Setting yourself apart

Sep 09, 2016

Figure out what your firm is and what its values are, and remain disciplined if you want to flourish in a competitive market.

The competitive environment continues to change at light speed, and that in turn has translated into the way we lead and manage businesses. At the same time, many continue to experience the commoditization of their core services, which only heightens the competitive pressure.

One thing that’s certain – there will always be competition. The question is what a company can do to set itself apart. The starting point lies in identifying your dominant, secondary and tertiary Value Disciplines in your business. The Value Discipline is a model created by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema that describes the way you win and execute business in the company. And it’s important to understand these in order to lead and manage, and to achieve the best results in all aspects of the business. There are three categories of Value Disciplines – Client Intimacy, Operational Excellence, and Product Leadership.

  1. Client Intimacy is the endeavor to build long-term and deep client relationships. Some characteristics of this discipline include longer sales cycles, measuring client satisfaction to measure success, the need for an entrepreneurial approach to clients, and investment in people and relationship building.
  2. Operational Excellence is the focus on efficiency and maintaining a low cost structure. Characteristics include skills at price competition, a focus on projects rather than individual clients, less self-directed staff, and a high emphasis on productivity.
  3. Product Leadership encourages creativity, innovation and having “experts” in the market. Some of the characteristics of this discipline include longer sales cycles, less concern for the client, and more of an emphasis on, “Look at me, I’m the best.” This approach focuses on a high degree of staff creativity and internal investment in staff.

The question is, which is best to set oneself apart?

Any of these can be the basic building block that will help set a company apart from others. For example, being the most efficient and low cost provider can set you apart from others if you choose the Operational Excellence model and endeavor to compete in a more commodity-based environment. This is not a bad choice – rather just a choice. One of the keys to success with the Operational Excellence model is to avoid having a business with equally weighted disciplines. Choosing and reinforcing a dominant discipline is the most successful approach, even though it’s difficult because many have well-diversified capabilities.

Organizational alignment is a problem in our business, especially if you have multiple disciplines, branch offices, or regions, and it’s why we have so many individuals that are in buying and selling positions in the company. As an example, we find ourselves allowing a part of the business to pursue projects and compete on price rather than building deep relationships with a handful of clients. All while having the discipline to say “no” to those that are only interested in price. The result is we have a business that is not structured financially to compete on price.

The first step in this Value Discipline process is to critically evaluate the business and categorize what you are doing in the three model areas. Is the vast majority of the work you perform based on price competition solely, relationships, or services that are unique, innovative, and better than the competition can provide? This is a tough process because the tendency is to believe all three are involved in decision-making, and sometimes that might be. However, this concept needs to be thought through in terms of “what we will emphasize” to win and execute work, as many clients will always choose multiple ways to evaluate a company they will hire.

Next, determine the secondary discipline you will rely on. For example, if you determine Customer Intimacy is the primary discipline and Product Leadership is secondary, it is key to identify what service offerings set you apart from the competition. These service offerings again are not in terms of better quality or how great you are delivering – rather they are a bona fide unique set of capabilities that are defined by technology, innovation, and value received by the client. Creating strategies to identify and cultivate those clients that will benefit from your innovative service will guide you to establishing those deep relationships offering a unique set of capabilities. Attracting, retaining, developing, and educating staff that fit the characteristics of these two disciplines then becomes a guidepost for the company.

The concept is simple – doing it is much more difficult. Having the fortitude to move away from, divest, or de-emphasize clients and service offerings that don’t fit your discipline model will lead you to higher financial and overall business success. The key is discipline, focus, and commitment to set yourself apart by not succumbing to the vanilla approach of being everything to everyone.

Gerry Salontai is the founder of Salontai Consulting Group, LLC. Contact him at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.