Competitive Differentiation – Uniques, Semi-Uniques and Me Too’s

Value Selling Success Stories 



Competitive Differentiation – Uniques, Semi-Uniques and Me Too’s

Normally when we think of the unique attributes of what we sell, we are looking for something that establishes meaningful competitive differentiation. We do it, they don’t, it matters. Selling is so much better when you can hang your hat on real competitive differentiation. If I have it, the competitors don’t and it matters to the buyer, that’s the perfect selling storm.

However, the selling world rarely works that way. Buyers rarely believe in UNIQUE that way. This is a story of a competitive differentiator and how it turned a niche player into a leader.

So to level set, here are my definitions. These are the real world:

  • UNIQUE – We do it, they don’t, it matters.
  • SEMI-UNIQUE – We both do it, but there’s a meaningful differentiation in our capability.
  • ME-TOO – We both do it and there’s no meaningful differentiation.

Realistically, the vast majority of value that sellers deliver are SEMI-UNIQUE and ME-TOO.

So here’s the story, it’s a great one. In the early 1980’s, the DBMS market was dominated by IBM, Cullinet, and Cincom, each with several thousand customers. ADR acquired an upstart technology branded Datacom, with about 200 customers. In addition to shoring up the Datacom’s “industrial strength”, we needed a differentiator to get us into opportunities. To change the rules of the game. If not, we’d be the 4th (or 5th) horse in a 2 or 3 horse race.

                                                                                                         Otherwise known as irrelevant.

There was a technology “religious” war brewing around Relational DBMS, 4th Generation languages, end-user tools and other technological capabilities, a mind-numbing panoply (or quagmire) of technologies. But one of the biggest issues for database projects was you had to re-write your applications to get the benefits of the DBMS and wonderful new tools. Business executives wanted capabilities immediately, not in a year or 2 (or 3 or 4). So the great minds behind Datacom (see below!) built a disruptive technology call “VSAM Transparency”.

VSAM-T enabled organizations to move data for existing applications into Datacom/DB and then run those application programs unchanged. Indeed, the programs often ran faster!!!

In a matter of a couple months, a company could be using super-advanced tools and meeting business needs. While there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from some database purists, VSAM-T was a game-changer, a pure UNIQUE differentiator for a couple of years.

And it helped put Datacom/DB on the map. In just a couple years, ADR caught up with IBM and Cullinet, and was a player in virtually every DBMS evaluation.

And for us sales reps, VSAM-T gave us a PROVOCATIVE, CHALLENGING, HYPOTHESIS capability to align to what business execs wanted, and to be this guy:

UNIQUES matter when you can find them, but SEMI-UNIQUE is more realistic, and has the same or similar impact. In a couple of years, IBM and Cullinet had VSAM-Transparency capabilities, and tried to make it a ME-TOO conversation. Before Lee Corso used the phrase, ADR responded with “not so fast my friend” and continued to build on the differentiated capabilities of our VSAM-T versus the competitors.

The key point:  find UNIQUE or SEMI-UNIQUE competitive differentiators and tie them to value and outcomes for your customers. If you want to speak the language of business (it’s the only language that matters) that means converting them into –  dollars, time and quality.  When you do, you can go from not even being in the game, to the leader of the pack.

Click here for another success story about the quantified $$$ value of competitive differentiation and how it impacts renewals and upsell with existing customers.These are some of the incredible professionals who gave us Datacom and VSAM-T.    If there’s a software hall of fame, they should be in it:

Chuck                                      Orrin                                          Kevin                               Joe Lynn
                                   Stevens                                     Shuma                            Not Pictured
Rest in Peace                                                                                                            


Value Selling Success Stories


In a recent blog post, I talked about Selling Value to Existing Customers.

Selling to existing customers is fundamental to our businesses. Yet we often have pressure on those renewals either by a lack of understood value, budgetary pressures, or replacement efforts by competitors. Sometimes it’s one of the oldest plays in the sourcing/procurement book, to bait our competitors with the opportunity to “replace our incumbent if you get aggressive and really sharpen your pencil, etc., etc.” Or some combination of the above.

Sellers end up with customer churn, unnecessary
discounts and more.

But, if you communicate the “Value Realized” by customers, you have a fighting chance.

