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How to Differentiate Yourself From The Competition (Without Actually Doing Anything Differently)

I recently read something that got me doing a lot of thinking. Seth Godin posted that great brands are about what they represent and not about what they are. In proposals, we talk about having themes, a message, or a story. But really what we’re trying to do is establish a brand. We need to give the customer something to choose.

In certain markets, people really struggle to find discriminators. When the customer tells you what to bid, how many to bid, and how to structure your pricing, there isn’t a lot of room to differentiate your offering. So don’t differentiate your offering — differentiate your brand. Differentiate what you represent to the customer.

One of the things I try to demonstrate when doing training is that it is possible to differentiate yourself through better proposal writing. To do this, you have to be the vendor that does the best job of answering the customer's questions, both written and unwritten. When everything else is equal and the offers are pretty much the same, like they can be in a commodity market, what you read can make all the difference.

If you take that another step further, you can go beyond answering their questions and provide something that the customer wants to be a part of. To do this, you have to have a real vision of what the procurement is going to do for the customer and paint a picture that is so vivid they can see themselves in it.

Most people try to take the personality out of their business correspondence. They worry that the reader may not like something. But in order to represent something the customer wants to be a part of, you’ll have to inject personality into your proposal. You’ll stand a much greater chance of winning because it has personality, than you will of losing because it has personality. In fact, since the odds are that none of your competitors’ proposals will have any personality at all, you can count on getting more attention simply because yours does.

The problem with trying to represent something is that it has to be meaningful. You can’t do it by going through the motions. You can’t paint a picture if you have no vision.

For an example, let’s consider staffing proposals. It’s a commodity service. The customer tells you the type of staff and locations. You bid the lowest possible price and still have to somehow deliver in a timely manner. Everybody is bidding the same type of staff from the same labor pool. Everyone has experience and everyone has skeletons in their closet from bidding too low. How do you stand out and differentiate your offer?

I’d recommend that you start by making sure that you do the best job of answering the customer’s questions (written and implied). You can expect the customer to be curious about how you are going to be able to deliver. You need to show that you have the right process and that you have a superior knowledge of the local labor market(s).

So if you want to win it’s time for some introspection. What do you represent? Seriously — none of that mission statement garbage. What is it about your company that actually makes a difference? Step back for a moment from the nuts and bolts of your approach. What gives your company personality?

Talk about personal details. Who at your company gets personally involved with the customer or the staff? How does that make a difference? Tell a story about success under pressure --- how your administrative staff helped fill sandbags to save a customer's office that was in danger of being flooded. Or how the head of your company filled in when someone was out sick. It’s not what you did that matters --- it’s the personal involvement. It’s about having a personality and not just going through the motions. It’s going to be really hard to do this if you’ve never actually done anything extraordinary.

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. You have to pick from a stack of proposals. You narrow it down by throwing out the non-compliant ones, until you have just a handful left that are legitimate and worth evaluating. But how many blah-blah recruiting processes and blah-blah responses to the same requirements can you read before you fall asleep? Do you pick one company over another because they have a 102-step process instead of a 96-step process?

Then you open one that covers the bases, is fully compliant, and has a credible process. But it’s also talking directly to you. It tells stories about the kinds of situations you have actually had to face, and shows them how you make tough decisions and trade-offs. They may not have solved the contradiction of being the low-bid recruiter, but which company would you feel more comfortable selecting? The one with the 102-step process promise or the one where you have some insight into who they really are?


 The MustWin Process Guides You Through How to Tell Your Story in a Proposal 

Price: $495.00

By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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