Different vs. differentiated

August 1, 2004

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

When I was a kid, people often said I was“different.” It wasn't exactly clear what they meant, but I don't think it was as a compliment.

Industry pundit Dick Gorelick has cautioned against confusing differentiation (in which your firm is seen by the marketplace as offering unique services and/or products of benefit that cannot be obtained readily anywhere else) and being different (in which your firm is viewed the way I was in high school).

This subtle nuance is of particular importance in specialty areas such as digital printing. Why? Because when the process itself is a specialty, we often forget to differentiate any further.

I recall that when our digital-print company opened in the late 1980s, our sales calls were textbook examples of differentiation. We didn't have to tell prospects why we were better or that our price was lower. All we had to do was explain that we could do things no conventional printer could do, since we were using an entirely different process that, for all intents and purposes, wasn't even fully invented yet.

Offset printers correctly did not view us as competitors, since we were taking the work that wasn't a good fit for them anyway. In fact, they became our biggest customer segment — they eagerly sent us short-run work, freeing their presses for more profitable runs.

In this case, digital printers did not need to carve out a niche; simply being a digital printer was the niche. Today this is no longer true. Savvy print buyers recognize instantly what jobs can best be printed digitally. They may have only a dozen sources to choose from, rather than hundreds of conventional printers, but no one company is going to get the job automatically just because they do digital ondemand. Further differentiation is needed.

What's in it for the customer?

Here are a few comments I've heard lately:

“You're the guy with the great newsletter. I read the stories, not just the jokes.” I'm flattered, but our newsletter is free. It's digital print we're selling.

“Hey, you're the company with that great website.” Well, we do sell websites, but what we really want is your digital-printing business.

“I've heard of you guys.” This could be good. It could also be bad.

In all of these cases, our company is perceived as different. Don't get me wrong. This is a good thing, and it is certainly preferable to hearing “You're with who?” when making a sales call. But none of the remarks above necessarily indicates a client will prefer us to our digital competitors. Customers see us as different, yes, but what's in it for them?

Now compare the following comment from a sometime customer when I asked him pointblank why we don't get all of his business:

“You know I use XYZ Digital in the next town for my easy projects. Their prices are lower than anyone else in your business and their quality is okay, so they get all of the ordinary toner-on-paper work that we send out.

“To use you guys, there must be something difficult about the job that no one else can do. Whenever a client begins to talk technically about complex files, unusual layouts or special bindings, we know right away that the work will have to go to you.”

Wow. That is differentiation. When the work is a commodity — a glorified copy job — our competitor will get it, albeit at a rock-bottom price. When value must be added, when cost is not the object, or when for one reason or another the project is one-of-a-kind, we get it. Hands down.

Differentiation triggers a response

In this particular example, both my rival and I have achieved differentiation. The customer clearly knows what separates each of us from the rest of the pack. And I'm positioned exactly where I want to be. I presume my competitor is also, although in this case I certainly wouldn't want to change places with him.

Being different and differentiation are both needed. Different opens the doors. It makes you stand out in memory in a way that merely boasting “I've got a DocuTech” won't ever do. Once they remember you because you are different, customers start returning your calls and begin to ask you for quotes and proposals. It is at this point that you must truly differentiate. If you can learn to do both, your hit rate will skyrocket.