be in all of business. If you aren’t willing to create distinction for yourself in your profession—and your organization in the marketplace—then prepare to take your seat in the back, with the substantial swarm of the similar, where tedium reigns supreme.” (emphasis added)



I’m pretty sure most business owners would agree with McKain. Most firms would prefer to compete on their qualifications and how they perform their work for clients instead of on price. Then why do so few firms distinguish themselves from their competitors? I think the answers lie in the following:

Too much time spent worrying about competitors. Firms and companies spend way too much time worrying about what their competitors are doing. Firm owners could better spend their time understanding their firms’ own uniqueness and growing their capacity around their unique and distinctive advantage.

Have you caught yourself worrying about how another firm would present or what they would offer to a client? How did that help you? I see that many firms research what their competitors are offering and then offer the same thing, thinking they will equalize the playing field. But when a client cannot distinguish your services from your competitors’, he naturally believes that both firms are equal--thus leaving price as the item that is used to make the selection.

Spend more time developing your approach and emphasizing that which makes your firm distinctive. You’ll find yourself in a better place than solely competing via price.

We have bought into our profession’s ethos. I can’t speak specifically to your profession, but I will bet your situation is similar. In the architectural profession, there is a professional ethos. Architects began their education in architectural school, where they are taught by architects who had become professors. When these architectural students graduated, they went to work for firms who taught them further. During the formative years, these young practitioners spent a tremendous amount of time practicing and learning the trade, both technically and from a design standpoint, and learning how to practice similarly to their colleagues.

Then one day, these young architects either get promoted to a management position or move on to start their own businesses. Not knowing or being trained in business, they turn to resources such as the American Institute of Architects or architectural practice books, and follow the prescribed business model. Even though some architects have higher skills in different areas of the practice, they generally set up their firms very similarly to the firm next door.

While this business model may work, it doesn’t help individual firms distinguish themselves within the marketplace. The firms all offer the readily-accepted scope of services, develop their fee structures on a common delivery model, and essentially follow the same process of performing the work.

It’s difficult to change a firm. Changing a firm is one of the most difficult things an owner will ever undertake professionally. What makes it so difficult is that the pace of change is only as rapid as the change embraced by the people within the firm. Becoming distinctive requires people to move outside their comfort zones and to look at who they are and what they do from a different point of view. This change, while difficult is essential to create a distinct and unique advantage for our firms.

Is your firm distinctive?

Until next time…

Craig

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