Designing Differentiated Products and Services: Approaching the Ideal

2007 | May 16 in Marketing , Client Fulfillment

By E-Myth Business Coach,


Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, "If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door." At E-Myth Worldwide, we tell clients, less poetically, that "if there's a way to do something, there's a better way to do something." In other words, differentiate or become irrelevant.

But differentiation simply for its own sake can be a wasted exercise. Is the new mousetrap really better? That's open to interpretation, and the market -- your customer -- will decide. To remain competitive, you have to create products or provide services that approach, as closely as possible, what the customer considers "ideal."

Your opportunity to differentiate yourself from your competition exists in that gap between what your customers can currently get and what they really want.

And your product -- whatever it is -- isn't just the things or services you sell. Your real product is the total shopping/buying experience.

A recent Wall Street Journal article explored the newest innovation from furniture retailers -- and it has nothing to do with design or fabric. Rather, its focus is on delivery times. Surveys determined that customers' biggest complaint was wasting an entire workday waiting at home for the delivery.

With access to GPS tracking, wireless laptops, cell-equipped drivers, and on-line traffic reports, some stores now promise delivery within a two-hour time window, instead of the usual eight. If this represents the ideal to busy customers, it could be the differentiating factor in their purchase decision.

A happy customer doesn't need to know why she's happy, but you do! And, if you don't, you better find out!

First, ask yourself: "What's standing in the way of my clients getting exactly what they need? And what would it look like if we could actually deliver that?"

Consider everything you know or suspect about your customer. Become that person in need of your service. Be very picky, and assume that nothing is impossible. Now imagine the perfect product that meets, as closely as possible, what you determine are your customers' ideal choices.

You can organize your thinking around six broad categories:

  • Functionality. What does your product actually have to do to completely satisfy?
  • Sensory impact. How should your product ideally look, feel, taste, and/or sound to meet customer expectations?
  • Conscious associations. Some people are naturally drawn to state-of-the-art products; others respond to superior performance, price, safety, or reliability. Learn enough about your customers to know which conscious associations resonate with them.
  • Unconscious associations. Colors, shapes, scents, and experiences unconsciously attract or repel us. I have a client who test-marketed an enzyme-based cleaner. Sample shoppers selected bottles labeled "safe," "gentle," and "environmentally friendly," but avoided bottles that included the word "enzymes."
  • Pricing and Value. The lowest-bidding contractor may, or may not, be seen as the most desirable choice. For many customers, "low-cost oil change" is compelling, while "low-cost surgery" is not. That a restaurant is expensive may be its biggest draw.
  • Access and Convenience. Is your being "local" an important consideration for your customers? Or is having a nation-wide presence more so? Is it important to your customers that you're open on Sundays? Do you need to offer "live" operators, or do your customers prefer voicemail?

Remember: Tiny changes often make the difference between ordinary and extraordinary in your market. Once you've uncovered a better mousetrap that will add value from your customers' point of view -- create a system to deliver it. Don't let it occur by accident. Make sure your customers are getting exactly what they want, every time they ask, and watch them beat a path to your door.


  1. .Steve W. says:

    Do you have suggestions on how to ask customers about their experience, i.e. do you have to do a focus group, or give them something in return for them taking the time to fill in your survey? and if you do, can you be assured that they will tell the truth and not-sugar coat it? I once asked someone to evaluate my services, and promised them a gift in return, but they totally missed the point and wound up saying I was great, but didn't give me any exactness about why I was great or what I did that was great, nor did they comment on what I could do better. I ended up feeling too embarrased to push them for these details that I so desperately wanted. Instead I gave the the gift I promised and thanked them for their time. The next time I do it, I want to do it right so that I get valuable feedback so I can design my products and services to be better than the competition.

    Submitted Jun 15, 2007 10:03 AM

  2. .Larry H. says:

    Thanks for writing, Steve.

