By Andrew Sobel “How can I differentiate myself from my competitors?” That’s a question I get asked a lot by my clients. The answer is usually, of course, not one single thing but many things. Here are nine to help…

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Nine Ways to Dramatically Differentiate Yourself from the Competition

By Andrew Sobel

By Andrew Sobel

How can I differentiate myself from my competitors?”

That’s a question I get asked a lot by my clients. The answer is usually, of course, not one single thing but many things. Here are nine to help you set yourself apart:

1. Know more about your client than anyone else. Learn more about their business, organization, and issues than any of your competitors. I call this their “agenda” of critical priorities, needs, and goals. When you do, you will no longer be a commodity. This is why most people rarely fire their personal physician or personal accountant–they know us, our history, what’s important to us, and what we need. They are worth more to us than the next doctor or accountant off the street, who may have a fancy degree but zero understanding of who we are.

2. Be Fresh. I don’t know about you, but I am oh-so-tired of clichés: “You need to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others”; or, “The Chinese word for crisis combines the characters for opportunity and danger (actually that’s not even true)”; or, questions like “What keeps you up at night?” and “What would it take for us to win your business?” These are uninspiring expressions–hearing them is like listening to one of those 1970s FM radio hits for the 10,000th time.

Be fresh. Be original. Be provocative. Take your experiences, pick a topic of interest to your clients, and boil your ideas down to four or five incisive points to share with them. Go against the grain: Is there a so-called “best practice” or technology that’s all the rage? Tell your clients why it may not last or be right for them. Sound fresh, not bland and boring.

3. Be seen as possessing renown and recognition. Just the perception that you are well-known and a leader in your specialty will differentiate you. So you need to present yourself and your experiences in the best possible light. Tread carefully here, though. Many people try to project their expertise by simply screaming louder and, also, exaggerating. Today, everyone seems to be a bestselling author, world-renowned authority, and so on. The Internet is like a crowded restaurant, however: As it starts to fill up, it gets harder to be heard. So everyone starts talking louder. But that makes it even more difficult to hear, leading to a continuing escalation of the volume until diners are literally shouting, unsuccessfully, to be heard. Build your renown step by step. Develop strong points of view about the three to five most important challenges your clients face in your area of expertise. Publish and get your ideas out in front of clients through articles, blogs, Linkedin posts, and short white papers that you share. The key thing is consistency: Building your renown is like a flywheel that you have to keep turning. Over time, if you keep up your daily disciplines, it gains more and more momentum and is harder to stop.

4. Have a Unique Relationship Process. One way of differentiating yourself is through the actual process you use to interact with your clients and manage your relationship with them. This contributes to a sense on the client’s part that “working with them is different.” This can start with the business development process, by the way, and how you handle it–the client doesn’t have to wait until they’ve hired you to experience the difference. You can engineer, standardize, and carefully manage many different aspects of your client interactions–for example:

  • Telling versus asking: The way you balance advocacy and inquiry in your conversations, and the kinds of careful, thought-provoking questions you ask
  • Speed of response: How quickly to you get back to your client with things you’ve promised? How quickly do you answer your emails and phone calls (even if to say you’re tied up with a client but will thoughtfully respond the next morning)?
  • Collaboration: How you involve them in the upfront problem-solving and solution development around your products and services
  • Education: How you create opportunities to transfer your capabilities to the client’s own people
  • Meeting management: Using an efficient and effective process to make meetings more productive and collaborative
  • Follow up. For example, what if you conducted a formal check-in with all clients, three or six months after concluding an engagement?

The sky is the limit in terms of the ways in which you can structure a consistent set of client interactions that convey your unique stamp.

5. Develop a Personal Style. Adopt a few, small habits and ways of communicating, and they will become a kind of signature for you. When I lived in Rome, I got around using a small motor scooter. Because it’s difficult to carry a hard leather briefcase on a scooter, I used a soft Land’s End blue canvas bag to carry my papers as I went around the city visiting my clients. Inadvertently, I developed a certain style that my Italian clients found quite endearing (so they told me). I was wearing custom-made Italian wool suits like them, but instead of using my own driver or taking a taxi, I was riding alla Romana on a scooter–and carrying around that inexpensive and even downmarket, yet in their eyes, “chic,” Land’s End bag.

Maybe your personal style is always dressing well, no matter how casual the occasion–or, always dressing casually. My late co-author Jerry Panas used stationary that was unique and he sent a lot of personal, handwritten notes to people. As soon as you saw those beautiful black envelopes in your mail, you would smile and know that Jerry had written to you.