The Story

A DecisionLink customer had just such a situation with an existing client. It wasn’t just any client, it was a blue-chip company headquartered in the same city. Whether a ploy or not, the Champion at the client told them, “We’ve got significant budget pressure and one of your competitors has offered to replace you with a 50% price reduction”. Please help me!!!

Other than the Champion asking for help, that’s certainly not what any of us want to hear.

 Focus on Value Realization

This threat was significant, a competitive loss in their hometown would be a disaster. The “upside” at this point was to meet or get close to the competitive price, knocking a 250K renewal down to 125K or so. Not good!

Our customer offered a “value assessment” which was quickly agreed. In the assessment, we determined the following (with agreement by the Champion):

  • The client achieved over $1.25M in cost savings in the prior 12 months.
  • Of that amount, almost $375K was competitively differentiated, that is, the $125K saved in subscription would equal $250K lost after netting out.
  • They identified additional areas of value their client had not yet achieved, and put a plan in place to realize that value.
  • They identified over $500K in additional value their client could achieve by upgrading to their premium offering (additional $155K subscription).

Reactions from the Prospect & The End Game

The champion was relieved, but also was able to make his case within the client organization which resulted in organizational esteem. Our customer gained valuable competitive insights they previously didn’t have. Best of all, our customer renewed the client at $405K (a 60% uplift over the projected renewal), established a framework of value with their client and sent the competitor packing.

One More Take-Away

Our customers like us, after all, they chose to do business with us. But how often does a seller treat a customer this way, helping them quantify, articulate and defend the choices and investments they made? Not often. Imagine the reference calls praising service and value after the sale, and the Net-Promoter scores that go along with that.

BTW, once again, these principles are not that different for selling a new prospect. That is what BUYERS want, and what CUSTOMERS also want. What is the value to ME?

Stay tuned for a blog about multiple customer/prospect personas. When we use the same conversation for Execs, LOB managers and evaluators, why are we surprised with some (or all) of them don’t connect so well!




Value Selling Success Stories


In a recent blog post, I talked about the 3 ways we get into new opportunities.

Nobody wants to be CANNON FODDER, you know, brought in late to round out the short-list, get a check in the box for looking at alternatives, etc., etc.

Conventional wisdom sometimes is to not even respond to unsolicited RFP’s and the like. But if you can change the conversation, you can win the deal.

The Story

We were invited to present to a new prospect for an opportunity that would be mid-to-high 6 figures in value. We had never called on them before and the CIO told me “you have 2 hours, we’re making a decision in 30 days”. Red flags went off all over the place as these decisions were usually made in 9-12 months. I was a new manager and had a pretty good rep on the account, but there wouldn’t be any relationship building or such, we had to do something radical and disruptive. It’s a fundamental selling move, one that saves a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted, and wins deals.

The Prospect

The Clerk of the Circuit Court contains the administrative/operational organization for Hillsborough County (Tampa), Florida. They were making a massive decision for their IT applications and data infrastructure. Years earlier, the 13 Judicial Court (also in Tampa) selected and implemented our primary competitor and the two organizations had been collaborating for over a year. They couldn’t get a sole-source exemption, thus cannon fodder was invited.

Changing the Conversation

90% of the time these are technology feature-fests that we were sure to lose. In the words of Snuffy Smith, we had not time to waste on that.

We did our research (not that hard) and found out that a critical application had to be delivered in a couple of years…a set of political promises. We also knew that we had a distinct advantage in “time to delivery” over our competitor, and could demonstrate that advantage.

To change the conversation, we used our 2-hour slot to do the following:

  • 15 minute overview on our solution, highlighting distinguishing capabilities
  • 20 minutes on their application project and a pro forma project plan to deliver ahead of schedule
  • 10 minutes on the ROI (as we understood it) to the county for the application, the value of on-time, ahead of schedule and being late (there were consequences)
  • 30 minutes on our implementation plan (ensuring their project plan)
  • 45 minutes for Q&A

 We prepped well, but had a 50:50 expectation to end-up where we began, as cannon fodder.

 Reactions from the Prospect

Two hours turned into three, other people were brought into the meeting, the rep and I got invited to have lunch with the county chief operating officer. (In a previous post I stated “you get to talk to those you sound like”. We sounded like what the COO cared about.)

