market differentiation

Avoiding the ‘You Guys are All the Same’ Trap

Through the years, industry sales teams have all heard the difficult words that appear above.

For the most part, our fine troops shake their heads, pull up a thin smile, and dance around the objection their prospect has placed before them. Other than “the price objection,” specific service and product differentiation is the most obvious, yet seldom-overcome, hurdle. With today’s more savvy consumer, it’s potentially our most important hurdle—and at the same time, possibly our biggest opportunity.

Three driving factors make this issue worthy of serious review.

  1. Our B2B customer knows very little about our real processes or durable products.
  2. Prospective senior buyers are now evolving to “Gen Y” perspectives as younger people become decision makers
  3. Our industry’s processes (including marketing and sales) are slow to change.


Have you ever been to a party or family event, and had someone ask you what you do? You answer keenly, using a buzz-phrase like, “I’m in the textile rental and maintenance industry,” or “I’m a linen supplier,” or “I rent uniforms.” Regardless of your answer, you then spend 10 minutes explaining “rental textile service,” followed by questions that center around laundromats, Macy’s annual linen sale, or how they can get their hands on one of those cool microfiber cloths to clean their glasses.quote1

Potential B2B customers and the general public know very little about our industry or services. The typical buyer, therefore, has little basis to perceive differentiation between rental providers because they have no real understanding of our complex service model, production processes, or textile product specifications. Since our business model rarely is explained in detail to new sales associates or their potential buyers, the absence of differentiation positioning leaves sales reps with even tougher objections like price. Yes … there ARE fairly immediate solutions to this dilemma; most of which will positively impact your top-line growth, as well as your retention and profitability.


This new generation of buyers was born between 1982 and 2004. The oldest of the Gen Y is now turning 32, and actively climbing into the upper mid-level workforce, including B2B purchasing management.

In U.S. family-owned businesses, millennials are already taking the executive helm; thereby yielding executive and political power in business and society (already evident in our own industry). In the next 10 years, this group will become the basis of world purchasing power … our buying majority, so to speak. So what makes this dynamic so impactful?

This group grew up during a more evolved information revolution. They were about 10 when the Internet became commonplace. Some were in graduate school when Steve Jobs changed the world with the planet’s first instant information tool in the form of a mini-super computer (otherwise known as the iPhone).

Millennials completely embraced information technology (It’s all they’ve known!), and they use search engines and social media; acting instantly on their questions and/or suspicions—sometimes even within the sales call. There is no escape.

And as we head into the coming five years or so, technology, social media communication modes, and Gen Y language and cultural understanding will become key ingredients in sales success. Our industry must be able to reach and communicate with this new and powerful generation of buyers – who are savvy to instant analytical information at their fingertips. Our industry has a bit of a journey to take in this area (myself included); most of us are just “getting our arms around” the dynamic shift that’s now upon us.


the next 10 yearsIn the “past,” our industry sales professionals could hit the road with an arsenal of good quality, strong service and competitive prices. If buyers became convinced, deals were made. In more recent decades, the industry expanded with national players—who educated the buying businesses on common practice and consistent product. The industry rose up to new standards, and the concept of differentiation became key to the sale … whether in fabric, construction, image, finish, packaging, service, or even information.

Here’s the part that’s interesting . . . a Gen Y buyer can learn all these market dynamics by doing a google search, or participating in a blog, all during their drive-through at Starbucks – before they even arrive at their office! All of us as American buyers are spoiled. The old methods of simple selling are becoming obsolete. Value selling, based on guiding the buyer through three drivers have already become core to the sale. Here’s the new landscape:

  • People don’t buy things for what they are. We buy things for what they do.
  • Once the value or benefit is positioned and perceived, the buyer can (with information or assistance) journey through their buying motivations from “functional,” to “social,” to “emotional” (personal).
  • Savvy sales professionals who can guide the prospect through this journey will win.
  • If your sales professionals wield the communication power discussed here, your company’s sales growth will thrive in the next decade.


