Make Relevancy Your Competitive Advantage

After polling thousands of CEOs, C-suite executives, and salespeople, I was astonished to discover that only a handful knew what their prospects and customers wanted most. This explains, in no small measure, why so many businesses have become commoditized. Many think that because they sell the same product or service as their competition, they must surrender and play a price game. And when they do, they give up their best negotiation chips.

The research we conducted for my first book, Creating Competitive Advantage, proved that more than 90 percent of businesses had no clue how to articulate their competitive advantages. I have since learned that even fewer understand that a differentiator that is not valued by the customer is not a competitive advantage. If it's not relevant, it doesn't matter.

Years of research revealed that very few businesses deliver sales and marketing pitches that are relevant. And that mistake costs them dearly! Most businesses simply do not align their operations with their customers' priorities—internally or externally. This is not just my opinion or conjecture, but one of our key findings from more than 100 customer surveys conducted for our client companies. We compared the results of all those customer studies to the companies' perceptions of what their markets valued. Frequently, what a company's staff and sales force thought would be most important was rated lowest by the customers themselves.

Surprisingly, when companies make key internal decisions, very few give their customers' perspectives the weight they deserve. Fewer yet use their customers' perspectives to craft their sales and marketing messages, and virtually none have internal agreement regarding what their customers value. Most use a single marketing message, regardless of the diverse requirements of their specific target markets, demographics, and levels of customers. More often than not, customers and prospects value different things, but most salespeople deliver the same messages to both. Usually, this occurs because they don't know what each group values most.

What about you? Do you have one brochure you use for all your prospects? Even if they want different things from you? Do you use the same brochure to help you keep current customers?

Look at the Web sites of your top competitors. Generally speaking, everyone is using the same clichés. For example, I haven't seen one healthcare organization—from hospitals and hospices to home care and assisted-living facilities—that doesn't position itself as "caring and passionate," offering family members "peace of mind." Certainly, being "caring and passionate" are honorable traits, but what exactly do those terms mean? What specific information do they convey? When those words alone are used in marketing, they ring hollow and sound hackneyed. They're empty words and, worse yet, they have no relevance.

Manufacturers all want to tout their customer service and quality. Service companies want to talk about their knowledgeable staff and responsiveness. When you use those terms, how does it show that you're different or better? Where's the proof? Businesses have been trapped into negotiating on price because they usually don't tell buyers that they can deliver what they value most. My refrain to all my clients is, "If you don't value what you do for your customers, they won't value it either."

Ninety percent of the executives and salespeople at more than 3,000 midsized businesses that I've polled confessed that they don't know what their customers really value—they only guess. They have no process or line item expenditures for scientifically finding what their customers and prospects prize most.

On the other hand, large companies with substantial research budgets invest significantly to collect the voice of the customer, but few use the information effectively. It's amazing what you can bury in a deep-enough bureaucracy.

We found several surprising common denominators in all of the customer studies we analyzed. They can best be described as blind spots inherent in virtually every business. They are roadblocks to true competitive advantages. They preclude organizations from avoiding price wars. Even companies that proudly claimed that they "don't engage in price wars" were leaving profits on the table.

Most businesses brainstorm to come up with a list of their "strengths," or they have their marketing firm do it for them. Then they throw all the results against the wall and hope some stick. Well, some do. But wouldn't it make more sense to throw them at the bull's-eye and get more direct hits? Companies have to confirm, beyond a reasonable doubt, which of their differentiators make an impact on their customers' buying decisions.

One last thought

Many companies love to espouse their value propositions. One very large client paid millions of dollars to a giant consulting firm, writing value propositions that they told us they eventually tossed out. They learned they weren't relevant.

Marketing and sales without serious consideration of what the customer values is flawed. Negotiation without it is impossible. Strategic planning is unsound. By simply giving the customer's perspective the weight it deserves in decision making, internal and external alignment will support relevant selling.

Caution: What is relevant to your customers today isn't likely to be relevant tomorrow. Keep listening and aligning accordingly. The dividends are worth it.

Jaynie L. Smith is CEO of Smart Advantage, a marketing/management consultancy with  clients ranging from midsized companies to Fortune 500 companies. She consults nationally and internationally to help businesses identify and articulate their competitive advantages. She is the author of Creating Competitive Advantage and Relevant Selling. For more information, go to smartadvantage.com or jayniesmith.com.

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