Does your school stand out?

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Differentiating Your Business

7 tips for creating a unique selling proposition that helps cut through the competitive clutter to drive sales

by Brad Sugars

Some of the most successful businesses in the world have made their mark by articulating their unique capabilities. FedEx put itself on the map by guaranteeing packages would reach their destinations overnight. Domino's Pizza once promised to deliver hot pizza in 30 minutes or less. Burger King let you "have it your way."

Businesses also need this kind of unique selling proposition (USP) to stand out from the crowd. It's a way to lure prospective customers in your door and away from competitors. It's also a tool to help you avoid the slippery slope of competing on price alone and thereby eating into the margins you need to earn more than a subsistence wage.

Consider the example of my dentist. His challenge was not just to set himself apart but to sell a service that people associate with pain. He did that by creating an office with an exclusive country club atmosphere, reinventing the dental experience.

The foyer has a $5,000 coffee machine, 18 different teas served in fine bone china from a silver tray and an oven baking sugarless muffins to mask the medicinal smell. Patients are greeted by their "personal care nurse," ushered into treatment rooms with their name and photo on the door, offered a choice of DVDs to watch on an overhead TV with headphones and given a buzzer to press if they experience pain.

Defining Your USP
Think of a USP as your secret sauce--the special ingredient your business uses to prevent becoming a "me too" company. It's something that's truly unique. It grabs people's attention. It can't be easily copied. And it offers a clear-cut, marketable benefit to your customer.

Some USPs practically jump out at you. The fizzy herbal cold and flu fighter Airborne, for example, declares on the package label that it was invented by a second-grade teacher. That's a claim that no other company can make, and it sends a feel-good message that instantly distinguishes the product from other herbal remedies.

Most USPs are harder to come by. If you're a locksmith, mattress store or corporate training company, what makes you different from anyone else in your space? Here are some suggestions for helping you answer that question.

1. Analyze the competition. What do they do well? Where do they fall short? What don't they offer that you do? Where are they geographically located in comparison to you? Look for holes in the market that will help you define your niche.

2. Determine what sets you apart. Maybe you're the only local jewelry store with a designer on the premises. Or a florist that employs a professional writer to craft customers' messages. Or a pastry school that offers an unusual 24-week certificate program. Or a management consultant whose principals have worked with Fortune 100 companies. If you can make claims like these, you have an easy USP to hang your hat on.

3. If you have no differentiator (and many startups don't), invent one. That's what my dentist did. And don't be afraid to change the message as your business evolves. I know of one website design firm that started out promoting the fact that it also provides internet marketing services like search engine optimization. Over time, it carved out a position as an expert in web content management and adapted its USP accordingly.

4. Identify consumer pain points. When all else fails, list the main frustrations of consumers in your industry and devise a USP to blunt them. If you're a carpet cleaner, for example, you might offer an emergency service or a do-it-yourself fabric care kit to address the fear of stains between visits and build your message around those services.

5. Offer a guarantee. Again, focus on offering a cure for common customer frustrations. I once helped a plumbing contractor write a guarantee promising that plumbers would turn up within 15 minutes of the scheduled time or provide the first hour of work free, leave the house cleaner than when they arrived, and show up in uniforms with belts. The goal: conquer plumbers' reputation for lateness, messiness and embarrassing rear views.

6. Be specific and concrete. Baskin-Robbins once touted its 31 flavors, even incorporating "31" into its logo. Wonder Bread used to "help build strong bones 12 ways." You might be a heating company that's on call 24 hours a day, a manufacturer that offers 142 different widgets, or a gym with 56 machines. If you've got it, flaunt it.

7. Never make a claim you can't fulfill. The plumbing contractor I just mentioned established a series of systems to make good on its guarantee, including equipping employees with handheld vacuums, booties and belted uniforms. Be sure you can deliver what you promise or your USP will be useless.

Once you've established your USP, your job is to condense it into a few words and then communicate it at every touchpoint--from your Yellow Pages ads, letterhead and marketing collateral to your website, signage, sales calls and beyond.

Think of it this way: what makes you choose one clothing store, builder or moving company over another? Chances are it's their success in defining their USP and broadcasting that message to the marketplace. Take a page from their book. You'll get noticed--and the cash flowing--a lot faster.

Brad Sugars is the founder and chairman of ActionCOACH. As an entrepreneur, author and business coach, he has owned and operated more than two dozen companies including his main company, ActionCOACH, which has more than 1,000 offices in 34 countries.

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