6. Bring Their Ideas to Life. Innovation is a big topic, and much has been written about how to stir more innovation in large organizations. I love coming up with new ideas myself–however, many top executives will tell you that their challenge is not coming up with new ideas, it’s taking some of the ideas they already have and doing a great job of commercializing them. You will stand out from the crowd if you can be seen as someone who has the patience, discipline, and practical know-how to show a client how to take a concept they already have–but which hasn’t gotten off the ground–and make it a reality.

7. Show You Really Care. Your clients are living their businesses and their organization 24/7. This is their professional lifeblood. They know you care about YOUR business–of course you do. But do you really value and care about THEIRS? Or, is it just another job for you–another day, another dollar–as the expression goes? This is something else that sets the personal physician or personal accountant apart from the person who makes the one-off visit to your house to fix your clogged sink. Clients want to work with advisors and service providers who are interested in and care about what they do and about their people.

Take an actual interest in their business–its history, how it works, the customers they serve, the products they sell, the people they hire, and so on. Be curious. Spend time “off the clock” to understand their organization. Go talk to a few of their clients or customers. Learn about their values and beliefs as an organization.

8. Be seen as well-connected. When you make a new friend, or meet someone for the first time, your esteem for them can go up or down based on your perception of who they hang out with. Clients will look at you in the same light—do your business and personal connections enhance or detract from your personal brand and value? Don’t underestimate how powerful this effect can be.

9. Build a Better Relationship.  This had to be on my list, right? This isn’t about just being “liked” better than the next person. A strong relationship provides many powerful benefits–here are just two: First, it enables you to accomplish point 1 on my list–to know more about your client than your competitors. Second, it creates a personal connection that strengthens a client’s loyalty to you. Remember, we don’t really root for someone until we feel some kind of personal relationship with them.

You don’t have to be a master at all nine of these strategies. Pick a couple that you’d like to work on this year.


How to Easily Make Time for Relationship Building

By Andrew Sobel

By Andrew Sobel

Relationship building is in some ways analogous to diet and exercise. How many of us have made resolutions to eat better, exercise, and lose weight? We all have. And how many of us met our goals to our complete satisfaction? Very few of us. Why? Because diet and exercise is not a one-off event! Healthy living requires discipline and short-term sacrifices. You have to make a long-term lifestyle change, not go to a spa once a year. This type of change requires doing small things, every day.

Here are a six suggestions:

  1. Elevate Your Mindset. Start by working on your mindset and attitude. Make a commitment to elevating the quality of your relationships to the same level as your professional mastery. In a study I did of nearly 3000 professionals, 90% said trusted relationships were very important to professional success, but only 30% said they were very satisfied with their relationships. You have to tend the garden.
  2. Segment and Focus. Focus on a handful of relationships, not every name in your contact database. I like to segment my network into three groups:
    • First, the Critical Few. These are the 15-20 most critical professional relationships for me. These are people in my inner circle who I will meet with at least once or twice a year, and communicate with often. Your Critical Few should include key clients, colleagues, mentors, influencers, and so on.
    • Second, the Middle Few. These might be your next couple of hundred contacts who are people you know but aren’t doing business with right now.
    • Third, the Many. These would include all other contacts, including your social media connections. These might number in the hundreds or thousands (or millions if you’re Taylor Swift…)

First of all, I make sure I am making time for my Critical Few relationships. Then, I try to periodically stay in touch with the Middle Few. The Many I reach through value-added posts on my blog, LinkedIn, and other channels.

  1. Regularly Schedule Time for Relationships. Set aside a specific time each week to focus on your relationship-building efforts. This could be two hours every Friday morning, or something small that you do every day (e.g., call someone, send an article, write a note, make a lunch appointment, ask for a referral, etc.).
  2. Create Small Rituals. For example, send thank-you cards to people who have helped you, or write a short summary of every client meeting which you then send to the participants the next day.
  3. Get Others to Help You. If you have a personal assistant, use them to extend your reach and help keep track of key individuals—turn him or her into a “relationship marketing manager” instead of just an EA or assistant. Get your team involved, so that everyone working on a client engagement has relationship-building responsibilities.
  4. Match Your Approach to Your Personality. Build relationships in a way that is consistent with your character, personality, and style. If you’re introverted, fine—focus on one-on-one interactions, not loud dinner events. If you’re not comfortable with cold calls, don’t do them—always get a warm introduction if that is possible. If you don’t like sports, fine—relate to your clients along other dimensions such as family and your hobbies.

How to Get Clients–or Anyone–to Root for You

By Andrew Sobel

By Andrew Sobel

Our business culture prizes smarts, expertise, and drive. Nothing wrong with that—these qualities are pretty important. As a consequence, however, many of us assume that these very same qualities create personal loyalty. They don’t.

