Posted 4th June 2008.
It's accepted wisdom in marketing and sales nowadays that every business needs a strong Unique Selling Point (USP).
“Differentiate or Die” has become the clarion call of consultants across the globe, urging their clients to (pay them to) develop clever positioning statements showing how unique and different they are to their competitors.
But does it work? Is a powerful, differentiated USP really critical for the success of every business?
Not in my experience.
The concept of a USP dates back to the 1940's and originated with consumer goods companies battling for advertising share-of-mind. And indeed today, for many consumer oriented products a strong USP is key to creating brand awareness.
But for many businesses – particularly service businesses and companies who serve a local customer base, the concept of a USP is not so important.
Think about it from the customer's perspective: when you're looking to hire an accountant, or you need a taxi, or you want a plumber to fix a leak – are you looking for someone who is unique and clearly differentiated from his competitors? Or are you instead looking for someone who you can trust to do a really good job at a fair price?
Differentiation is great to mark yourself out from the crowd – but in a great many businesses you already stand out from the crowd.
In my own consulting practice for example, I very rarely face direct competitors. My biggest competitor – as I pointed out in the post Beating Your #1 Competitor – is the status quo – the client doing nothing. And to beat that, I don't need a USP. I need to demonstrate compelling value to the client, not uniqueness.
Or take the taxi firm. What will make a potential customer call one taxi firm over another? Usually two factors: availability and perceived reliability. Most successful taxi businesses didn't become successes because they somehow offered something different or unique – they offered what every firm offers – available, reliable transport. The reason they get chosen is that they (are perceived) to be able to do it better than their competitors.
How about an accountant? Do you really want an accountant that does your books in a unique and different way? Probably not. Probably you want someone who does them well at a good price. The role of marketing for the accountant is not to communicate uniqueness, but to ensure the potential customer trusts that the accountant will do a good job.
I work with a lot of professional service firms – lawyers, accountants and consultants. And when we work together on clarifying their vision and goals I always introduce the concept from David Maister's classic book Managing the Professional Services Firm that all professional services firms have essentially the same mission: “To deliver outstanding client service, to provide fulfilling careers and professional satisfaction for our people, and to achieve financial success so we can reward ourselves and grow”.
The challenge for marketing and sales in professional services is not to create some clever, unique proposition – it is to take this great but common proposition of offering outstanding client service and to prove to clients that it's true.
To be continued…….