So let’s break it down with regard to the three drivers. You buy your dream car. Whatever that may be, you mention it to your friends, drive it proudly, and you are now livin’ big. Did you buy the car because of its killer engineering? Sure. Did the sleek design or perhaps the integrated electronics drive you to spend those precious dollars? Probably. Did you want to pay more money for a hybrid in order to contribute to saving the planet? In some cases, yes. Or did you buy an economical used car, because it did what you needed and allowed you to keep your money for higher priorities (family, college funds, charity, room addition)? Possibly! But in the end, you signed on the bottom line … because all these things made YOU “feel” good about your decision. You took the journey from functional attributes through social dynamics, all the way to a personal (emotional) buy decision.

Now think about the current methods of selling in our industry. We spend the most time on functional selling, around product spec and image—as well as our service or efficiencies. In many cases, our “selling” just stops there. Yes, we sell … and many sell big. But Gen Y can get all that functional “stuff” on their iPhone. Uh oh. Now what?


"This group of Americans grew up with social compliance as an accepted standard. They’ve never known anything else. "Socially driven selling currently centers around “social compliance,” most specifically the positive environmental impact of reusable textiles and our eco-friendly process. A second key current social driver is international human rights—packed within our industry’s “WRAP” (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) manufacturing standards and other certifications; that any legitimate industry supplier can provide in detail.

I’ll go ahead and admit it for all of us. The first time I heard the term “social compliance,” I had to google it. The term started as “corporate responsibility” and has transitioned from a voluntary activity to a social mandate. By whom? As of a few years ago, Gen Y. This group of Americans grew up with social compliance as an accepted standard. They’ve never known anything else. They expect it, look for it, live it and buy it. Have you asked your suppliers for their social compliance program, and do you use that in your value-
offering with prospective clients? You are soon entering the “social compliance zone,” where savvy Gen Y buyers won’t move forward without satisfying this mandate in their basic checklist. It’s a social driver… as they believe it’s the right thing to do for the good of all of us. We are the good guys! We need to show them our white hats!

If we don’t move the new buyer from a simple functional-based position, and through the social-compliance dynamic, it will be very difficult to get the buyer to the altar. They have to believe that you, your company, people, products, processes, services and your business ethics and track record are all in line with their baseline cultural expectations. They’ll google you, blog you, analyze and listen to you. And if your sales professionals can talk THEIR language through THEIR communication modes, you take them to the end of the buying journey … where they say to themselves “I have to do this. I have to have this. It meets MY needs, and I want it.” It becomes personal, and the “emotional” driver is singing them your praises.


It’s about specifically calling out your differences and why you got there. It’s about what the product or service DOES for your buyer—both for their company and them personally. It’s about continually taking your buyer from understanding the functional parts of your products and services … to understanding that, by buying from YOU, they are participating in social compliance. And finally—getting your prospective customer convinced that buying your product or service is a MUST-HAVE, because it’s really about THEM. THAT is the time we start to discuss their cost vs. what others might have thrown out as pricing. If customers see true value first, the price paid becomes far less important. As to how we communicate our message? Yes, it needs to be face to face, with direct follow-up. But here is a current general marketing statistic on Gen Y that states “81% say that ‘posts’ (on social media) from their friends and acquaintances directly influence their buying decision.” Does your sales team know how to bring this to life in your selling process?

We have lots to do, and always will. A senior executive and mentor, used to tell me regularly, “In marketing, the first to market typically wins.” If the dynamics above are real, we need to get to work—yesterday! In the meantime, in the current economic landscape, product innovations and buyer dynamics offer today’s industry sales professional more opportunities to succeed than ever before. Make it count for them. So it counts for you!

Steve-Kallenbach.psdSteve Kallenbach is CMO and director of market solutions at ADI American Dawn, Los Angeles. Contact him at 310.595.4064 or