    There are as many different ways of asking customers their opinion as there are customers. The process is always going to be situation - specific and appropriate to the nature of the relationship you have with you clients. For online businesses, an online survey often works well – (more on that in a minute). I had a spa owner who hired someone to stop people on the street, at random, in his immediate area. Each participant was given a free tanning coupon. Some restaurants have a "How was your meal" survey on the back of the check or even dropped off before the check. I buy equipment from an out-of-state company that has a piece of wrapped specialty chocolate attached to a pre-stamped survey card in every shipment. In other words – the channels and methods are unlimited. The more important step is in figuring out what it is exactly that you want to know, and crafting the questions to get responses that are actually usable. If you ask: "How are we doing?" and the options range from "not very well" to "fantastic" you may get a pretty good idea of the general feeling about your business but not anything that could help you get better or further leverage something that's working well.

    In constructing your survey, the more you know or suspect in advance about your best customers' needs and preferences the better you will be at crafting the questions that reflect conditions that are most important to them. Do people drive to your location? Is parking access important? Then ask them: "How would you rate the convenience of our parking options? (1-5 scale)" Are you an independent video rental store? What can you offer that the chains can't? And do your customers care? Ask them: "Please select up to two of the genres that you'd like added to our stock: New releases, American TV from '60-‘70's, '80 – ‘90's, English drama, foreign language films, natural history (EX: Discovery Channel, Nova), film noir, Monte Python, Battlestar Galactica, current indies …" The more specific you can get in your questions, the more direction you'll receive from their answers.

    Review the 6 broad categories in the article. What specific questions might be important for you to know about your customers' preferences within each category?

    Now, about on-line surveys: There are several services available. At E-Myth, we use an on-line survey engine called Zoomerang (www.zoomerang.com). It's easy to use, brandable, and offers a full range of question formats ("select top two", 0-5 scales, open comments, etc.) My early experiments were revealing and educational; I learned what kinds of questions actually yield useful information and what kinds are doomed. Register for their free demo version and begin experimenting with building your survey. (You don't have to send it.) Write a question, craft the response options, and then think about what kind of value you'll have from those responses.

    By the way, there is a growing school of thought that holds that the "ultimate question" any business could ask that most directly ties to increased profit is "On a scale of 1-10, how likely would you be to recommend us to a friend or associate?"

    Please share with the Community what you discover.

    Submitted Jun 15, 2007 1:25 PM

  3. .Troy B. says:

     I though this article was excellent. Really good information for all business people

    Submitted Jan 6, 2008 7:21 AM

  4. .Jerald M. says:

    I am the "guide on the side" for a program that delivers entrepreneurship training to women and minority business owners.  I have constantly referred to and forwarded E-Myth information such as this to my program participants.  It always hits the mark, is easy to understand, and most importantly cost effective to implement.

    Thank you very much.

    Submitted May 13, 2008 6:30 PM

  5. .Deary L. says:

    While asking your customer for their comments, you may be getting more of an 'opinion' rather than a fact-based, measurable answer.  We use a Mystery Shopping Service and change our survey form every few months to supplement our in-house promotions.  This method is the most fair-based and accurate method to measure our customers' needs and train management and staff to meet those needs.

    Additionally, when setting-up a bonus and/or incentive program, the mystery shopping survey is non-biased reporting.  Managers can not dispute the accuracy.


    Submitted May 16, 2008 8:30 AM

  6. .andy g. says:

    Can someone help with the Emerson quote; as I understand it, the quote has been over-simplified. Does, anyone know anything about it?

    Submitted Apr 3, 2009 3:08 AM

  7. .Larry H. says:

    Hi Andy ~

    Great question, and I stand (sort of) corrected. 

    According to Wikiquote http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ralph_Waldo_Emerson, the mousetrap quote has not been definitively attributable to Emerson.  According to the researcher hyperlinked in the above URL, Emerson really wrote: "If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell ... you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house."  In 1889, seven years after Emerson died, someone quoted him as having said, "If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor ..." and so the process began.

    On that same site, I also found this attributed to Emerson, which made me feel a bit better, (and I quote):  "By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote."

    My feeling is that the "better mouse trap" quote is actually an effective improvement from the original, in that it has survived and thrived in the public's consciousness to become an overused cliche that would never have happened with the the corn, wood, boards, and pigs! 

    So here we have an example of an progressive innovation in word usage that spanned the gap between an original idea and a "product" that would distinguish itself in the marketplace!

    I hope that your product and/or service succeeds as well.

    My best,


    Submitted Apr 3, 2009 12:25 PM

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