 The End Game

We won the recommendation. We also got requirements added that blocked our competitor’s effort to protest the award. This ultimately became a competitive “go to” customer and our gateway to several other county orgs in the state. We got a more than fair price also as our competitor set premium $$$ expectations thinking they had no competition.


Changing the Conversation is not always easy, but it’s not that hard either, and it always works. Sometimes you get the prospect’s attention and have a fair competitive landscape, or one that’s tilted in your favor. Sometimes you don’t, but you get the heck out early and fast and spend your valuable time and resources on winnable opportunities. Sales experts like Dave Brock call this “relentless disqualification”.

In any event, from a selling perspective you get to the best possible position.

BTW, these principles are not that different for “Compete for a Deal” and “Start a Deal”. Make the conversation about the customer and what they need to achieve, distinguish yourself from the competition, quantify the economic impact and show them how you’ll get them to the objective.


That is what BUYERS want. Stay tuned for blog about multiple customer/prospect personas. When we use the same conversation for Execs, LOB managers and evaluators, why are we surprised with some (or all) of them don’t connect so well!

Have Our “Value” Sales Cake, And Eat It Too.

Value Selling Success StoriesNormally when we think of business cases, customer value, ROI/TCO and the like, we think of the biggest deals, seasoned sales reps, availability of expert Business Value Consultant resources, lots of time spent in deep financial weeds, etc.

We don’t often think of small to medium-sized deals, less experienced sales reps, times when expert BVC resources are not available (most of the time), early stage conversations and business level simplicity that most of us understand…the kind buyers want.

In a perfect world, we would be able to have it both ways. Have our value cake, and eat it too. There’s no reason not to, and everybody wins when we do. That’s what this story is about.


The Story

So this story is about my personal journey, what got me started. While I ultimately built sales organizations of several hundred reps and 100’s of millions in revenue, I was a greenhorn rep in the hills of NE Tennessee when I experienced what is now called Challenger Selling, Command of the Message, Hypothesis Selling, Crossing the Chasm or whatever flavor you like.

The Prospect

ITT North TSD in Gray, Tennessee was getting ready to make a multi-million dollar, unbudgeted purchase of a new IBM mainframe computer. It was 18 months ahead of their lease expiration, so they were going to pay dearly in a new capital expense as well as writing off a previous generation computer. The tech dudes were all excited about the new, shiny computer, as was the IBM regional team.

Turns out, company management wasn’t so thrilled.

Turning to ADR

I happened to have a solution in my bag that would extend the life of the existing computer system and eliminate the negative financial impact on the business unit and corporate division.

As green as I was, I executed a play (that SAP today calls a ‘Door Opener’), and got their attention about my company and solutions.

Reactions from the Prospect

“You get to talk to those who you sound like.” Frankly, it wasn’t that hard. I validated my hypothesis, crafted a Door Opener message, practiced delivering it 100 times, and wedged into a conversation. After we executed a successful “Proof of Value*”, I was talking to the plant General Manager and his SVP instead of the techies we were usually shuttled to.

The End Game

When our ASP was about $30K, I closed a deal over 10x the ASP, about 50% of my annual quota. The guy who bought into the Door Opener got promoted. I was a trusted resource to the executives. The IBM’ers were…unhappy. I was a green kid, but it began business alignment, quantification of the economic impact and simple communication with those impacted.

Fast Forward

DecisionLink.comWith a Nxt-Gen ROI system, sales reps are enabled with powerful Door Openers for every sales engagement, and ultimately deliver professional Business Value Assessments to support every deal. Great initial conversations turn into bona-fide opportunities and winnable deals.

To read the full story, including tributes to Marty Goetz (the true founder of the software industry) and Joe Allegra (Edison Ventures General Partner and the product manager for the solution that made this deal a reality), check out

*  Notice I said Proof of Value, not Proof of Concept. The difference is enormous, and is subject for another day.


Value Selling Success StoriesNormally when we think of customer value and ROI, we think of what is produced in the latter stages of a sales cycle. The financial justification to help win a deal. That’s great. It’s super important even thought due to time and resource constraints it’s not done often enough.

