Strong differentiator #5: provide better advice

Philip Morgan

Strong form of differentiation #5: Provide better advice to your client.Remember that weak forms of differentiation are claims that almost any of your competitors can credibly make. "We have a great process." "We have a great team." That kind of thing...I know that this form of differentiation is very similar to the previous one, which was to propose and deliver something that benefits your client's business more than what they originally thought was possible. That's OK. You're not going to use every differentiator on this list of 10 good ones. In fact, you'll really want to choose just ONE to use or cultivate into your business over time.How do you provide better advice to your client than other software developers might?There are at least 4 ways...1) Know how their business works. Sure... some software exists in its own isolated world, independent of a business case and existing to serve purely technical requirements. But that's not most custom software.Most custom software integrates with a business process of some kind. While specific business processes are likely to be unique for each client you work with, the larger context of how their business works, how it makes money, and how they leverage technology to create competitive advantage is not. That stuff is common across most businesses in their market vertical.I'l give you an example I find interesting.Some years back I did some freelance work for a regional trucking company. Their #1 daily operational KPI was whether they got all the outgoing shipments loaded into a terminal's trucks on time. If they met that KPI each day, every other aspect of their operations got better. If they missed it, there were cascading problems all the way down the line.This company dramatically improved that KPI by teaching all of their managers how to create a scatter plot. Very simple, low-tech stuff. But with this simple analytical tool their managers were better able to isolate any problems that effected that KPI and move quickly to resolve the problem. This simple tool of creating a scatter plot was actually an important competitive advantage for this company.The "technology" of the scatter plot integrated with a business process. The business process was just loading cargo into trucks on time, but for that business it was a very important process!Imagine if someone who understood this tech-biz process integration left the company in my example and went to another regional trucking company and said "If you'd like to improve your [whatever the KPI we're talking about here is actually called] by xx%, we should talk." They'd at least get a few minutes to explain how they could do that!So that's one way to provide your clients with better advice. Understand how their business works. If you're a generalist, you can't really do this. But if you focus on a specific market vertical, you can develop this ability.That's the second way to give better advice...2) Have more relevant experience. I touched on this in a previous email in this series.Simply having more relevant experience makes you better at advising your clients. Relevant experience is experience with other companies in the same market vertical.Sure, there are times when you can use an outsider status to position yourself as exactly the breath of fresh air your client needs. But that's more the exception than the rule.3) Become involved sooner in the project, before key architectural decisions are set in stone. How do you do this? The simple answer is: get more leads coming in so you can cherry pick the projects that need you as an advisor. You may have to temporarily take on smaller clients or smaller projects in order to pull this off, but as a long term plan for moving up the value chain that's a perfectly acceptable tradeoff.4) Do original research that's relevant to your clients needs. What important questions do your clients tend to have that you could answer with some research legwork? Examples:

  • Which front-end framework has the lowest TCO? What evidence is there to support that?
  • What are Fortune 500 IT departments doing that we should be emulating?
  • (alternately) What are the most successful startups doing that our Fortune 500 company should be doing now so they don't eat our lunch 2 years from now?
  • Based on developer job postings, where does the industry seem to be moving? What decisions can we make now to get a bit ahead of that movement?

These are just some quick made-up examples. What makes original research valuable is that it answers important questions your clients have and can't answer themselves.Alrighty, that's enough for today on differentiation. I'll be back next time with some ideas about how to differentiate based on your willingness to say NO to bad ideas. :)Now would be a great time to learn everything you need to know about positioning: to you soon,-P