Joint effort Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002
The economy is surging. It’s a daily struggle just to satisfy your customers’ demands. So why, in spite of providing ever-better service and quality, do customers suddenly change their demands and loyalty?

What I’ve discovered from my own clients is that customers move to suppliers who offer context in addition to content.

Content is the expertise or knowledge implicit in your product or service. Examples include:

  • Attorneys and consultants who offer experience, reputation and education.

  • Chemical companies that provide formulations, shipping, training and usage sheets.

  • Web sites and direct mailers exchanging valuable information with prospects who identify themselves and are open to hearing a sales pitch.

Context is how you apply your content to fulfill the needs of your customers. It is more than customization or consultative selling. Context demonstrates your empathy with the marketplace and how your services provide a breakthrough solution. If you can create a context based on your firm’s best and highest use, others cannot match you. Examples of context are:

  • Michael Dell, who uses traditional direct marketing methods to sell customized computers online.

  • Hallmark, which created “Bosses Day” to introduce personal relationship products into the workplace.

  • The U.S. Postal Service, which sells stamps through ATM machines.

In an episode of “Seinfeld,” the character of George Costanza unknowingly described context as “multiple, disparate worlds colliding.” When this happens, instant context is created. But what’s made it an even more daunting task is that content, by itself, is no longer enough to satisfy your clients.

Content has become a commodity, largely due to the Internet’s popularity. Knowledge is universally available. Libraries and Amazon.com offer “how-to” books so quickly that professional services firms have trouble acquiring new expertise they can sell at a premium.

Anyone with an anonymous e-mail address can get e-newsletters offering proprietary knowledge that is traditionally exchanged only after a sale is made.

There’s another factor at play, which is whether your business is content-dependent. The Internet has been called the world’s largest copy machine. Even if your company’s information is protected by a copyright, patent or secrecy agreement, your information is only a copier, scanner or “send button” away from worldwide availability. Your secrets cannot be the sole source of your competitive advantage.

Examples of content-dependent businesses in jeopardy include:

  • Distributors whose suppliers are leapfrogging over them to establish direct relationships with customers. For them, customer databases and years of relationships are no longer absolute barriers to competition.

  • Copycat Web sites which appear overnight and challenge successful Web marketers have eliminated any advantage of being first in or an incumbent player.

  • Professional services previously sold by the hour are now unbundled. Some are taken in-house, and what is outsourced is bargained down to a fixed price.

The bottom line is that if the success of your business rests on proprietary content, the power to control that information may be slipping away from you and into the hands of your customers and competitors. One way to combat this trend is to build context around your content. It’s not as difficult as you may think.

First, provide local, personal or event-specific information, such as showing your customers how they can make money using your services on Valentine’s Day. Recognize how your customers really use your products and create custom versions for them.

Instructions, warranties and pricing can all be customized to fit the context of the customer. Then, distribute and market your products directly to decision makers, not leaders. As an example, the receptionist/secretary in the smaller firm usually buys goods and services for the whole company.

For smaller companies, providing context is a matter of survival. Appealing to your customers as the low-cost supplier as your single point of difference is out of the question. You must find a way to beat the bigger company, and niche marketing alone won’t do it.

Be more nimble and smarter by applying your content in your customer’s context. The old adage is true: People buy holes, not shovels!

Andy Birol (pacerassociates@worldnet.att.net) is president of PACER Associates, Inc., a Solon-based consulting firm that works with companies who need to focus on their best ways to find, keep and grow more customers. Reach him at (440) 349-1970 or at www.pacerassociates.com.