Competitive differentiation is ultimately about making the difference between whether your product or service is chosen over all the alternatives.
Posted Apr 12, 2004
Is support at your company making a difference when it comes down to actual purchase decisions?
Competitive differentiation is ultimately about deals--making the difference between whether your product or service is chosen over all the alternatives. This is often an art more than a science, and can come down to a host of variables, all of which depend on the perceptions of the purchaser about your product and what it is going to do for him. As much as possible, companies need a predictable means of always beating the competition in their markets.
Support organizations are natural differentiator, because they are so integrally tied to both the product and the customer's experience of the product. Their processes grow out of this relationship and therefore are impossible for a competitor to reproduce. In addition, if it is true that the vast majority of a customer's interaction with a vendor after the initial point of sale occurs through the support organization, then the support organization is the biggest and least expensive opportunity for additional revenue.
Sales may not recognize how to use support when it comes to making the difference in a deal, however. Support has traditionally been viewed as being the farthest away in the supply chain from the actual purchase decision. Support's activities are seen as happening after the product is purchased. All too often in the sales cycle, support is only valued during the contract negotiations as an added extra cost of 18 to 22 percent annually. Very few organizations promote their support services as an added value. As the linear supply chain evolves into more of a web shape, support can connect with other departments at all stages of the cycle.
So how can you change this? By leveraging the intelligence gathered by your support team and marketing your capabilities within your company. What follows are four general principles that support organizations can use to build their position as a competitive differentiator.
Embody your company's core competency
Predictable competitive differentiators often start with a company's core competency. Identify what it is your company does best that cannot easily be duplicated and then extend it into how the support organization works.
Improve operational efficiency beyond the support organization
Chances are you've spent the past few years radically improving the efficiency with which your organization handles customer transactions, whether it's face to face or through self-service. Your processes can now be extended to help other departments. For example, information gathered from customers' Web and service interactions can be used to make decisions about future product or service offerings.
Market your capabilities
Talk to your sales or marketing teams about how support is a part of the total solution sold to your customers. Let them know how you are different. For example, involve support personnel in sales calls to talk to prospects about best practices.
Build customer relationships
We've always known that support is an important part of a company's relationship with its customers, but we usually think about it in the context of problem solving. These relationships can also be leveraged to help build referenceable customers and upsell new products. It is also important to connect the customer's relationship in support with the customer's relationship in other customer-facing organizations. For example, if a customer reports a specific problem, try to understand the business context of why the problem is happening in the first place. By understanding the broader situation, you can bring in an account manager to provide a better resolution.
There will always be challenges to making support a competitive differentiator within your company, not the least of which may be your company culture and resistance to change. Constraints on your resources, knowledge, infrastructure, and processes will shape your efforts. Scaling your ability to communicate information about what your customers do and how they use your products to internal audiences within your company will ultimately make you successful.
About the Author
Claire Gribbin is director of global support for Primus Knowledge Solutions. Prior to joining Primus Gribbin created the customer care department for drugstore.com, and served as director of network training at US WEST. She received BS degrees in physics and anthropology from Miami University, and an MBA from Capitol University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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