Thursday, May 5, 2011

Seeking Warm Weather or Real Differentiation

A colleague of mine is in the midst of a rigorous search with her teenage daughter (we’ll call her Liz) to find a suitable college for next year. Over the past few months they have visited, interviewed and toured at seventeen different colleges up and down the east coast from Alabama to Vermont. In each of these interviews the college is selling the reason that they are the best and logical choice for Liz to attend. What is fascinating is how each college goes about differentiating itself from its competitors for the goal of student dollars. In every case they tout facts about the school that they are convinced will impress such as:

- Their library – eg: how many volumes, how many libraries, open 24 x 7, technology enabled.
- Credential of the faculty – eg: how many Phd’s, how many are published, famous.
- Safety of the campus – eg: blue light system, good relationship with local police.
- Number of clubs – they all have hundreds to choose from.
- How good their cafeteria food is. How many students study abroad.

Seventeen different colleges. All saying the same things. All think they are different. This has left Liz in the position of being not much further along in her choice than when she started. So what’s happened? Other criteria have bubbled to the surface for Liz such as the quality of the football team, weather can’t get below 50 degrees, the boys at the college must all be athletic, how long it takes to walk from the dorm room to the classes. Less important criteria that have now become very important due to an absence of any other real differentiation. And of course, another one has emerged from low on the list to front and center – cost. What Liz and her mother are going through is a very real metaphor for what happens every day in the B2B sales world. Companies tout their “differentiators” and are frustrated when potential customers focus most attention on price and other, seemingly unimportant, factors in their decision.

I’d be interested in hearing about any examples of this common phenomenon you may have seen in the business world.

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