Quick: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colorado?
If you said, mountains, sunshine, or legal weed, I’m going to give you full credit. For me, unfortunately, and up until just last week, the answer would have been, “unbelievably long lines at the Advantage car rental office.”
That’s because one year ago, when my wife Linda and I landed at Denver airport, en route to drop off our son Jonathan for his freshman year at the University of Denver, that’s what we faced. We picked up our luggage, boarded the courtesy bus, and set off to the Advantage office. When we arrived five minutes later, the line was literally out the door. Inside, things were even worse.
At least 100 people were waiting (no exaggeration) in a line that snaked back and forth across the entire lobby. Even with four reps working the counter, it was a full 90-minutes before we got our keys and drove away.
So that didn’t turn out how we hoped. Now what?
I vowed I’d never use that company again. After all, with Jon attending school in Denver, this wouldn’t be the last time we would need a rental car.
Unfortunately, it was not that easy. As we made plans to drop Jon off this year, I soon discovered all of the rental car companies at the Denver airport have abysmal reviews, most of which are also focused on the notably long wait times.
I was just about to resign myself to another long wait when I discovered Car Rental Denver. Granted, not the most imaginative name for a company (I guess Acme Car Rental was taken), and with just seven reviews under its plain vanilla belt, I was hesitant.
But wow! The reviews were fabulous, and the process seemed too good to be true. All the paperwork is done beforehand, pick up and drop off in the airport terminal, and the owner himself (Nate) answered the phone when I called.
True, it was. We got back just a few days ago, and the experience could not have been better. It seems that Nate has found himself an attractive little niche.
Problem solving your way to an upside
This experience got me thinking about a few things worth noting, all of which relate to your small business as well:
1. Nate identified a weakness in the system
For whatever reason, renting a car at Denver International Airport stinks. Everyone hates it. Nate has built a business whose very existence depends on a known problem. That’s a good place to start.
Many professionals, on the other hand, create services based on what they happen to be good at, or what they enjoy doing. That matters too, of course. But if whatever it is you do doesn’t make somebody’s job (way) easier or life (way) better, you’re running uphill. Always start with a problem that needs solving.
2. His key differentiator has nothing to do with what he’s actually selling
Did you notice that I have yet to say anything about the car itself – whether it was clean, well-maintained, or whatever? That matters, but for the most part, a car is a car. In this case, the opportunity isn’t in what the customer is buying – it’s in the buying process itself.
How about you? If you’re a financial planner, consultant, coach, recruiter, writer, or some other exceedingly-similar-to-the-competition professional, maybe the way to stand out from the pack has nothing to do with the service you sell.
Maybe, there’s more opportunity in highlighting how accessible you are, range of payment options, and favorable terms? Do top clients have your cell phone number, do you offer credit card payments, or perhaps a money-back guarantee?
See if you can look beyond the obvious service you provide to its not-so-obvious delivery.
3. His approach doesn’t scale
Nate himself answered whenever I called or texted. He handled all the paperwork and payment. He met us at the departure curb when we dropped the car off.
I don’t know how many cars he rents (or how profitable his business is), but with this arrangement, even if the big companies wanted to copy him, they couldn’t. As a result, his business model’s lack of scalability, while it prevents him from growing beyond a certain size, is his competitive advantage.
I use a similar approach. Since I have no interest in growing beyond myself, I deliberately do things my larger competitors either can’t or won’t:
- I don’t try to monetize every interaction.
- I offer unlimited revisions for anything I write.
- I don’t force deadlines or processes on clients out of a need to streamline a big machine.
My lack of automation keeps the big guys away.
Finding the upside
Here’s the bottom line. It’s logical to view the service you provide as the thing you ought to focus on when trying to stand out from the competition. The problem for professional service providers, though, is that there is often little we can do beyond offering nuanced tweaks.
Instead, look for how the service itself is delivered. Many times, particularly if you compete with larger firms, the upside there is much higher.
Michael Katz is Founder and Chief Penguin of Blue Penguin Development. He specializes in helping professional service providers talk about their work in a way that is clear and compelling. Sign up for his free newsletter, The Likeable Expert Gazette, here.
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