At Last, Get Prospects to See Your Solution as Differentiated

Blog132_Differentiation_v1-1Today, products and services can quickly lose their competitive edge thanks to the breakneck speed of change, the Internet, and intense global competition.

In Blue Ocean Strategy, authors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne tell us:

“There are several driving forces behind a rising imperative to create blue oceans. Accelerated technology advances have substantially improved industrial productivity and have allowed suppliers to produce an unprecedented array of products and services. The result is that in increasing numbers of industries, supply exceeds demand. As information on products and prices become instantly and globally available, niche markets and havens for monopoly continues to disappear.”

(You’ll recall one major premise of the book states that blue ocean strategy is based on the “simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost. It is an ‘and-and,’ not an ‘either-or’ strategy.”)

The result of the above observation has been accelerated commoditization of products and services, increasing price wars, and shrinking profit margins. Recent industrywide studies on major American brands confirm this trend. They reveal that for major product and service categories, brands are becoming similar, and as they become more similar people increasingly select based on price.

People no longer insist, as in the past, that their technology provider is IBM. In overcrowded industries, differentiating brands become harder in both economic upturns and downturns.

This reality creates a problem for salespeople in nearly every industry.

How do you build perceived value and set yourself apart from the crowd, when buyers (rightly or wrongly) treat you like a commodity─with little real difference between you and the competition?

In many cases, you’re selling something slightly different from your competitor. Even though you know your product or service isn’t identical, your prospect can’t see the difference. That’s the problem.

Think of it this way. As you travel through airports and pick up a rental car, what’s the real difference between Hertz and Avis?  The challenge you face is getting past the buyer’s perception that you are selling a “me-too” product or service.

Me-tooism is a real issue for many companies. Here are some suggestions of what you can do about it.

It’s a “solution” not just a product or service.

If you are called in at the end of the prospect buying journey, take a step back. Understand what the prospect is trying to fix, accomplish or avoid. Why is she searching for a solution? Once you do that, then you need to understand her vision or concept for the solution. Then tie in your products and services as the solution.

When you align your sales process to how the prospect buys, she’ll likely recognize your solution as the best. Even when your product and service is identical to the competition, in the grand scheme of things, your solution is going to be quite different.

Here are some obvious differentiators:

  • Your company, not like all the others; and you, as the unique point person in the sale.

  • Your financial terms, delivery speed and customer service posture. Can you demonstrate this or use compelling references?

  • Your ability to follow-up, you or your company’s guarantee, your return policy, and services that add value.

These factors are all part of your “solution,” even when the product or service is virtually identical.

Consider this B2B scenario: You run an executive search firm and over the last few years, due to tremendous growth, you outgrew your phone system. Two vendors gave you identical quotes. The product specs are the same, and the price is within pennies. However, one vendor is local, and the other is 500 miles away from your location.

After checking service references, one vendor has an outstanding record, and the other has a few negative comments, though not your rep.

One of your largest customers referred the sales rep for the first supplier, and the other one seems too aggressive. The first rep took more time to understand your needs, spoke to some your salespeople to understand how they were using the current system, and gave you a few options before making the final proposal.

Chances are you’ll select the first vendor, as a result of nothing to do with price or product differences, but the totality of the solution.

You need to know the differences.

Here are five things you should consider when zeroing in on the differentiators that matter the most:

Blog132_Differentiation_v1-21. Understand your prospect’s decision-making process and how it impacts people. In any B2B complex sale, more than five decision makers typically participate. You need to identify them and understand how your solution gives them a “win.” How are they impacted?

Remember people buy because they want to fix, accomplish or avoid something. And people buy for their own reasons. As an example, the head of human resources is interested in your solution because it reduces cost in her department. More important, she will look more efficient to her boss, and earns her bonus based on meeting budget. That’s her personal win.

2. Understanding the need behind the need. If you simply listen to the prospect’s needs, and you respond to those needs, you could be commoditizing your solution.

