Every prospect whom you have ever seen in the past, or will ever see in the future, has had the same question in mind. And 99% of the time they never ask it. But rest assured, if you lost the sale it is likely that you never answered it to their satisfaction. This question, that you must answer in order to successfully close new business is simple: "Why should I do business with you instead of your competitor?"

Suppose they do ask you that directly? Do you have a good answer?

If you don't have that answer on the tip of your tongue right now as you read this, I guarantee you are losing business because of it. The answer to that question is your "competitive advantage." And if you don't have one-or even if you do but cannot articulate it-you are losing business to your competitors who can articulate it.

So if you can describe your competitive advantage right now, congratulations. But perhaps you can improve it. And if you can't describe your competitive advantage, let's start putting one together.

First, all competitive advantages need to be measurable. If you say, "We give great service," is that really setting you apart? Just what do you think your competitors say? (They're not saying, "We give bad service.")

What if you say something like this: "You have access to your account through calling me, calling our 24-hour customer service desk, online on your PC or through our mobile app on your phone." That sounds a little better.

Putting together your competitive advantage is work. If it were easy, everyone would have one. Why not begin by researching what your competitors are bragging about. Do they have advantages you need to combat? If so, how can you compete?

Next, how do you measure things like quality, service, staff, ease of doing business, products and service? Now try to lock in on what you can do better than your competitors. Can you maintain this advantage?

Let's begin by looking at a few measures of key aspects of the job. We'll ask the pertinent questions, but you have to provide the answers.

. Responsiveness: Do you respond personally? Does your staff respond? Do you have a free, 24-hour phone number?

. Reputation: Have you won any awards? Have you written anything that has been published? Do you have good client satisfaction scores?

. Products: Are you able to offer anything that the competition can't match, such as research exclusive to your company or proprietary products?

. Service: What extra services can you promise to deliver? I know of one advisor who has clients' cars detailed in the parking lot during their meetings. What can you do that is better than your competitors that is measurable and consistent?

. Trust: Measure your customer-retention rate as a proxy for trust.

. Good results: How often do you meet with clients? How many of the six areas of financial planning will you address (investments, insurance, income and expenses, estate planning, retirement planning and tax planning?)

. Consistency: What do they expect of you? And how can you ensure that your services will be what they expect?

. Intellectual Capital: How much real value stems from your expertise?

. Ease of doing business: Can clients go online? Can they call an 800 phone number? Can they contact you directly and easily? Are you clear in your communication?

. Quality: How do you define a quality portfolio? How do you measure quality and communicate it to the client? What is the client's definition of quality?

. Innovation: How can you combine financial products and services in a beneficial way that is unique?

. Access to help when needed: In addition to yourself, who else on your team will be available to help the client?

Now that you are thinking along the right lines, how will you articulate your competitive advantage? Will you need to get this statement into your marketing literature? Does it need approval from compliance?

A great exercise is to fill in the blanks on this statement: Do you know how (insert target market such as "people who are near retirement" or 'people who work in your industry') sometimes have trouble with (insert problems you can address such as "staying on track for retirement" or "having time to manage their investments.") What I do is (insert competitive advantages), which helps them overcome those challenges and get back to what they enjoy doing.

Once you can articulate your competitive advantage statement it should be the foundation of all your marketing efforts. Consider placing it as a footer on your stationary and email, or leaving it on your voice mail. You can also use it when someone asks what you do for a living, or make it a tagline on your website and business card.

I know of one advisor who trademarked her competitive advantage statement and imprinted it on coffee mugs she keeps in her office. So now, when clients drink coffee they read her value statement.

However you use it, your clients should be able to easily summarize it to their friends and associates.

If you really don't know what your competitive advantage is, you could ask your clients what they like best about working with you. And then try building on that.

Don't expect your first one to be perfect, just start working on it and you can improve it over time. When it's right it takes very little effort to say and remember. But initially you may have to write it down and carry it with you.

If you need to get some ideas start looking at your competitors' websites. This can give you an idea of what you like. I have seen hundreds of them and the good ones stand out. And the not-so-good ones sometimes just need to be tweaked.

Todd Colbeck is founder and principal of the Colbeck Coaching Group, a subsidiary of General Business Center Inc. Send your competitive advantage statement to him at todd.colbeck@ccgcoaching.com and he will share his thoughts with you.

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