differentiate IT service providersDo you feel like you’re stuck trying to differentiate yourself in a crowded, “me-too” market like, for example, local IT service providers?

Take a lesson from Southern New Hampshire University, maybe best known for the bus they send around the country delivering diplomas to graduates of their on-line programs.

They escaped a death spiral of rising costs and falling enrollment by recognizing an underserved market, reorganizing itself to serve that market better than its competitors and thus lifting itself out of the muck of “me-too” competitors.

Find the Underserved Customer…

The first step out of the commodity swamp was accepting SNHU had no compelling draw for the conventional market — high school seniors looking for a four-year residential experience.

The second step was realizing there was another, even bigger, underserved market. Fully 80 percent of the post-secondary education market is made up of working adults with families and other “non-traditional students.” For them, flexible course timing, fast help with anything from coursework to financial aid and a return on their investment are far more important than life in a dorm or weekend football games.

Understanding the new “customer”, and building on the school’s existing online offerings, SNHU President Paul LeBlanc reorganized everything from admissions to courses to financial aid to provide what these students need anytime, anywhere.

…and Cater to Them

How many traditional colleges, for example, pay more than 160 “admissions counselors” to stand by to answer phone calls (especially on weekends) to help prospective students find the right degree program? Rather than telling a busy applicant to find and send their own transcripts for transfer credits, SNHU hunts them down and even pays the administrative fees. And rather than wait for students to fall behind in their work before offering help, SNHU uses predictive analytics to alert instructors when a student goes too long without logging on to a course or spends too much time on an assignment.

By late last year, the school was nearing $535 million in revenue, a 34 percent compounded annual growth rate for the past five years. Over that time it grew its online offerings to 180 programs serving 34,000 “customers.”

The story isn’t perfect, as completion rates are still stuck at about 50 percent, and some students and faculty) question whether the highly standardized courses deliver a true quality education.

But think of how USNH stands out of the pack by having admissions counselors picking up the phone on weekends, which may be the only time a working person has time to think about college. Think about the competitive advantage of understanding that a non-traditional student might not know when they’re falling behind, and reaching out to them for help before they waste their hard-earned tuition. Even if the education is no better (however the student measures it) than a traditional school, the ease of access and focus on the customer’s real need is a major competitive advantage.

What “Job” Does Your Customer Need Done?

One tactic that helped SNHU zero in on these underserved students was asking what unfinished “job” their students (customers) wanted the school to complete for them. The unfinished work might be getting enough education to make more money without taking on too much debt or dropping the ball on work and family obligations.

What would such a customer-focused approach look like for, let’s say, a regional service provider that has trouble differentiating itself from the competition?

Ask yourself who is the real customer? Are you selling to a line of business manager, the CEO or the IT “super user” who got stuck with handling support? What do each of them really need in an IT service provider that they’re not getting? Easier to read monthly bills? More prescriptive analytics about performance issues? Getting to a human rather than a series of voice prompts? And are there new types of customers (say, those who got started with a cloud provider like Amazon Web Services but have grown so large they need outside management help) you could tap that you have not?.

Taking the “jobs” perspective also leads right to the business problems (or opportunities) your customers are trying to meet. All too often the on-site techies are too focused on incremental milestones or internal tweaks than on the business-critical “job” the customer hired them for, such as improving customer service, or bring new products to market more quickly.

In some cases, the “job” might be something the customer didn’t even think someone could do for them. In the case of SNHU, their prospective customers were often stuck with debt from previous schooling, and had stopped trying for more education because they thought the only option was more conventional schooling that had failed them before.

Find an underserved market, understand its needs and then turn yourself inside out to meet them. Not easy, but if you do it right you’ve got huge growth potential.

Are there any untapped niches left in the local/regional IT service provider market or it is “just” all about local presence and customer service? What’s worked for you in differentiating yourself or your clients?

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.