"How we're different from our competitors" story

Procurement people will tell you (like they told me) that competitors in every space are so similar that it’s difficult to tell them apart. They need a “differentiation” story—which means you need a differentiation story. For a good example of what that looks like, I turned to Joanna Martinez, former chief procurement officer at Cushman & Wakefield in New York, one of the world’s largest real estate services companies.

Joanna has recommended lots of cleaning companies to service the hundreds of buildings Cushman & Wakefield manages for its clients. But for every one she’s selected to recommend, there are dozens more vying for those contracts that she didn’t recommend. When asked for an example of a story that makes one cleaning company stand out from the rest, she tells the story she heard from Sharad Madison, CEO of United Building Maintenance (UBM).

“To understand Sharad’s story,” she says, “you first have to understand that many of our clients have diversity programs for their purchases contracts. They’re targeting a certain percentage of their spending to go to minority-owned businesses. So I’m constantly on the lookout for legitimate, professional, minority-owned suppliers to contract for those clients.”And many of those minority businesses understandably make it easy for her to recognize them. “Most will mention they’re a ‘minority supplier’ several times in the first few minutes of a call, and have it prominently mentioned on their websites,” she says. But Sharad Madison was different. Sharad never mentions that UBM is a minority-owned business, and you have to dig around quite a bit to nd any reference to it on UBM’s website.

What he does instead is tell stories about how his father, who founded the company, would get up in the middle of the night and visit their work sites at 3 o’clock in the morning to make sure nobody was slacking off. Or he tells stories about how nobody at his company is “too big for their britches.” He explains how at many companies, once you make supervisor, you think you’re too good to clean anymore. But neither he, his father, nor his mother is afraid to pick up a toilet brush.

But perhaps the most compelling differentiation story is about what Sharad does when UBM takes over a new client. For example, Sharad explains:

“When we took over the contract for the Verizon building in New Jersey, we had a 30-day transition period. We took that time to go walk the floors and observe what the current cleaning staff was doing—to find out if they’re properly trained and have the right tools.

It’s a 1.7-million-square-foot property across several buildings. And the corridors are huge. We went to see the guy who vacuums the carpet and found him using a regular household vacuum cleaner. Those hallways are 12 feet wide and over half a mile long! Can you imagine trying to clean it with the same machine you use at home? It would take all night, and it still wouldn’t be very clean. We ordered him a triple-wide, industrial-strength cleaner that will do the job in less than half the time and last forever.

We found someone else shampooing those same carpets with a regular walk-behind shampooer. Again, that could take all night just to shampoo that one corridor. We put him in a high-speed riding shampooer that could do the job in a fraction of the time, with much better results. And it gets him off his feet.

Then we got to the offices and started looking at the top of the file cabinets. You could see half-moons swiped out on top of otherwise dusty cabinet tops. I know exactly what that means, so we went to find the people who dust those cabinets. When we found them, my suspicion was confirmed. Those cabinets were 5 1⁄2 feet tall and several of the cleaners were shorter than that. They weren’t lazy. They just couldn’t reach high enough with their handheld rags to clean the whole cabinet top. That’s what leaves the half-moon shape. The truth is, they’d be better off not cleaning it at all, since the contrast between the dusty part and the clean part makes it apparent that it’s dirty. We gave them all extension wands so they could reach all the way to the back.

Sharad’s goal obviously isn’t to be the cheapest cleaning service in town. His goal is to be the best. Telling a prospect that UBM “aims for operational excellence in all that they do” won’t communicate that very effectively. And announcing with fanfare that his is a minority-owned business won’t communicate that at all. Telling this story does. And it’s one of the main reasons Joanna Martinez picked UBM and not one of its many undifferentiated competitors.

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