Put your USP in the bin where it belongs

27th February 2018


We’d invited in three systems integrators (SIs) to pitch. We wanted an ecommerce platform, and I was managing the project.

The first SI declared their differentiator was their implementation process, and proudly described their five-step approach. The second also said it was their implementation process that set them apart and proceeded to explain a seven-step approach. The third went back down to five steps and described it with equal enthusiasm.

All three implementation processes seemed largely identical, and yet each SI spoke proudly and lovingly about theirs as if it was special and the reason to choose them. (And I resolved never again to allow any outside vendor to describe their implementation process to me.)

This is the kind of thing that happens when companies obsess about having a unique selling point (USP). It isn’t an isolated example. There’s a niche BPO segment with five credible international players. Each went looking for something unique about their service and three identified the proprietary software they use to manage the service. “Our proprietary software is better” became the essence of those three unique selling points. The sales director of the fourth observed that proprietary is not always an advantage and identified his company’s unique selling point as “We use industry-standard software.” I can only pity the poor buyers.

The root cause of this is the idea that finding something unique about a company’s product or service is necessary or even desirable. It’s arisen because a term from advertising has seeped into general sales and marketing usage. A unique selling proposition’s original purpose was to ensure an advertising campaign focused on a single theme that was different. This is essential in advertising but not necessarily helpful in enterprise sales and marketing.

How we all buy

Think about your own purchases – here are three of mine. I needed a new TV. There were lots of brands and models that were fully acceptable. I had to pick one and so I did. I can’t even remember why, but it definitely wasn’t because there was anything unique about it. It was probably happenstance I chose that model. I can explain why I buy a particular salad for lunch: I can buy it on my way in to work; it’s reasonably priced; it’s the right size, healthy, and I like the dressing. None of those factors on their own are unique, but there is only one salad in only one shop that meets all five. It’s the combination that matters. Lastly there’s my dishwasher. I live in a small flat and wanted the quietest. There was one that stood out as the quietest on the market, and I was willing to pay a premium to get it. A rare purchase of mine driven by a unique selling point. How about yours?

In business, my guess is that at least half, and perhaps 80–90%, of purchases are like my lunchtime salad: there’s nothing unique, but a combination of factors that make one option more attractive. Brand clearly plays a role too: in the TV example above, I’d gone to a John Lewis store, and I’m a fan. When a corporate brand has the strength of Salesforce, Accenture or Microsoft, the emotional reassurance it provides will be an advantage.

But widespread use of the phrase unique selling point has meant mildly relevant features are introduced too early in marketing or in the sales conversation, and given far too much prominence – solely on the grounds they are perceived to be unique. Vendors tend to be a poor judge of uniqueness. And relevance is far more potent.

What to focus on instead

A Forrester report from a few years back, Technology Buyer Insight Study: How Executives Differentiate Among Their Suppliers, points to another way to differentiate. It asked enterprise business and IT decision-makers, “What differentiates a vendor from their competition the most?” By far the biggest factor, with 34%, was “The ability to match relevant capabilities to specific client situations.” The second factor, on 19%, was “A focus on driving a business result.” In other words it is not vendors’ capabilities or product features themselves that typically set them apart, but rather how the vendor combines them to solve customer problems. In Forrester’s words, “companies don’t buy products, they invest to solve problems.”

This was certainly the case during my most satisfying buying experience, one with EY. We’d struggled for years to find good client ROI metrics to support the BPO and IT managed services we were selling, and decided to throw some marketing budget at the problem. One company thought they had a USP – and in a way they did – though they spent far too much time talking about it. The EY partner listened to what I was trying to achieve, asked some clarifying questions, and offered a couple of real insights about the nature of our problem and how to overcome it. These insights made me realise, a) she understood not just the letter of what we were trying to achieve, but also the spirit; b) she probably understood the challenge better than I did; and c) she had better ideas on how to solve it. Textbook solving the customer’s problem. I could see I was in safe hands and the decision was easy.

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest news and events