People root for you when they feel what I call “emotional resonance.” It’s when they’ve gotten to know you on a more personal level. When they’ve seen that you can be vulnerable–and been vulnerable themselves. When the two of you have shared your feelings, not just your thoughts.

Until a client gets to know you as a person—not just as a professional—they will have a limited loyalty towards you. This explains why it’s hard for people to fire their personal physician or financial advisor, even if they don’t like the job they are doing.

A great historical example of this is Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech. It was delivered on September 23, 1952, a few weeks from the US presidential election. Former General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican nominee, was about to dump Nixon as his vice presidential running mate because of a growing controversy over Nixon’s use of campaign funds.

Nixon chose a high-risk strategy. He decided to go directly to the American people on television and plead his case. 60 million Americans watched as he began the speech of his life.

“I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice Presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned,” he began. He continued: “The best and only answer to a smear or to an honest misunderstanding of the facts is to tell the truth. And that’s why I’m here tonight.”

Nixon went on to provide a great deal of information about his campaign finances. He also shared intimate details about life. He talked about his wife, Pat, who was sitting near her husband’s desk, looking at him adoringly.

“I was born in 1913,” he continued. “Our family was one of modest circumstances, and most of my early life was spent working in a grocery store. It’s all the family had.”

“I worked my way through college and law school. And then in 1940, I married Pat, probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Finally, the coup de grace that solidified the emotional resonance of Nixon’s speech: Nixon admitted his family received a gift from a political admirer. But it wasn’t what people were expecting to hear:

“We did get a gift, a Cocker Spaniel puppy. And our little girl Tricia, named it ‘Checkers.’ And you know, the kids love the dog, and I just want to say this, regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

He ended his speech with an act of extreme vulnerability. He turned his fate over to the viewers, saying, “Wire and write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay on [the ticket] or whether I should get off. And whatever their decision is, I will abide by it.”

The reaction to Nixon’s emotional appeal was extraordinary. Enthusiastic crowds surged around him at the entrance to his hotel. Eventually, over four million cards, letters, and telegrams were sent in response to the speech. They ran 75 to one in favor of Nixon remaining on the ticket with Eisenhower.

Historians say the speech cemented Nixon’s support from middle Americans for the rest of his political career. With doubts about Nixon put to rest, he and Eisenhower swept the presidential election and the Republicans took over the White House in January 1953.

Nixon’s “Checkers” speech demonstrated an essential principle of Relationships: Vulnerability is power. When you are emotionally vulnerable, it allows people to connect with you. They root for you. They want to help you. It can create a powerful bond.

I’m not talking about sharing all your insecurities with clients, or constantly wearing your heart on your sleeve. That’s excessive. Studies have clearly shown, however, that self-disclosure is a major driver of likeability, as is the feeling that you share things in common with the other person. How likable can you be if you never let your guard down and always keep your cards close to your chest?

Do we also value emotional vulnerability at work? Can it improve your professional relationships? Sure. Here’s an example:

A large corporation told a client I advise that they would not renew a large, three-year contract. My client traveled to see them and spent a whole morning—to no avail—trying to persuade the company to renew the contract.

My client, overwhelmed with frustration, wrote an email to the company that had pushed them aside. He reviewed the history of the relationship and reiterated his commitment to address all of the issues that had been raised. At the end of the email, he wrote four simple words:

“Can we start over?”

The next morning, the reply he received was, “We’ve reconsidered. Yes, let’s start over.” They awarded my client a new, three-year contract that was larger than the first one.

If you never reveal yourself, your relationships will never reach the levels of trust and intimacy that are needed for deep friendship in your personal life and partnership at work.


10 Strategies for Resolving a Client Dissatisfaction or Crisis

By Andrew Sobel

By Andrew Sobel

It happens to every professional who deals with clients. Something goes wrong with your product or service delivery. Your client’s expectations are not met. They are unhappy with some aspect of the relationship.

Here are ten tips for dealing with an unhappy client and starting the process of resolution.

