No Things Being Equal

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There’s a new ice cream store here in town.

Well, okay, it’s not exactly a store, it’s more like a grain silo-ish thing attached to a market, from which they now sell ice cream.



And that’s bad news.

It’s bad news because thanks to the conversion of said grain silo, my family and I now have four ice cream options in our vicinity from which to choose.

Frankly, the tradeoffs are mind-boggling – one-third more so, given the new addition.

The problem is that each place, relative to the other three, offers its own unique combination of flavor selection, portion size, price, comfort, dog friendliness and distance from our house, to name just a few of the most salient variables.

If you thought the recently-ended Republican primary offered too many choices, imagine those people jammed into a waffle cone and doused in hot fudge and you’ll have some sense of what I’m dealing with over here.

In addition, and as a result of all this ice cream convolution, here in town, different people possess wildly different views regarding which ice cream place is “the best.”

Interestingly (and for all I know, not coincidentally), we also have four options for buying gasoline in town. Here, however, and given my long held belief that “gas is gas,” the choice is easy – I just pick the cheapest one.

So here’s my question for you and your professional service firm:

Are you a gas station … or are you an ice cream store?

Here’s why it matters…

The people who hire you would prefer that you were a gas station. Why? Because it’s easier to make a buying decision when all the choices are – or at least appear to be – the same.

Your prospective clients want to line you up, side by side with the other gas stations and pick the cheapest one (or get you to reduce your fee based on the fact that you’re not the cheapest one).

And why shouldn’t they? If “law firms are law firms,” or “recruiters are recruiters,” or “gas is gas,” all of us as buyers make a simple decision based on price.

You, however, want to be an ice cream store. You don’t want the comparison to be simple and you definitely don’t want the decision to be based on price.

Rather, you want prospective clients to see you as the only viable option for their unique bundle of needs and preferences. Either they hire you, or they get nothing – no reasonable alternatives exist.

In this scenario, side by side, apples to apples comparisons are meaningless; buying decisions based solely on price are impossible.

Three ideas then, for putting this into practice:

1. Don’t be generic. If you describe yourself as simply “graphic artist” or “marketing consultant” or “law firm,” you are inviting prospects to use price as the differentiator.

If, on the other hand, you are a “graphic artist who specializes in the Australian food service industry,” you muddy the waters, making side by side comparison more difficult.

2. Don’t sell time. Charging by the hour is the service provider equivalent of pricing by the gallon. It suggests uniformity among choices and here as well, puts you in a neat little box for prospects to stack and sort.

When you package your services, however – for a flat fee, with a distinctive name and with lots of elements mixed together – you create a unique offering whose elements are not easily pulled apart.

3. Show some (authentic) style. If you look, dress, talk, write, behave and work in the same way as all the other professionals in your industry, I’m going to slap the “generic” label on you and ask what your hourly rate is.

Create and/or highlight real differences between you and the competition. (Hint: Telling me your firm is made up of “experienced, trustworthy professionals” isn’t a real difference unless you can point out a competitor who claims to employ “unreliable morons.”)

Can you implement a unique pricing scheme (e.g., all-you-can-eat accounting services)? Do you have an unusual/compelling back story (e.g., “Our founder speaks 12 languages.”)? Do you have a contrarian point of view (e.g., “I’m a financial planner who thinks 401k plans are bad.”).

The point is, you want to uncover differences, not similarities.

Here’s the bottom line. As consumers – whether of gas, ice cream, or professional services – we are eager to pay the least amount of money for a given result.

As sellers, therefore, your job is to make your “given result” as unlike that of your competitors as possible.

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Michael Katz
Michael Katz is a Boston-based marketing consultant and founder of Blue Penguin Development. He specializes in helping professional service firms stand out from the pack by positioning them as Likeable Experts. Get a free copy of his report, "The Professional Service Provider's Essential Reading List - 11 Recommended Business(ish) Books," here: http://bluepenguindevelopment.com/subscribe/