Get Off the Commodity Bus!

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
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
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.

Differentiating Local IT Service Shops

content marketing solution providers

Logicalis US does a good job of presenting short, sweet customer “stories” on its home page (with links to full case studies, of course.)

A lot of local and regional IT “solution” providers I work with have a self-esteem issue. When I ask “What differentiates you from your competitors?” they say “Nothing.”

“We just do what everyone else does – install and manage networks, do user support, plan upgrades, execute cloud migrations,” they say. Or, “We try to listen to our customer needs and tailor a solution to them – you know, what everyone does.” Or, “we try to provide good service, but everyone does…our only advantage is we’re local and can get to the customer in half an hour.”

They’re selling themselves short. Every business – every business – has something unique to offer or it wouldn’t exist. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Commodity? Fughedaabout It.  

  • Chain gas station/convenience store:  Even the humblest, no-name, most run-down gas station/snack shop has at least one unique attribute, which is its location.  When a customer needs gas or coffee now location is critical. The same is true of a local IT service provider, and rather than shrugging it off as “our only advantage” you can play it up. (See details below.)
  • Donut/coffee shop: Here in Boston, we seem to have a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shop every quarter mile. The ultimate commodity experience, right? But I have friends who swear “their” Dunkin’ makes better coffee than the one down the street. Maybe it’s really the cleanliness or the friendliness of the staff or how fast the drive-through line moves. It doesn’t matter because the customer perceives it as better. And even if other coffee shops across town offer the same clean floor and smiling employees, each shop competes only with those within easy walking or driving distance of their clientele.  (Again, IT service providers take note.)
  • Handyman: There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of folks who handle odd householder repair jobs in the Boston area. But we stick with one fellow who is 1) exceptionally creative at solving tough problems in our more than 200-year-old house, 2) is meticulous in his craftsmanship, 3) is reasonably priced and 4) shows up when he says he will. (Yes, he is booked solid, and no, you can’t have his number.) As a local IT service provider, you probably share one or more of these winning traits. If so, tout them.

Now, Tell Your Story

How do we turn these elements of differentiation into compelling content for a “commodity” local IT service provider? Through stories other prospective customers can relate to. For example:

  • The location advantage: “When the point of sale system crashed at a local party supply store the week before Halloween, the screams about lost sales were for real. Because we were located just across town, we had a technician on site within 30 minutes and the system back up in another hour – just in time for the Saturday afternoon sales crush.”
  • The customer service/creativity advantage: “The staff at a local commercial insurance agency found themselves struggling with the new customer service portal rolled out by one of their most popular insurance providers. While training was not part of our existing service offering, we quickly learned the portal, provided training to their staff and wrote custom scripts to integrate it with our client’s CRM and accounting systems. Our client’s staff can nowfocus on business, not learning the new portal, and is even using the new portal to provide special discounts and mobile service to their customers.”
  • The “we know your business” advantage: “A local hospital we support was struggling with the shift from the ICD-9 to ICD-10 codes for classifying diseases and treatments. Training their staff on the new codes was hard enough. They had no time or skills to tackle the associated changes to their applications and databases. With our deep understanding of the hospital’s IT infrastructure (much of which we deployed) we were able to handle the technical side of the upgrade with minimal fuss and cost. We even deployed analytic software to help them recover revenue they were missing due to mis-coded treatments.”

Needed: Happy Customers

The best proof of your value is always a real customer, with a name and a face, describing what you do well in their own words. Logicalis US, a global service provider, is among those who do it well (see screen shot above.) If you’re not asking your best local customers for referrals, now’s the time to start. And remember: Just because you’re small and local doesn’t mean you’re not special.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
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.

Avoid These Three Deadly Case Study Sins

killpressreleaseI’m in the middle of a lot of intensive case study work for several clients. Much of it involves reviewing and punching up the “first draft” project descriptions written by their internal experts.

These folks are far more expert than I will ever be in everything from Big Data analytics to system administration to banking and retail trends. But perhaps because they’re so close to the nitty-gritty of what they do, they have a very hard time pulling back and explaining how they did it, why they did it and how it helped the customer.

(Note this post focuses on services such as IT or business processing outsourcing or consulting, rather than product case studies. With products, my clients usually already have descriptions of the value their product delivers, and my work lies in uncovering where a well-defined product delivered value to each customer. With services, each engagement has more variables, and my client’s value lay in long, detailed   fine-tuning of highly technical work flows. Their on-site experts have to dive so deep into details and process it’s that much harder for them to come back up for air and remember the business problems they’re solving.)

That said, let’s dive into the three things I often find missing from my clients” “first draft” case studies you should be on the lookout for:

How you did it

The folks who make big professional services engagements success have to be extremely process-focused. Their work revolves around completing checklists, implementing frameworks and meeting deployment schedules. Not surprisingly, when I ask them to describe their achievements they’ll answer “completed upgrade to Oracle 8  on time” or “completed transition to off-site resources” (shifted work from the client to themselves.)

What a prospective client wants to know is how you did the work that is different or better than your competitors. Try: “Completed upgrade to Oracle 8 33% more quickly than industry benchmarks through the use of our proprietary data cleansing tool,” or “Completed transition to off-site resources three weeks ahead of schedule” due to our best practices in project management and knowledge transfer.

Why you did it

This is the problem statement that is central to every case study. I usually find this under a heading such as “Challenges.” Examples include “Need to improve system availability,” “Excess support costs” and “Lack of agility.” To the folks in the trenches, again, these are high-level goals they take for granted and thus don’t see a need to expand on. What’s missing here are the specifics and the impact on the bottom line that bring drama to the case study, and help prospects see you solved problems they have also.

Push back on the implementers until you get descriptions such as “Unacceptable 93% uptime in critical systems cost $4 million in revenue during peak shopping seasons” “$6 million annual support costs for legacy payroll system starved mobile app effort of funds” or “Inflexible older systems delayed cost-savings from merger, costing client $50 million per year.” Again, you’re looking for specific problems, and their effect on the top or bottom line.

How you helped the bottom line

This is the flip side of the “why you did it” question, and requires pushing for quantitative answers to how close the service provider came to fixing the “why you did it problems.” These may be financial (dollars saved per year) or percentages (17% improvement in storage utilization, 33% improvement in customer support) or time (40% shorter time to market for new products.)

Tip: the implementers in the trenches often won’t need to ask, or to know, these specific improvements, as they’re judged on how well they did their part of the overall project. You might need an account exec or a client-side manager charged with tracking the return on investment to get that higher level view.

However you do it, it’s your job as a content provider to get out of the implementation weeds and explain how what you did helped the client’s business more than a competitor could have.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
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.