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Nifty Products Aren’t Enough

“Nifty Products Aren’t Enough”

‘Value added’ may be an overused buzzword — but it’s an important one if you want to be a market leader.

It’s not enough to have a great product or service — copycats are always on the prowl. The key to surviving and thriving in a competitive landscape, entrepreneurs agree, is to continually differentiate yourself and add value.Strategies for adding value vary considerably, depending on a company’s market niche. Ask yourself:

  • How is my company different from competitors?
  • Do we have characteristics that rivals can’t copy?
  • What can we offer that others can’t?

“Don’t overlook negative points,” says Brent Bingham, founder of pest-control business Eclipse Marketing Inc. “Often you can find a way to turn them around and use them to your advantage.”

Service above and beyond

Manufacturers agree that even with a novel product, one of the best ways to boost business is through extraordinary customer service.

“We have a unique product that sells itself; at the same time it doesn’t run out the door — meaning that it is a luxury,” says Kurt Van Keppel, founder of Xikar Inc., a $2 million manufacturer of cigar cutters and knives in Kansas City, Mo.

Van Keppel relies on tobacco and gift shops for distribution. “Whether or not a retailer carries our product is a store-owner’s decision based on many factors, including service,” says Van Keppel.

With that in mind, Van Keppel strives to deliver service as superior as his products. His customer-service philosophy rests on four cornerstones:

  • Communications. If deliveries are ever late due to factory problems, Van Keppel contacts his retailers. “With other industry vendors, they may hear nothing,” he says.
  • Concern. Xikar offers consumers a lifetime warrantee and guarantees the sale of its products, or retailers can return them. In the company’s six-year history, there have been only three returns.
  • Quickness. All orders and phone calls are answered immediately, and repairs are turned around within 24 hours.
  • Consistency. Xikar employees are trained to handle any type of call, whether it comes from a retailer or consumer, ensuring that all customers hear the same message. ”I think it’s almost more important to be consistent than to be superb,” says Van Keppel.

A need for speed

Sophisticated IT systems help Contract Counsel wield greater organizational muscle than one might expect from a company its size.

“Our technology allows us to recruit in any geographic market in a very narrow time frame,” says David Galbenski, founder of the legal staffing firm in Madison Heights, Mich.

When Contract Counsel opened a second location in 1998, it revamped its entire IT infrastructure, creating a centralized database with remote connectivity via the Internet. Over the past five years, Contract Counsel has grown 620%, hitting more than $4 million in annual revenues, and Galbenski credits the new information-technology systems as a key to that growth.

The system is more advanced than most of his regional and national competitors, says Galbenski: “It allows us to serve larger clients with greater depth than we could otherwise.”

Convenience is the key

At FurnitureFind.com, more value means more convenience.

“We cater to soccer moms,” says Steve Antisdel, founder of the Buchanan, Mich.-based online furniture company that generates more than $10 million in annual revenues. Granted, not everyone will buy big-ticket items on the Web, says Antisdel, but time-crunched consumers with discretionary income are perfectly happy to give up an in-store experience — if it makes their lives easier.

FurnitureFind provides convenience in three ways:

  1. Selection. The average brick-and-mortar furniture store carries 1,000-2,000 stock-keeping units, contrasted to FurnitureFind’s more than 10,000 available items.
  2. Easy to navigate. More selection can be confusing rather than convenient if you can’t find your way through it easily. FurnitureFind gives customers four ways to browse: word search, broad categories, narrow departments and live help.
  3. Human intervention. When customers hit the “help” button, they’re connected with a customer-service rep who has 200 hours of college-accredited training. “You can have selection and accessibility, but you also have to be able to explain value,” says Antisdel. “That ability to explain — the human factor — helps consumers make good decisions.” And when customers feel like they’ve made good decisions, they come back.

Providing peace of mindDanny O’Neill is out to bust stress for his customers. “I want to keep taking things off their ‘worry lists,’ ” says O’Neill, founder of The Roasterie, a Kansas City, Mo.-based coffee distributor that generates about $5 million in annual revenues. “That way, if a competitor went in and slashed prices, — our customer would say, ‘Yeah, but we can’t leave The Roasterie — they do this and this and this for us.’”

To provide that peace of mind, O’Neill asks himself two questions: What are we doing for customers today that we didn’t use to do? And what can we do that will mean more to them?

Example: About 45% of The Roasterie’s customers are restaurants and coffee shops — frantic environments where ordering supplies is either a last-minute activity or a downright emergency. So last year O’Neill tried a new twist on “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” To keep accounts well stocked, The Roasterie makes weekly phone calls to see what customers need. “Customers love it because it takes one more thing off their to-do list,” says O’Neill.

Besides sparking customer loyalty, the process enables The Roasterie to better organize production and deliveries.

Writer: TJ Becker.