Written by: Kelly Waffle
“What was considered a normal and predictable buyer’s journey at the beginning of 2020 no longer exists today.” This verbatim response from HInge Research Institute’s “Inside the Buyer’s Brain, Third Edition” Executive Summary sums up why no firm in these times should be moving ahead with a growth strategy without investing in research and differentiators. The buyer’s journey has changed and you cannot afford to guess what it looks like now…or what it will look like a year from now. That could be a very costly mistake. You need to know what it looks like now⏤and only research can show that to you. In fact, research from Hinge Research Institute’s “High Growth Study 2021 Executive Summary” shows that high growth firms have figured this out and conduct research significantly more than no-growth firms.
It is not surprising that these firms not only grow faster, they are also more profitable. These firms stay in touch with the changing behaviors and priorities of their target audiences⏤and they adjust their differentiators as necessary.
What is a Differentiator?
A differentiator is a characteristic of your firm that separates you from key competitors and gives you a perceived advantage in the eyes of your target audience.
The key phrase in that definition is “separates you.”
Too many professionals in firms think that they have their target audiences all figured out and can quickly nail down their firms’ differentiators. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a statement similar to this one: “I’ve been in this business for 15 years. I can tell you our key differentiators in my sleep.” That may be true, but isn’t it safer to validate those differentiators through research and not leave a lot of business opportunities and revenue on the table?
I was in the cybersecurity space for many years and went to an industry conference a few years ago. I visited three or four booths and asked them what made their firm different. All of them told me that their staff were located in the United States. They all told me that they invest significantly to keep up with the potential threats. All four told me that their products were certified by X organization and followed Y standards. And everyone told me that their professional services teams were focused on making sure their customers were ready to handle any threat that came their way. So much for differentiation.
What if I were to stop by your booth at an industry conference…or visit your website? What would your messaging be? Would it really be different from other booths or websites from competitive firms that I visit?
Finding your differentiators requires time to develop and verify. They don’t just come down from the mountaintop from a Chief Executive Officer, President, Managing Partner, or Chief Marketing Officer. And, what may have been a differentiator 12-18 months ago may no longer be a differentiator today. You need to conduct, commission, or license research to stay in touch with a dynamic marketplace. So, you have listened and put in the time to properly develop a list of differentiators for your firm. What is next?
The Tests of a Good Differentiator
Not all differentiators are created equally, nor are all . For a differentiator to be effective, it must pass three tests:
1. IS IT TRUE?
First and foremost, a possible differentiator must be true. You don’t want to garner a reputation as a bait and switch firm. Billing surprises and unexpected fees come as a slap in the face when you win business based on your sales pitch of a low cost solution.
Not only would this jeopardize the shelf life of that client’s account, but it may also have a negative effect on potential referrals and your overall reputation in the marketplace.
On the flipside, you might want to consider eliminating differentiator candidates that are generic and are not unique to your firm.
Differentiators like “we have quality staff” or “we provide great customer service” may be true, but these are boxes that most clients expect to be checked when working with any professional services firm. No firm is going to say, “we have inexperienced staff” or “we’re not the most responsive bunch.”
2. CAN YOU PROVE IT?
Differentiators can uncover the real value or benefit clients receive from working with you. Conducting research is a good way to discover these values, especially because of the possibility that you may overlook a value that clients receive.
Example: Suppose your firm has a proprietary process that moves projects along faster than your competitors. Because this process is so ingrained within your firm, you may take it for granted and think of it as standard operating procedure. Your clients, however, see this as something that makes your firm different.
Statistics from brand research, client satisfaction research, and other forms of market research can be good proof points. They can act as a good defense when prospects inquire about why they should engage with your firm.
Using the example mentioned above, you may choose to differentiate your firm based on your timeliness and responsiveness.
“We deliver projects faster because of our proprietary process.”
A good proof point derived from research may look something like this:
“In a recent survey of our clients, 95% identified our timeliness and quick project turnaround as the real value they receive from working with us.” This proof point backs up and proves your claim.
3. IS IT RELEVANT?
Understanding your target audience is the first step in establishing relevancy of your differentiator. Where are you currently getting your business? Where are the biggest opportunities? What does your ideal client look like?
These are all questions you will need to answer in order to formulate a relevant differentiator. Industry and service specialization can be good ways to achieve relevancy.
Example: Let’s say an owner of a restaurant franchise is looking for an accounting firm to engage with. They go online, do some research, and find two good accounting firms in the area. One is a generalist that offers a wide range of services; the other specializes in accounting services for restaurant franchises.
While the former likely has the bandwidth to provide the services needed, the latter is perceived as having expertise relevant to the owner’s business. This differentiation is what will likely win over the restaurant owner.
In a competitive B2B landscape, developing solid differentiators is the bedrock of your marketing strategy. When rooted in research, well-thought-out differentiators will give you the ammunition you need to not only win more business, but win more of the right kind of business.
It All Begins and Ends With Research
Through customized research, full-service research firms such as The Hinge Research Institute can help you get answers to questions such as:
- What are my target audiences’ business challenges?
- What makes them choose one service provider over another? Expertise? Industry experience? Technology adoption? Geography? Pricing options?
- How important are your firm’s services in addressing prospect and client needs?
- Is there a perception that other firms have some of the same differentiators as your firm?
- Are your differentiators strong enough to drive a willingness to recommend and client loyalty?
- What are your target audiences planning for in the next three years and where can your firm help?
Answers to these questions and others will ensure that your differentiators are true, proven, relevant, and most importantly, different. By commissioning research, you can make sure you are adapting to your target audiences’ behaviors and needs. But, you can also educate your target audiences by turning the same research into thought leadership content. Show them that you know their needs and priorities and what their peers and competitors are thinking and planning. Take that research cost and turn it into an investment by showing returns in the form of leads, opportunities, and revenue that come from research-driven marketing campaigns. Use the research in blogs, articles, email campaigns, videos, sales collateral and presentations, websites, social media postings, and more.
With the right differentiators, your firm will:
- See its visibility rise and strengthen its thought leadership
- Be able to have its subject matter experts speak at more events and write more articles
- Generate more qualified leads
- Get more referrals
- Charge more for services
To find more information about how research can help grow your firm, download our free resource, Research as Content: A Guide for B2B Marketers.