One of the biggest challenges for many dive centres or instructors is how do I stand out from the crowd? How do I differentiate myself from my competitors?
Understanding the various differentiation strategies and picking the best one for you is one of the key steps in establishing and maintaining a successful business. Differentiation is defined as the process of distinguishing a product or service from others and is used to make it more attractive to a particular target market. There are a number of ways to differentiate a product or service.
In some areas, the technology used in the product or service can be used to differentiate it. For example, 4G in phones, Bluetooth for communicating between devices or HD/4K for television screens, etc. In diving there is some scope for this, for example providing all of your manuals via eLearning or providing a tablet for students. With diving equipment being able to download a dive computer via Bluetooth rather than a bespoke cable that could get lost and will cost money to replace is a real benefit to the customer.
One of the most common ways to differentiate your product is on price. For example, we are the cheapest, we are free. While this can seem an attractive way to differentiate your products or service it has many disadvantages. Low price is usually associated with low quality, unless you can do very high volumes low prices will just reduce your profit margins, it is relatively easy for a competitor to drop their price and remove your differentiation. Price differentiation works for a commodity product where there is no real difference between products, for example the gas/fuel we put in our cars is all essentially the same product and so there is no way to differentiate one supplier from another, other than on price. Scuba diving training is not a commodity product and should not be marketed as such. Many scuba diving products are also not commodity products. There are important differences between different makes of regulators, BCDs and dive computers that means that the cheapest is rarely the best option or the most popular. The good news is that it is relatively easy to show a customer the disadvantages of a competitor who differentiates themselves only on price and treats the training that will keep you safe, or the regulator that will give you air, as a commodity product. However, other areas, such as air fills or lead weights, are a commodity and there is little you can do to differentiate these products other than on price. Your customers may well go elsewhere if these commodity products are more expensive than at your competitors.
Providing the highest quality product can be a very attractive differentiation strategy. When the product is related to safety, image, long term use, and other similar areas quality is often a key driver. Anyone that believes that customers only ever buy the lowest price product only has to look at how successful luxury brands can be. Consider Rolex, Gucci, Hugo Boss, Harley Davidson, Ferrari and Cartier. Quality doesn’t just mean luxury, it can also mean the best or most reliable. The JD Power Quality, Reliability and Customer Service surveys are widely used when customers are looking for a new car and want to judge the quality of the products they are evaluating. Any manufacturer that’s tops this list doesn’t need to worry that their vehicle is the cheapest on the market. When it comes to learning to dive most people want to make sure they are going to have a safe experience with reliable equipment and a very competent instructor. Being able to provide the highest quality experience will generate more business than offering the cheapest experience.
It is possible to offer a product or service that has genuinely unique features. A manufacturer may advertise that their product is the fastest, smallest or most energy efficient. Scuba equipment manufacturers are constantly trying to improve their products to include unique features that set them apart from their competitors. It is essential that the functionality being used to differentiate your product is a real advantage and something that offers the customer a benefit rather than something that is different for the sake of being different.
A business may differentiate itself by specialising in a specific area or niche and becoming known as an expert in that area. This could be by becoming an expert in a particular type or make of product such as being a service centre for a particular brand of regulator. It could be by specialising in a particular type of diving, for example sidemount, technical, rebreather, cave diving, environmental research, archaeological research or it could be by becoming an expert on the local dive sites.
Even if there is nothing unique about your product or service you can still differentiate yourself by your level of customer service. Even the simplest of products and services can be made into something special by offering an increased level of service. When it comes to differentiating your equipment sales or training the level of customer service you provide can make you stand out amongst all the other suppliers. Responding to customer requests in a timely fashion, being flexible in how you meet their needs, and resolving issues even if they are not your fault can all go towards improving the level of customer service provided. Even if a problem occurs with your product or service most people will remember how it was handled rather than the original problem. If the problem is resolved quickly, pleasantly and without any hassle to the customer then they will remember the good service rather than the original problem.
The level of customer service provided can be directed at ensuring the user experience in itself sets your product or service apart. If the customer thoroughly enjoys their time, is made to feel special, has great fun or is treated like a movie star; they will remember the experience as much as the product or service. If the customer is looking for adventure then make them feel like an explorer, if they are nervous make them feel like they have conquered a major obstacle, if they want to improve their skills show them how much they have improved. Remember that diving is supposed to be a recreational activity so make sure they have enjoyed themselves and want to come back for more.
The objective of differentiation is to develop a position that potential customers see as unique. There are a couple of things we need to consider when trying to achieve this.
The first is to decide which of the various forms of differentiation we are going to use. It is impossible to differentiate yourself on everything or even on more than a couple of things. If you try and do everything, the chances are you will not achieve anything. Some are directly contradictory, there is no way you can differentiate yourself on price and quality, you cannot have the widest range and be a specialist. If you achieve too many things and end up with a “middle of the road” position you will get run over by traffic going in both directions. In addition, if you try to differentiate yourself on too many things you will just end up confusing the customer. After all, if you are not clear on what makes you stand out from your competitors, how do you expect your customers to be clear on it.
The next step is to consider, whether what you consider sets you apart really is different to everyone else. You might say that you have the best customer service or are the friendliest dive centre but is it really true? If you claim to have the best customer service but your competitor replies to a potential customers email faster than you do with a more in depth answer to their question, the customer is not going to believe your claim to have better customer service. If the customer comes into your shop and see poorly maintained equipment they will not believe that you have the highest standards. If you claim to be the lowest cost for a particular product but the customer can find it cheaper somewhere else, they will go to your competitor.
Even if you do have something unique, it will only differentiate you in the eyes of a customer if they value it.
You may well have been in business longer than any of your competitors but why is that of value to the customer? You need to differentiate yourself using something that has a tangible benefit to the customer. One way to help think about this is to phrase the differentiation in terms of the customer rather than you. So rather than saying we stock more equipment than any other centre; you could say we have the widest choice of equipment so we can find the equipment that will be the most comfortable for you.
Finally, if we are looking for things that customers will value we have to recognise that different customers will value different things. Something that is of real value to one customer will be of little or no interest to another. For an example, an older instructor with 30 years of experience may appeal to a customer of a similar age who will see value in the 30 years of experience. However, for a millennial generation customer the experience, although valuable, may be overshadowed by the feeling that they will not be able to relate to someone from a different generation. Similarly, some customers will be attracted to a low-cost option while others will be actively put off this option and would be much more attracted to a high-quality approach. Some customers might be money rich and time poor whilst others are the opposite. This means that you need to match your point of differentiation with the desired values of your target market.
Once you have decided on your differentiation you must ensure that everything you do and say backs up that position and, just as important, nothing you do contradicts that position. Your social media postings should be in keeping with your differentiation. If you are differentiating yourself on quality, then the first impression of your dive centre should support that. The staff you hire must reflect your positioning, your vehicles should reflect that. Every customer interaction should be consistent with your differentiation. If you do not do this the customer will not believe your differentiation and see it as shallow sales pitch rather than a true reflection of the type of business that you are.
If you can differentiate yourself by finding something that your target customer values and that you are genuinely better at than your competitors, you will have no problem standing out from the crowd and your business will grow along with your reputation.