Deep down, all of us like to believe we’re special. And everybody wants to think the product we’re selling is unique. But what if it’s really just a commodity? Let’s face it: when you get down to it, a lot of products and services that rely on big sales teams, from cell phones to financial services, really don’t differ from their competitors much at all.”
So this is the question that a lot of people need to ask themselves: is my product genuinely as distinctive as I’d like to think it is? But it’s a hard question, a scary question, because for so many of us in the profession of sales, our sense of self-worth or even our identity is tied up with the product we sell. Still, we need to be bold enough to ask – and most importantly, to take action based on the answer. And in fact, if it turns out that you really are selling a commodity, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, recognizing this truth can be liberating. Because it means you can stop wasting your time trying to fool yourself (and your customers) into believing your product is unique, and start focusing your efforts on other ways to make sure you deliver a unique experience to your client – even if your product can be replaced.
That process is called differentiation: how do I make my product stand out from similar ones? There are four ways your client can perceive their relationship with you and your product. The most basic relationship is that you’re a supplier: you have a replaceable product, and not much of a relationship with your customers. This is the place where many of my clients find themselves when I begin to engage with them. How do you move out of the supplier category and into a higher one? Adding features to your product or service to make it unique is one way; that moves you into the value-added category, and if you work hard, you can win the coveted status of partner. But for many companies, adding features isn’t really an option. Where does that leave you? It means you have to work on your relationship with your clients. Successful companies in commoditized businesses know how to use client service to differentiate their products. They invest in building relationships with their clients – and that starts with investing in your sales people, so that they see the value in building those relationships and know how to do it.
Becoming an adviser means that customers see you as somebody who helps them solve their business problems. They’re loyal to you not because your products are so much better than your competitors’, but because you show that you care about addressing their needs. For many companies, the path to becoming an adviser starts with very simple but profound changes in how their salesforce interacts with clients. Little things like punctuality, empathy, choice of words and even tone of voice are the basic building blocks of an adviser relationship. And how do your employees respond when something goes wrong? Are they determined to do everything they can to take care of the customer? Or do they become defensive? Are they fixing the problem, or looking for someone to blame? (Of course for them to develop a problem-solving mindset, you have to cultivate it yourself, by treating their mistakes as opportunities for learning, not punishment.)
I’m surprised how many companies ignore these basics, instead focusing all their energy on slicing and dicing their products into a bewildering array of options, or thinking up features that add nothing but confusion. Take a step back. Slow down and ask yourself whether you’re really just selling a commodity. And if you are, take heart – and shift your focus to differentiation through outstanding customer service. Your product may not be special. But that’s no reason you can’t be.