To be successful—in fact, to even survive—a business must sell. When starting a business, the founder needs to go through the process of considering why anyone would buy what the business is selling. All of us are familiar with the selling process, whether or not we work in sales. Afterall, all of us have participated in the process as the seller, the buyer, or both. In America, we have an abundance of choices from the type of soap used to wash our clothes to the vehicle we drive to the grocery store where we purchase a wide variety of our favorite foods. In each transaction, we make a decision and choose one product over another.
In internal discussions about running our small business, the leadership at KTM Solutions continually seeks to answer the question, “Why would someone choose our services over another?” or “What makes us different from the rest?” If you are a business owner, I’m sure you have asked the same question. It doesn’t matter if you are in business to provide engineering services or bottled water. The questions are always the same and the choice is always in the hands of the buyer. So, asking these questions internally is interesting, but what would your market say makes you different?
In a previous article, I mentioned that one of the biggest struggles I had to overcome as a new business owner was understanding how to market and sell our services. Afterall, when I started KTM Solutions, my experience was in senior engineering management at Fortune 50 aircraft companies. I didn’t have to worry about selling airplanes; I was responsible to understand, manage and execute engineering projects. I knew how to manage, hire and develop people, conduct design reviews, create and analyze designs, translate those designs to hardware, and complete the certification and reporting process. But how to market and sell my services? I might as well have been asked to fly to the moon. I had virtually zero experience.
To fill in the gaps, I hired service providers to teach me to market and sell. I learned many valuable lessons that have paid off over the last 16 years. But the most significant was to fully understand the answer to one question: “What makes us different?” After all, when any business considers the market (the field where they will offer their product or services), they will satisfy one of the following five pressure points: technology, quality, service, convenience, or price. For example, people buy products at a convenience store because it’s convenient, even though the price is usually much higher than other options. That’s what makes a convenience store different from a grocery store. Driving down to the next level, what makes one convenience store different from another? The answer to that question is what each convenience store owner needs to address.
In our engineering and manufacturing company, my management team and I spent a lot of time to figure this out. If you have your own manufacturing or services business and you haven’t considered this, I strongly suggest you take some time to understand what makes you different. A great source to help you work through an exercise with your leadership team to define your differentiators is a book called Traction. The section on marketing and identifying who you serve is valuable. Defining your values and why you are in business helps to shape the vision of how you can best serve your market. Then asking questions will help you identify what makes you different, particularly if you ask your best customers what they appreciate about your business and (most importantly) what they want you to do differently.
What did we learn at KTM? Here are some facts that provide indicators that we are getting this right:
- Approximately 80% of our business is from repeat customers, with some customers giving us multiple orders per year.
- Our win rate on all work we propose is between 45% and 55% over the last five years.
- Our client-satisfaction ratings are well above average (4.8 on a scale of 5).
- We have been named “a trusted advisor” by several clients.
What else makes us different? First of all our people, employees who reflect the values and mission that are the lifeblood of the company. Next our values, which we believe are evident to our clients: excellence, innovation, integrity, passion, and what we term the heart of a teacher—being humble and willing to help. These values drive us to do what we do; they’re the reason we exist. Our company desires to create and innovate, with the goal of improving each client’s situation. The indicators above are evidence that these combined traits are working and that we are different.
I’m sure most businesses measure these statistics, and these numbers provide great rear-view visibility. What measures or indicators can we use to determine if we are staying true to our differentiators? Better still, how do we continue to evolve our differentiators to keep them relevant to the market? This requires relationship with a client base. Continually asking what they need and where they are heading. Working diligently to do what the great hockey player Wayne Gretsky said when asked about the secret of his success: “I skate to wear the puck is going to be.” We need to use the information we gather to develop a plan to be ahead of the game. The way we deliver services over time may evolve to make sure that our products are relevant to our customer base as well as any new potential that might present itself.
So now I turn to you, the reader of this article. Perhaps you are a manufacturer, or you run an accounting firm, or maybe you’re part of a large OEM leadership team or a maintenance technician working on BMW’s. This message is for you whether you run a business or are an individual employee within a large corporation. Yes, this message is relevant to an employee. Perhaps after reading this you have learned what I’ve come to realize: we all sell into a market every day. After all, if you are an employee, you are selling your services to an employer. Big business or single individual, the questions are the same. What makes you different? Why should someone use your services or buy your products? What can you do to stay relevant in an ever-changing market? How do you communicate and showcase your differences to the audience you want to reach? Usually, the best way to start finding answers is by simply asking people. Then go out and make your mark!
Paul V. Kumler, P.E., is president and founder of KTM Solutions, an engineering company that services the aerospace and large-scale manufacturing industries. KTM Solutions designs and builds custom machines and “tooling” (jigs, fixtures, lifting systems) supporting a broad clientele and various industries. (www.ktmmechanical.com) The company is headquartered in Greer, South Carolina, with a remote office in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Kumler serves in several volunteer roles including the SC Aerospace Advisory Board. Mr. Kumler, a professional engineer, is licensed in Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington. He is married to Ginger A. Kumler. Together, they have two grown children and three grandchildren.