[Editor's Note:In a recent conversation, the leader of a company explained that his was a commoditized business - just like many others in his industry. I asked him why anyone would choose to buy from him unless he offered the absolute lowest price. He looked a bit bewildered by my comment and then responded that fighting price competition was his company's biggest issue. It made me think of an article about differentiation. I hope you find it useful. -dpm]
All products become commodities. All industries become mature.
You wake up one morning and realize that your products have become commodities. Your competitors all have basically the same "stuff" to sell and your sales people are constantly pressured to lower prices. Margins are being squeezed. You can't believe the price that a competitor just quoted to lure one of your customers. You know all of the competitors - they are not in any better position than you. This just isn't fun anymore!
Welcome to life in a maturing industry where growth is slowing - or may even be declining, all of the competitors and customers are known, and customers change suppliers or products for a lower price. Maturity comes to all industries - materials, products, or services. Whether you provide concrete or steel, or develop and sell software, your industry matures and your product sooner or later becomes a commodity. In today's environment, the path to market maturity is much faster than ever before.
Good News. Your customers know the answer.
There is some good news. There is big money to be made in mature markets. Some companies in mature industries command premium prices, have low customer attrition, make excellent margins, and continue to grow. But, it requires some different thinking about your customers, products, and markets.
Don't look for the answer inside your company. Creating services and solutions around products is not the answer if you are not pointed in the right direction. Get to know your best customers better (that is, your most profitable customers on a net profit basis). Ask them about their business, their problems, their pain. Survey and interview customers. Go to their facilities. Meet with their top managers. Listen and Observe. What are they really buying? Where do they need help?
When is a product more than a product.
Years ago, one of our clients was selling sophisticated diagnostic scopes to physicians, but technological advances slowed and it was difficult to expand the market. Pricing became very competitive. It was difficult to convince physicians to make a big capital purchase. The company interviewed dozens and dozens of physicians and office managers and discovered an interesting issue. Since the scope had to be sterilized between patients and the sterilization procedure for scopes is lengthy, physicians and their staffs continually had a problem having a sterilized scope available. The company decided not to sell scopes to physicians, but to offer a fee-based service - providing clean, sterilized scopes to physicians. They wrapped a product with a service and solved the real problem for physicians. Margins soared. Pricing was no longer an issue...they were selling more than a scope.
Do things your customer doesn't do well or want to do.
A client in the industrial distribution business found that some of its customers were having difficulties hiring and retaining qualified welders, and there were safety concerns with their customers' painting and welding production environments. The client offered to begin to deliver "finished" components (cut to size, fabricated, welded, and painted) right to the final assembly line. Revenue and profits increased. What is even more significant is that the customer now has an indispensable relationship with the supplier.
Change the way your product is packaged, managed, delivered, or used.
Another manufacturing/distribution client found that their customers were poor planners. Routinely the customer would show up at their warehouse in the morning to pick-up product and materials for the day's job. By the time they arrived at the job site, it was after 10:00 am. The client offered two services to help: An early morning pick-up - any order that arrives by voice mail, fax, or email by 11:00 pm is staged and ready for pick-up by 6:00 am. They also offer a project management service. The distributor manages the delivery of materials according to a job project schedule which the distributor continuously monitors for the construction customer. This ensures that the right materials are delivered to the right site at the right time. The distributor cannot command a significant premium for these services, but doing business in this manner actually saves them money and builds customer loyalty.
Can technology change things up?
Another company produced capital equipment which provided a static diagnostic testing for their customers in the power industry, The problem - it required that the customer's equipment be turned off during the diagnostic test. The company came up with a means to add sensors to their customer's equipment and to provide a continuous monitoring service for a monthly fee. Margins and market size both increased dramatically. Customers were ecstatic about not losing productive time on their equipment
Your Customers may hold the key to differentiating your commodity product or service
- Determine what the CUSTOMER is buying? Survey and interview the customers - Listen to their pain and their needs in their business
- Change the way your product is packaged, managed, delivered, or used
- See how technology might change the economics or competitive environment
- Perform some of the processes and/or functions now performed by your customers
- Make the product more than a product
What are your thoughts about these key points? Share your reactions.
We help clients think differently. If you would like to discuss how we might help you and your company accelerate the process of adding value and moving your company to the next level of performance, please contact us.