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Are You Playing For Table Stakes, Or Are You Differentiated?

by David Brock on April 28th, 2011

It used to be great products that set us apart—more features, functions, bells and whistles.  Products are no longer the differentiators—at least on an ongoing basis.  Global competition keeps raising the bar almost on a daily basis.  Products are important, we have to keep investing in them, but product leadership is not likely to be a sustainable differentiator.

It used to be quality—our quality set us apart and caused us to win.  Quality is no longer a differentiator—for the most part, it’s pretty much a level playing field—at least the customers throw out the bad quality vendors, so only vendors of equivalent quality are competing.  Quality is important, and we have to continue to meet customer expectations, but where we used to win on quality, we can only “not play” because of lack of quality.

It used to be customer serves that set us apart and caused us to win.    Bad customer service will cause us to lose existing customers—or keep us from competing for new opportunities with existing customers.  Great, stunning, shout it from the mountain tops customer service can help us win—but only the handful.

Delivery, logistics management, financing—all things we used before, too often, everyone else can say “me too.”

Slowly all the things we counted on to set us apart are becoming table stakes—we don’t get invited to the party without a minimum level of performance.  So given, we’re all roughly at parity—in some cases we have advantage over our competitors, in some, they have advantage over us, how do we win?

There are only two thing left— price and sales.  Ultimately, these become the only differentiators.

We know we have to be competitive on price—but we can’t be the lowest price provider—over time that leads to death.

So the key differentiator becomes sales—it becomes the people and processes we put in front of our customers everyday—whether their our own field sales organization, whether it’s our eCommerce site, our telesales, or our channel partners.  It becomes the whole process and experience they have in buying that sets us apart and causes us to win.

The challenge becomes, are we investing in our sales people, equipping them to be our differentiators?  Or are they doing the same old thing.

The undifferentiated sales person pushes product, features, functions, feeds and speeds.  They talk about quality, customer services, supply chain management.  They continue to compete for a place in the game, but not to differentiate us.  Since sales people doing this are not creating value for the customer, the only way they can win is through pricing action.

The sale organization that recognizes that they are the differentiator and can deliver on that, provides the most sustainable competitive advantage of all.

The sales organization that recognizes they are the differentiator has all the base level-table stake skills, they know their products, they know quality, they leverage customer service, they’re skilled negotiators, and have all the requisite sales skills. 

But leaders of these organizations know there is much more to differentiation through sales.  They engage the customer differently—they facilitate the customer’s buying process.  They are idea people, business people—they help their customers identify new opportunities, to grow their businesses, to solve their problems, to make their lives more manageable. 

These organizations are different from normal sales organizations.  I’ve covered much of what is different about the sales people in these organizations in Sales Professional 3.0, so I won’t repeat it.  The leaders of these organizations make different investments than the leaders of undifferentiated sales organizations.  They invest in hiring the right people, they invest in ongoing and broad development and training programs—but not the normal “the 10 ways to close your customer.”  They invest in tools and systems to make their people more productive and effective.  They invest in strong managers and leaders—making certain they are focusing on coaching, developing, and maximizing the performance of each of their people. 

Sales leaders in these organizations share similarities with their peers in undifferentiated sales organizations—but the way they do things is so different.  They are performance and numbers oriented—but where their peers are only focused on quota performance, and how many times have you pitched to the customer, they have a richer set of metrics.  They view sales as an investment  as opposed to an expense.  They spend less time behind a desk managing the numbers and more time in the field, learning about customers, helping their people.  They see things from a customer point of view and know their organization’s success in contingent on the customer’s success—where their counterpart in undifferentiated sales organizations are just out for the order.

They realize productivity and effectiveness is a result of fierce focus and discipline, they avoid the strategy du jour approaches.  They don’t rest on their past successes, but know they must continually improve and innovate.

The most sustainable differentiator is your sales organization.  Sales organizations that are differentiated are very different from groups of peddlers.

Are you investing in differentiating yourself as a sales professional?  Are you investing in your sales organization so they are the greatest source of differentiated value for your customers?

Or are you struggling to compete for table stakes?

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2 Comments
  1. Larry Levine permalink

    I agree. In my opinion the way to differentiate you from everyone else is by asking questions, questions, questions and then layering them. I feel it is important at the onset to share with everyone a process and what makes you unique. This will set you apart immediatley. The key is to stick to the process and get the client engaged immediately so they feel they are part of the solution. I find all to many times sales people do not ask enough questions to help them understand hwo to help. It is not about the equipment anymore. It is about the sales person and how well they understand how to help the client.

    • Larry, great comment! Developing a strong process that all your people apply, will dramatically change the way they engage customers and the value the customer will perceive. One of the most important areas to start setting themselves apart is in the Discovery Phase. You may want to look at that post, it was about a week ago.

      Thanks for joining the discussion! Look forward to speaking in the coming days.

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