Creating a Competitive Advantage

3 min read • Mar 18, 2014 • Ty Kiisel

Banking and small business lending is more competitive now than it has ever been. If you’re not asking yourself, “Why would a small business owner choose my bank for their next small business loan?” you should. Organizationally, if you can’t answer that question, your customers will look at what you do to as a commodity and will blow wherever the wind takes them.

Several years ago, I learned that competitive advantages don’t just happen, we decide to have them. Jet Blue asks themselves three questions every day, we should all be doing the same thing:

  1. What do we do better than our competition?
  2. What do they do better than us?
  3. How can we do that better than they do it?

One of the biggest revelations for me was learning that competitive advantage is not about the products we offer, it’s about the deliverables. In other words, it’s usually not about the things we charge for and a legitimate advantage offers the following traits:

  • It must be objective: It can’t be subjective. For example, “We provide great customer service,” is not a competitive advantage. “We answer every phone call within the first three rings with a live operator,” would be a competitive advantage. We can measure how many rings it takes before a live operator answers the phone. It’s not subjective, it’s an objective measure of what our customer service people do.
  • It must differentiate from the competition: It needs to be something our competitors aren’t doing. For example, if none of your competitors are answering the phone with live operators and are using automatic answering machines, answering the phone with a live operator would be a competitive advantage.
  • It must be measurable: The first example is good because we can count how many rings it takes before we answer the phone, we can measure over time how we do, and we can score our results. You can’t say we answer within the first three rings if we don’t do it, but if we can demonstrate that we can, it’s a competitive advantage.
  • Our competition can’t already be claiming it (we need to say it first): For example, Volvo and Honda have roughly the same safety rating, but if Honda claimed to be the “safest car in the world” we’d laugh at them. Volvo made that claim and demonstrated it by driving a car of a three-story building. Even today, Volvo still pretty much owns that competitive advantage.
  • It can’t be a “given” or a cliche: When I go to a movie theater, I expect to sit in a comfortable seat. Claiming comfortable seats wouldn’t be a competitive advantage. Advertising that 40 seats in every theater are Lay-Z-Boy recliners might be.
  • It must be true: In order for it to be a competitive advantage, it must be true. For example, if you claim to successfully address every customer service issue within 48 hours, and it takes a week, the claim isn’t true and it isn’t a competitive advantage.
  • It must mater to the customer: If your competitive advantage doesn’t matter to the customer, it doesn’t matter and it isn’t a competitive advantage. If your customers don’t care whether or not a live operator answers the phone, it doesn’t matter how important that is to you, it isn’t a competitive advantage.

The problem with knowing what a competitive advantage is, is the temptation to claim what you would like the ideal to be when you don’t really deliver. For example, your customer service goal might be to answer the phone before the third ring, but in reality it’s more like the fifth ring. You can’t claim three rings until you can actually do it. Backing up your performance with facts will demonstrate you’re serious about your advantage and make it impossible for your competitors to say, “We do that too.”

That said, this easy four-step process will help you create a real competitive advantage:

  1. Identify the deliverables
  2. Identify the competitive advantages
  3. Learn what your customers think is important
  4. Apply the results

In some ways, your product or service is what you provide to show up and play in the market, it’s the un-invoicable deliverables that really set you apart and create real competitive advantage.

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Ty Kiisel

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business financing and trends accessible in common sense language devoid of the jargon.