An approach that responds only to your prospect’s stated needs doesn’t create a sense of urgency or the differentiation you need. Many times it leads to a bake off with others or no decision.

You need to bring perspective and uncover a need the prospect doesn’t see or bring a solution that he has not considered. It’s the unconsidered needs (discussed in a previous blog post with research done by Stanford Professor Zakary Tormala).

He conducted a study, recruiting 400 people and dividing them equally into four groups. They then developed a specific scenario, telling everyone in the study to imagine themselves as a business owner whose company had enjoyed a recent run of success, but is now facing an economic downturn and struggling to stay open. To cope with cash-flow challenges created by slow sales and slow customer payments, the company is looking for a financial lending partner to offer them a $10 million line of credit. This cash infusion represents the “stated need.” The study then was delivered into four different lender pitches to each group:

  • Pitch one responded to the stated need, as indicated in the situation above with a competitive offer for the money and typical corporate presentation content.

  • Pitch two responded to the stated need with similar positioning, and also introduced “value-added services” in a typical effort most companies employ to create differentiation.

  • Pitch three responded to the stated need with similar content as the first two but then introduced an unconsidered need at the end of the presentation.

  • Pitch four opened with the unconsidered need first and then responded to the stated need later in the presentation.

The group selected the last presenter who began with the unconsidered need.


3. Zero in on the differences that matter. Once you have identified the decision makers, you need to zero in on what matters to them.

Don’t simply try to sell what you think is a differentiator. As an example, the sales methodologies I teach have tools on most CRM systems, and we teach it in 64 countries in nine languages.

The client says so what, what matters is I have financial services experience, speak English and can teach his salespeople in Cleveland. What’s also important: We have our tools on There may be little things that matter, listen and then leverage your advantages.

4. List all the ways your solution is different from the competition. Remember the competition is not only your direct competitor. Doing nothing is a competitor. Using budget money for something else is a competitor as is using internal resources.

Put yourself in the buyer’s position, what advantages would you see (be honest) if you were in his shoes. What disadvantages do you see? Once you put the list together, his advantages are now “red flags” that you must overcome. His red flags are your advantages to leverage.

5. Turn each one of your advantages into a benefit. Here is a simple example:

Let’s say your company is nearby, while the competitor’s distribution center is 100 miles away. From the customer’s point of view, this distance could easily matter if you point it out to them.

Express the benefit in words like this: “We’re just 20 minutes away from your loading dock, unlike some other suppliers. That means we can deliver more quickly in an emergency, and can respond faster to other problems that might come up. And that could mean less downtime and take the pressure off you.


Emphasize in your sales conversations those differentiators that matter. Seek feedback and watch for reactions that indicate issues which resonate with your prospect. Use them in your proposal to establish clear differences between you and the competition.

A solid job of communicating your differentiators will alter your prospect’s perception─and you’ll get the business.

Quick Recap

To help your prospect clearly see how you, your company or solution differentiates from your industry’s perceived commodities, follow this path:

  • Know who’s in the decision-making process and what impacts them;

  • Probe for the need behind the need, the unconsidered need;

  • Zero in on real differences that matter to the prospect;

  • Detail all the ways your solution differs from the competition;

  • Turn every one of your advantages into an undeniable benefit.

Going back to the early days of modern marketing, Theodore Levitt wrote the seminal work on the subject, The Marketing Imagination, in which he said you can differentiate anything.

After all, “a commodity is simply a product waiting to be differentiated,” says Philip Kotler, the first leader in marketing thought.

Amplify your products, services (or solutions) by offering your prospects more than they think they need or more than they’ve come to expect.

However you differentiate, do it, or fall victim to your prospect’s blurred vision.

See you on the upside,


For more information on how to simplify the complex sale, go to Or call William L. MacDonald in San Diego at PleinAire Strategies LLC at 760.340.4277 or 213.598.4700

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