Adrian Trimble - Designer, business owner and occasional writer.

Client Experience is the New Differentiator in Marketing & Design

We are living in an era of huge product differentiation – fast food menus have ballooned over the last few decades, car makers each sell half a dozen different brands of SUV, and there are endless varieties of consumer products in every supermarket. This diversification strategy is common in mature markets – categories of products that are well-established and not experiencing much innovation. One manufacturer will come up with a way to differentiate their product (eg. by building a slightly-smaller-than-usual SUV), and other manufacturers quickly copy the successful ideas.

In marketing, we often talk about differentiation as it applies to our clients. We ask them about their unique selling proposition (USP), what separates them from their competitors, and what niche they occupy. However, we sometimes forget that our own industry is subject to the same rules of differentiation. We’re competing with other firms that offer roughly the same services, and trying to distinguish the services we offer.

Differentiating marketing services

Depending on which marketing book you read, tactics for differentiation are categorized in different ways. For our purposes, I’m going to divide it into four types: technological, price, product (quality & features), and service experience. Generally, businesses in new industries start by differentiating with new technology, and as the market matures & competition increases, they move to pricing, then product quality, and finally service experience.

Technology changed marketing.

What once might have been considered a mature market has been disrupted by technological innovation in multiple ways. It’s now possible for one person with a laptop to create marketing materials that can match the quality that used to require an entire art department to produce.

The technologies that launched the digital marketing agencies of the last decade are maturing, and the improvements we’re seeing today are more evolutionary than revolutionary. Web ads, email marketing, remarketing, social media, analytics, affiliate marketing etc. have all been around for years, and pretty much anyone can learn how to use them. From time to time there are new platforms on which to display ads, new ways to get in front of consumers, and new algorithms to better predict what someone might want to buy – but those are incremental improvements to an established system.

Competing on price: a race to the bottom.

When the technology in a market matures, the next thing to give is usually pricing. This is harder to quantify in a service-based business, but the trends are clear. Things like outsourcing and cheap, on-demand design services like Fiverr are competing primarily based on price competition. This race to the bottom creates new opportunities for some, but it’s a race that lots of marketing and design firms know they cannot win, so they must find other ways to distinguish themselves.

Differentiating today means quality.

Agencies know they can’t compete on price, so they emphasize the quality of the strategies they implement. They’re keen to focus on the metrics: the return-on-investment (ROI) their services offer, or their proven track-record of meeting key performance indicators (KPIs) – they’re nice numbers that handily quantify how *great* they are at deciding how to market a clients business.

Thought leadership is another example of firms and individuals trying to demonstrate the quality of their work by showing just how much they know – but even this relatively new differentiation strategy is reaching the limits of its potential. We’re bombarded with follows from “thought leaders” on Twitter, and every blog comes with a (usually intrusive) attempt to get you to sign-up for an email newsletter. A focus on improved quality certainly isn’t dead yet, but technology and education means the overall standard of design and marketing is vastly higher than it was even a decade ago.

Client experience is the new differentiator.

Providing a better client experience is the next frontier, one that progressive agencies and service providers are already taking advantage of. Better user experience (UX) has revolutionized many mature consumer markets – think about what Uber has done to taxis, AirBnB to hotels, or Just Eat (et al.) to food delivery. Each of those services succeeded not because the quality or price was particularly different, but simply because the experience for their customers was way ahead of the incumbents. That same revolution will happen in the design & marketing industries as well: provide great results, and justify the pricing by creating a stellar client experience.

What does differentiation by client experience mean?

It means the clock is ticking for differentiation strategies based on superior quality or better technology – good quality and use of the latest tech will always be important, but those factors will become less effective ways to differentiate. There will always be different price points, but the levels of quality you can expect at any particular price point are stabilizing.

It means examining every interaction our clients have with us, from discovery, through to fulfilling the service, and optimizing and improving every step along the way. It means effective collaboration throughout a project, anticipating their needs, and making the process as easy as possible. We’ve all heard tales from clients who’ve had an awful encounter with a designer or agency, and those stories will need to become a thing of the past. Crucially, we’ll need to find ways to make our client experience better than our competitors.

We (the designers and marketers) don’t hold the cards anymore – our clients know there are plenty of other competent providers out there that can provide the services they need. Few marketers or designers are deliberately providing a bad client experience, but for many it’s a by-product of doing good work. Going forward, the client experience will need become the center of attention.

Posted on August 15, 2018