Swimming in a Sea of Sameness: How to Make Your Business Stand Out from Your Competitors

Competition is a persistent thorn in the side for most small businesses. Whether you design websites, own a restaurant or a boutique, repair cars or run a general contracting business, you aren't the only game in town. This may cause you to feel like you’re “swimming in a sea of sameness,” unable to effectively differentiate yourself from other businesses like yours. Depending on what you do, your competitors aren't just other businesses in your geographical area, either: They may be companies on the other side of the country or the other side of the globe.

How can your small business compete? How can you stand out from other businesses that sell similar products and services? How can you secure that first sale and repeat sales?

"The place to start is with yourself," says Adrian Miller, a sales and business development trainer for small to mid-sized businesses. "What really makes your business different?" she asks. With that in mind, here are a few ways to get an edge in a competitive market:

Fill an unserved or underserved niche

One timeless competitive strategy is to find a niche within an industry that's not being filled and to focus on it. Established and unestablished businesses alike can take inspiration from the story of Greg Davis. Greg has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease which weakens muscles and makes it very difficult for him to walk. He had read that recumbent tricycles (trikes) are easier to ride than other types of bicycles for people with balance and mobility issues, and he wanted to try one.

He could only find one bicycle store within 50 miles of his home that sold them, and that store only carried one model (which he bought). He was so happy with the way the trike let him move around on his own outdoors that he opened Your Trike Spirit, a Deer Park, New York store that sells recumbent trikes and helps people with disabilities discover the joy of riding them.

Here are a few ideas on how to identify underserved areas in your market:

  • Talk to customers to find out what they like about your business versus the competition or what they’re missing that isn’t currently offered.
  • Research your competitors (visit their website, read their online reviews, subscribe to newsletters, visit their location) to find out what they do best and what can be improved upon.

If you’re a restaurant, you might start offering a gluten-free menu. A landscaper may decide to exclusively use non-toxic lawn treatments that are kid and pet-friendly, or a hairdresser could offer evening hours or home services for busy professionals.

Use a catchy name or slogan

Another way to get customers to take notice is to create a unique business name or use a catchy tagline or slogan. Big businesses have slogans that immediately identify what they do and why a customer should buy their product or service. Disneyland's "The Happiest Place on Earth" and KFC’s "Finger Lickin' Good" are two great examples.

Fortunately, you don't have to be a big business with a huge budget to come up with a good name or slogan. To invent one that is memorable, think about:

  • What customers call what you sell
  • What results they want to achieve with their purchase
  • How they'll feel after buying from you

For instance, a physical therapy centre's slogan might be something like: "The people who get you moving again."

Win over the customer with your personal brand

Finding a way to grab the initial attention of a potential customer is only the first step in separating your business from the competition. The next and most important thing is to get the prospective client to want to do business with you. According to Miller, that has everything to do with your business' personal brand and company mission.

"We all do business with people we like, respect and trust," Miller explains. Businesses and consumers alike will choose one vendor over the others because of the overall feeling they get about that vendor. "You have to ask yourself, 'Am I really likeable?’ ‘Do I make prospects feel good, trust what I say and trust me with something important to them?’" If you have employees, you need to be sure they are good stewards of your brand and company.

Publicise what makes you different

Miller advises telling potential customers, "Here's how we're different." Focus on your personal brand and brand promise and the things that make your existing customers like working with you. For instance, are you the only bakery in town that uses non-GMO ingredients or are you a general contractor with the most experience in building LEED certified buildings?

You can't simply say “We provide great customer service.” Focus on tangible things such as timeliness, responsiveness to their needs, quality of your products and services and other things the customer cares about. "You have to be on the highest rung for these qualities," Miller emphasises.

Be sure you can validate what you tell customers, too. If you say, “We have the best prices in town,” you need to have proof of your prices being lower than other companies. Otherwise, the customer may think you don't understand the job or you'll cut corners.

You should also refrain from telling potential customers that you are better than your competitors. "Every company says they're better,” Miller says. “It's not convincing." Additionally, if the prospect has already done business with a competitor, saying your company is better subliminally implies the prospect didn't make a good choice, and that's not a good way to build a relationship.

Create a personal relationship

Keep in mind that in the eyes of many customers, small businesses are a dime a dozen. Consider how you can be a partner to your customer and not just a vendor. In turn, you’ll likely see increased loyalty. "If you become a resource, clients aren't likely to price shop," Miller says. "They stay true because of the value-add you give them."

To become a resource, proactively engage your customers. Pass along ideas, information and suggestions that are of interest and will help them accomplish their goals. "You want to keep clients and prospects feeling they are being taken care of even when there isn't a project going on," Miller adds. For instance, if you’re a personal trainer, you can send along suggested exercises or healthy recipes to keep your clients motivated.

Stay top-of-mind by using methods like these to stay in touch with customers and prospects:

  • Send newsletters with industry news and tips and other things the customer cares about.
  • Send emails with special offers.
  • Have an active social media presence.
  • Invite prospects and networking contacts for coffee.
  • Host VIP events for customers you’re looking to reconnect with.
  • Send congratulations when you hear about successes they’ve had.
  • Send handwritten notes thanking them for their business or their time.

"Think out of the box," says Miller. "But do it with a degree of consistency and attentiveness to get results. Things don't work overnight. It's the sum of all those little pieces that make you different and make the difference in your business."

It takes time and persistence to create results, so don’t expect it to happen right away. To help you stay on a consistent schedule of staying in touch with prospects and customers, use a calendar to keep track of how often you should reach out and to also remind you to post relevant news on social media.

Constantly innovate

Just when you think you’ve perfected your craft, it’s time to change again. Instead of sitting back and thinking “I’ve finally made it,” think about what’s next: Can you further improve your core product or service, or is there something new you can offer? Here are some thought-starters to get your own ideas flowing:

  • Think of ways to improve your customer service.
  • Research trends in your industry and think about how you can apply them to your business model.
  • Use technology to optimise processes and improve your speed of service.
  • Offer a signature product or service that is not available elsewhere.
  • Find new uses for existing products.

Don’t just go it alone. Be sure to ask customers, employees or friends for their opinions on your new ideas before you jump in head first. Or you can test your idea on a small scale to prove its worth before fully investing.

By implementing these tips and focusing on what makes your business unique, you’ll be better positioned to stand out from other companies in your space, both local and otherwise.

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