The offering of our services to prospective clients is meant to persuade them to select us out of the many competing service providers in the marketplace.

This is a worthy challenge.

Persuasion takes many forms and occurs at many levels, from a simple smile to a well-presented client agreement. However, one of the greatest forms of persuasion is differentiating yourself from all the others.

Persuading by saying that you provide excellent, communicative, technically-supported, client-focused service is not differentiation, it is a basic summary of what we all should be doing, and it is saying you have nothing new or exciting to offer. Look at your competitors’ websites and see how many repeat the same thing. Prospective clients are not being swept off their feet.

A solution may be not to commit just to being better like everyone else claims, but also commit to being very different. If you decide to be 20 per cent better each year, you may be upstaged quickly by someone doing things 100 per cent differently.

You could even think about starting at zero to reflect on and perhaps redefine what you stand for. Trying to persuade everyone with common claims of quality can end up persuading no one. What is at the heart of your difference, and what type clients do you want to attract?

Being really different will not only make you stand out, but it may eliminate competition because you can place yourself in a field of one. By being the same as all the others, you may not be protected when someone who is different comes along, or when the economy demands uniqueness.

The idea of being different and how it can dramatically change things is not new. In recent times, we have seen banks surrendering valuable commercial territory to insurance companies and credit unions, lawyers surrendering to dispute resolution practitioners, and architects surrendering to project managers.

Being different has also fueled iconic visionary business pioneers including McDonald’s in fast-food, Federal Express in courier services, American Express in banking, Amazon in book sales, and more. The leaders of these organizations were passionate and uncompromising about their mission. What are you passionate and uncompromising about?

Of course, differentiation involves more than just a great vision supported by passionate determination. It has to be something the market not just wants, but will surprised and delighted with; something they will love and pay handsomely for. How do you determine what that is? Simply asking can help a lot.

Asking won’t give you everything. Henry Ford said that if he asked what customers wanted, they would have said “a faster horse.” If Steve Jobs asked what customers wanted, would they have replied “an I-phone?” Likely not.

Asking, however, will give you very valuable insights and how we ask is vital. Simply asking may not work well, as the respondents (your clients and prospects) may be guarded and give the answer they think is good diplomacy.

A good alternative is to do it through a third party who is qualified and trained at conducting effective surveys. The extra expense of this can be a great investment, and you save your time and your emotions by not being directly involved.

Respondents will likely open up more to a third party, especially if the third party is professional, and responses are anonymous. Respondents will also appreciate your commitment to finding out what they think, and having a survey response based on a score system makes for effective response analysis and responses can be published in your newsletter or marketing material.

This sort of survey has side benefits too. You get the chance to contact prospects and clients, reveal mistakes and faults, keep informed, keep selling, keep from getting lazy, and remind you or tell you what business you are in or need to be in.

However, beware the written survey. Respondents can be lazy and do not always want be part of these. Even when they do, your words may be misinterpreted by the respondents and you may misinterpret the respondents’ words, for example the words “quality” and “like” can have very different meanings for people.

The best survey results can come from oral surveys. Research has shown that written surveys result in an average of around 40 per cent response, while oral surveys result in close to 100 per cent response.

Oral surveys allow both the questioner and the respondent to clarify meanings of words and intent, and it is easier for respondents to talk than it is to write. Emotions, which are a very important to communication, can also be factored in. An oral survey also allows the questioner to diverge from the script to probe deeper for more information when appropriate.

Finally, the best oral surveys are done via telephone. Face-to-face oral surveys are often impractical to conduct, and respondents can feel exposed and perhaps intimidated. Surveys via telephone are easy to arrange and conduct, and the respondents can enjoy some anonymity where they can’t be seen by the surveyor. Also, people just seem to open up more on the phone, especially when asked for their valued opinion. We’ve all done it.

It can pay big dividends to find out what your clients and prospects are thinking, and it can be a great investment to engage a professional to ask the questions. This can keep you well ahead of competitors who may not be motivated to go to this extent, and keep you ahead of changing market conditions.