But this post is about the front-end of a sales cycle, when interest and need is being developed.

Probably the most important time of any customer/prospect engagement since you only get one chance to make a first impression. That first impression is of paramount importance for Challenger, Command of the Message and all high-performance sales methodologies.

Our Customer and Their Prospect

DecisionLink’s customer is a billion dollar plus per-year company in the enterprise software space. Despite its size and importance in the industry, they were unable to crack the CMO’s office of a large consumer products company.

Turning to DecisionLink

Despite being well-trained in provocative and Challenger sales, the sales rep needed an edge. Turning to DecisionLink, he armed himself with rich, customer-precise business value content that enabled him to have a provocative and relevant conversation with the CMO.

Reactions from the CMO

As the initial meeting progressed, the CMO said “we have lots of vendors making big claims, but you’re the first with specificity and detail. You measured and estimated areas that we use to run our business. I don’t know if you are a fit for us, but we’re going to dig in and find out.” That first meeting turned into a second meeting and eventually the deal was closed.

But it all began with the rich, credible and defensible business value content enabled via a Nxt-Gen ROI system, in this case, the DecisionLink platform. With that content the sales rep had a great initial conversation that turned into a bona-fide opportunity and ultimately a deal.

I call this the “initial point of sales engagement”. It doesn’t matter if the buyer self-educates and is 65% of the way through a buying cycle, if it is an initial call where there is no buying cycle*, if it is in response to receipt of an unsolicited RFP or any other circumstance. That first meeting/conversation is the opportunity to establish yourself as a difference maker, and buyers most definitely want to engage with difference makers.

*  My personal opinion, this is the very best opportunity for a sales rep to shine, to establish a preference, to dominate the competition. More on that later.


I love baseball, and baseball metaphors are a real favorite. Even better when a buyer uses one.

Value Selling Success StoriesI love baseball, and baseball metaphors are a real favorite. Even better when a buyer uses one.

Our customer, one of three primary providers in their space, was competing in a project at a Fortune 500 company. Their function was originally slated for the 3rd stage of their prospect’s project, 6-9 months down the road. They engaged the prospect with the tactic of performing a Business Value Assessment to separate from their competitors and establish a sense of urgency with the prospect.

And the tactic worked. They beat their competition, and accelerated their deal.

That’s great, and that is what happens when you Quantify, Articulate, Competitively Differentiate and Defend the value proposition of your products, services and solutions.

But here’s the anecdote, and it’s great. After closing the deal, the sales rep was having dinner with his champion. A celebratory sort of deal where his customer told him:

“Y’ know, usually when we get to this stage with a new vendor and start negotiating, we throw a couple pitches in the dirt* and see if they’ll swing. But your value proposition was clear and compelling. Our CIO told us not to mess with you, to get the deal done and get it done now. I’ve never seen that happen before.”

So our customer beat the competition, got a 7-figure deal of almost 3x their ASP and moved the deal up by 2-3 quarters by establishing value and a sense of urgency. And the didn’t have to deal with pitches in the dirt.

One more thing. The sales rep on the account, the tip of the spear, led the value conversation.


*  Yeah, I love baseball but was lousy at it. I was the guy who swung too often at the pitches in the dirt.


Do You Sell Value? If Not, You Aren’t Aligned With Your Customer!

In the sales profession, we’ve talked about “selling value” and aligning with customer business outcomes for a long, long time. Yet despite massive investments in Sales Effectiveness, “selling value” remains the “long pole in the tent” for most B2B sales organizations.

Accordingly, to lead off this series of Customer Success Stories, it’s appropriate to say a few words about the very best way to create success stories. Communicating customer value.

Let’s stop talking about communicating value and actually do it.

“18 months ago, the ability for sales to articulate value with customers and prospects was our #1 sales issue. We set upon a mission to fix that problem. We piloted DecisionLink Value Selling Automation™ and went live at the beginning of 2016. At the end of our first year, DecisionLink influenced a 20% increase in sales and articulating customer value dropped to the #23 issue for our sales organization. We now produce customer-aligned value propositions for virtually every opportunity. This is the best sales effectiveness project we’ve undertaken.”

Communicating value should be at the heart of everything we do in the customer journey. Automation makes that possible.