How does your business compare to your closest competitor's business?

Now, imagine your business as a box. And down the street two blocks over is another box that looks a lot like yours. And two miles away in a quiet industrial park is another box of similar shape. All of these boxes have an "HVACR Contractor" label on them, and thus can be assumed to have the same contents.

Now it is time to see what differentiates your box from your competitor's. Pick out the business that you would most likely identify as your closest competitor. Your competitor's business makeup should look a lot like yours as far as the market served and number of employees. Don't dilute this test - use one competitor only.

First of all, look at the exterior of each business, since that is easiest for you to see and evaluate. How does the building look? Is the sign-age eye-catching, readable, and informative? Are the grounds well landscaped? Is there an entrance for customers and a separate one for employees, and are these entrances well defined?

Your answers will help you determine whether your building has a welcome appeal to customers or to other businesses in the area - or whether you need to improve the first impression provided by the building's appearance.

What about the company vehicles? Are they old or new? Are they clean or dirty? Are they the same color? Are they marked with informative signage? Are they parked neatly or haphazardly? What can you do to make your vehicles more distinctive? Remember, they are mobile advertisements for your business.

Next, evaluate how the employees look. Are they well groomed? Good personal hygiene is a must. Is their clothing clean and professional looking? Do employees wear uniforms with the company logo when in the field, including caps, shirts, and jackets? Like service vehicles, employees are walking billboards for your company. If your competitor does a better job impressing customers, people will notice.

Unseen Differentiators

It may be more difficult to look inside the box and identify how your competitor runs the business - but that is not the object of this exercise. By thinking of a business as a box, the tendency is to view the business you're in as a commodity - a basic item that can be bought or sold. And that's a dangerous tendency.

You don't want your customers to think of your products and services as commodities that can easily be replaced, so it is important to keep a few things in mind that will make your business less of a commodity than your competitor's business.

In his book Winning, former General Electric chairman and CEO Jack Welch says that when people formulate business strategy, they need to "think de-commoditization." Welch comments that businesses "cannot be everything to everybody, no matter what the size of your business or how deep its pockets."

Your competitor may have a strategy that caters to a niche market, such as design-build, geothermal, or restoration. Your competitor might have a plan to serve only certain markets that the company can excel in. Perhaps they don't want to be like the typical HVACR contractor by trying to be everything to everybody. An unseen differentiator can be the ability to be unique - to specialize in a market and become synonymous with excellence in that area.

Take a moment to compare yourself to your competitors. Ask yourself, what makes my business unique?

John R. Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-464-1970, 248-786-1390 (fax), or

Publication date: 06/13/2005