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Can Clients See What Makes You Different?

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel like your firm is competing on price, your margin may not be the problem. It may be that you look exactly like the competition.

By Cathy Hutchison   •  September 23, 2015 9:55 am EDT

Tags: branding, business, connection, economic outlook, philosophy,

RDG Planning and Design in Des Moines, Iowa, made a short film for a presentation to the International Downtown Association (IDA). It is styled like a 1940’s newsreel and features city planners interviewing architectural teams. Each team comes on the scene with a new idea—the one that will differentiate them from their competitors. The punchline to the film is that all of the design teams present the same idea—a revolutionary new process called “the charrette.”

If you’ve ever sat in on a selection committee, you know that this happens way too often. As each firm presents their content, it becomes difficult to remember which firm is which. The notes matter very little when similar sounding words and images become a blur.

Differentiate or die

Jack Trout—in his famous book, "Differentiate or Die"—states that quality and customer orientation are rarely differentiating ideas. He also makes the point that creativity is not a differentiating idea. Why? Concepts like quality, client-centricity and creativity are too vague. Not only that, but they have lost their meaning because everybody claims them. To differentiate, you have to own a unique position—something about your firm that is truly different than your competitors—then align everything around it. Wonder if it is a true differentiator? If your competition can easily duplicate it, then probably not. For example, listening to your clients is a much weaker differentiator than providing photorealistic renderings as part of your design process.

Become known for something

Church communication consultant Mark MacDonald has signature advice that he gives to clients: "Be known for something." MacDonald works with churches and companies to help them own a position in the marketplace. Part of MacDonald’s process is in finding out what is most important to an organization, then looking at the competitive landscape to find the match between what is authentically them and gaps that other people aren’t covering in the space.

For design and construction firms working in this market, what would the value be of a “big idea” that belongs only to you? Something that if typed into a search engine would pull your firm’s name to the top? Being known for something gives people a reason to comment on you. Like Seth Godin’s premise in "The Purple Cow," a field of brown cows is unremarkable, but a purple cow….

Create differentiation in the mind of your client

Ron Martoia shared once that you have to communicate an idea to people long after you have tired of it before it ever begins to gain traction. Frequency in communication is key. Hearing a radio jingle once doesn’t embed the idea in our brain, but hearing it several times a day for multiple days makes it hard to forget.

In order to implant a big idea in the mind of our clients, we have to over-communicate. And if we want an idea to be associated with us and us alone, it must be different than what our competitors are saying. The good thing is that what feels like over-communication to us actually won’t feel that way to our clients. After all, they hear many things from many people all day long. Continuity of message from us simply provides clarity.

All decisions are made based on comparison

Barry Schwartz in his book, "Paradox of Choice," states that when we ask ourselves if we liked a meal, a vacation or a class, invariably we are asking ourselves, “Compared to what?” All choices are made based on some sort of comparison. For example, the decision to engage a team at all is the comparison to the alternative of a church doing a project themselves. (It’s the reason that sometimes for small projects that option wins.) Beyond that, there are a host of things you are compared against … the church’s last building project, the experience of the church down the street, the firms that did not get invited to the interview. Differentiation helps you win in the comparison game.

Achieving differentiation is worth the effort

Achieving differentiation is hard to do. After all, we live in our own stories so it isn’t always clear how the outside world sees us. Yet giving our clients a clear and compelling reason to choose us—one that is different than the other firms they have to choose from—can make a huge difference. Better yet, it shifts the decision from price to the big idea that we care about in the first place.


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