  1. Respond rapidly. If a client is unhappy, deal with it immediately. Your willingness to drop what you’re doing to urgently discuss your client’s concerns sends a powerful signal. Your sense of urgency will by itself improve the situation.
  2. Listen without being defensive. When someone is upset, emotions are like facts. Listen deeply, and thank your client for sharing their concerns with you.
  3. Demonstrate caring. Your client needs to feel you genuinely care about them and their challenges. You show caring by being empathetic and concerned. By sharing how badly you feel about what has happened.
  4. Say you’re sorry.Even if you think the blame is equally spread, apologizing can help to defuse the situation and begin a new dialog. It’s hard to keep kicking someone when they apologize to you. (Note: apologize for letting them down, not supporting them the way you want to, not listening, and/or not sufficiently collaborating. Be careful about a specific admission of guilt until all the facts are known (e.g., before you say you’re sorry for delivering $100 million worth of faulty code…))
  5. Collaborate on the solution. Don’t jump too quickly to a solution (“We’ll put a new project manager in immediately…”). Involve your client in developing it, and only do so after thoroughly understanding all of their concerns and the actual circumstances.
  6. Offer amends.One of my clients accidently left a consulting report on a train, and the person who found it tried to blackmail the company it was written for. It was an honest (although awful) mistake. The company was furious. My client offered to do a study for them, at no charge, as a small amends. Two years later they were still doing business with them! If you have fallen short in some way, it can help to restore trust if you offer amends, e.g., doing a small piece of value-added work for the client, or giving them a price break on an order.
  7. Avoid excuses.It’s very natural to want to explain to the client all the reasons why you are not completely at fault, and why they may share some of the blame. But save that for later—if ever.
  8. Rebuild trust through small, frequent, confidence-building measures.When trust is lost, you must increase transparency and communication, and show you can deliver on small, discrete, agreed-upon follow-up steps. Sign off together on a plan. Say you’ll do step one, do it, and communicate that to your client. Repeat.
  9. Build transparency into your client relationships. Often, clients just vote with their feet—they get slowly unhappy with your work and/or the relationship with you. They leave without saying anything. Communicate frequently, and never be defensive about your client’s comments and suggestions. Create an atmosphere that makes your client comfortable about opening up.
  10. Get things out into the open.When negative emotions are kept in the dark—yours or the client’s—they fester and grow. When you move them into the light of day, they shrink and often disappear. This is illustrated in the opening stanza of William Blake’s famous poem, A Poison Tree:

A Poison Tree

by William Blake (1757-1827)

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe;

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

The good news: If you successfully resolve a client dissatisfaction or crisis, your relationship will typically grow stronger and more resilient.


Is Your Organization Really Client Focused? Answer These 14 Questions

By Andrew Sobel

I once advised a large professional services firm that wanted to reinvigorate its growth. Their slogan, which was plastered on posters and coffee mugs, was “Keep the Focus on the Client.” Like many organizations, however, there was a big gap between what management said and what people actually did. The most coveted career paths, for example, led to managing increasing larger numbers of employees and infrastructure, not overseeing more client relationships.

I asked to see the timesheets of the top 10 leaders in the company, and I reviewed how much time each of them spent meeting with prospects, current clients, or even working behind the scenes with client teams. The average was one percent. I told them that number should be more like 20 or 30 percent. And, that it was very unlikely their “Client Focus” program would gain traction if their leadership spent close to zero time with clients.

Spending time answering email…or meeting with clients?

So, how would you answer these questions about your own organization? 

  1. What fraction of their time do your top executives actually spend with key clients? (depending on the role, it ought to be 20-50%)
  2. Are clients regularly discussed at your firm’s leadership meetings?
  3. How much power are relationship managers given in order to act on their clients’ behalf?
  4. Is there a gap between senior management’s pronouncements about “client focus” and its actual policies and actions?
  5. Does the firm do anything to independently verify the success of its relationships? (e.g., market research, independent reviews, etc.)
  6. Does the firm have metrics to assess relationship health? (e.g., retention, breadth, relationships with decision makers, number of referrals, NPS, etc.)
  7. Are professionals allowed discretionary time and budget to build networks and relationships that may have little short-term payoff?
  8. Does an interest in and focus on clients pervade the organization and extend beyond those professionals who are managing client relationships? (e.g.—to receptionists, administrative and support staff, functional specialists in IT, legal, and so on?)
  9. Do your own functional heads build relationships with their counterparts at your very largest clients? And, do they ever get involved in client engagements in their area of expertise? (e.g., in Finance, HR, L&D, Operations, etc.)
  10. Do clients tell you it’s easy to do business with your company?
  11. Is your organization structure client-centric? Are single clients and client markets major focal points for the organization?
  12. Do people actively seek out client feedback and even criticism, or do they run from it or cover it up? (e.g., for feedback surveys, they only give you the names of their most raving fans but omit clients who may be in some way dissatisfied)
  13. Do your professionals willingly and naturally collaborate around client relationships?
  14. At the end of the year, how much arguing or conflict is there around getting credit for revenue generation and client relationship success? (If there is a lot of disagreement about this, it may be hard to get people to collaborate to serve clients!)



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