What Makes Your Company Special?

I attended Catholic school through the 8th grade.  One thing you learned in Catholic school was conformity.  The girls wore uniforms and, while the boys didn’t wear uniforms at our school, I know from my interaction with Catholic schools over the years that most require boys to wear uniforms.  We were taught to recite the same prayers, sing the same songs, play the same games, etc.  In short, conformity was the rule.  And there was a certain comfort in fitting in.

I thought about this when my friend Steve sent me a Thought of the Day piece titled Know What Makes Your Company Special by Scott Anthony from the HBR blog.  It linked to a more extensive blog piece, but here is the synopsis from the email:

Companies that focus on their unique abilities are best-positioned for growth.  But most firms, like most people, aren’t very aware of their extraordinary capabilities, not to mention their extraordinary deficiencies. To achieve growth you need to know what makes your company special. Seeing the world through your customers’ and competitors’ eyes is the best way to understand what sets you apart. Ask the following three questions to pinpoint the assets that can catalyze new growth:

  • Why — really — do customers choose our offerings?
  • Which of our capabilities are distinctly better than those of competitors?
  • How difficult would it be for a garage-based startup to replicate what we have done?

The answers will help you determine your most crucial asset, and how that should be the focus of your growth.

There are a few things I like about this advice:

Seeing the world through your customers’ eyes is a given in today’s customer-centric world.  If you’re not already doing this, you will be toast.  But how often do you take time to understand how competitors see the world?  If their marketing communications are true to their view of the world, you can get a pretty good sense of how a competitor views the world.  A word of caution: You are not trying to get this view to imitate a competitor, you are doing it to take a sustainable position no competitor has claimed.

Awareness of extraordinary deficiencies is critical.  We have all done SWOT analyses and when we get to the “W” (weaknesses) we put things in nice terms so we don’t offend anyone.  We say “customer service capabilities need improvement” when we really mean “customer service stinks and is costing us repeat sales.”  Without this level of truthfulness, very little will change and the same weaknesses will be on the list year after year.  In fact, conducting the strengths and weaknesses analyses internally is pretty futile because of built in bias.  Ask your customers about your strengths and weaknesses, and their answers will provide insights about opportunities and threats.

How difficult would it be for a garage-based startup to replicate what you have done?  Great question.  If you can’t think of a few reasons why a start-up would have difficulty competing against you, your days are limited because a start-up is aiming at your business right now.   This is what we should all be thinking about:  What technology, business model, knowledge, economic or legal change, etc. is going to make us obsolete?  Too many companies kid themselves about this until it is too late to change and survive.  Maybe the better question is “If I were entering this market today, what would I do to beat the market leaders?”.  Better to disrupt your own company than to have a new competitor disrupt it.

Unlike when many of us were kids and wanted to fit in, competing successfully is about being special and standing out.  You want your company to be different so that it claims a unique position in the marketplace.


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