Your Business Lives and Dies by Its DifferentiatorI wish there were a better term, but differentiator is the best I’ve got. It’s what makes you different. It’s also called your secret sauce, and sometimes your competitive edge. It goes back to the fundamental that strategy is focus. It’s very important.

One good way to think of it is by imagining how somebody who knows your business would describe it quickly, in just a sentence or two, to somebody else. Take restaurants, for example: “Thai food near the wharf” is a differentiator. “Cheap hamburgers fast,” not so much. “Healthy fast food” might work. “Natural and organic” might work.

Years ago I worked with a computer store that was struggling to compete with the big box stores that sold computers as appliances. They focused on business peace of mind for small business owners. Their differentiator was service, installation, hand holding, and so forth.

You don’t decide by yourself. You set a goal and hope your customers collaborate with you. In this brave new world we’re in today, with social media growing in importance every day, what you want your differentiator to be is just the first step. Then you hope to deliver on the promise. And then you hope that your customers get it, so it shows up in online reviews and comments and commentary in social media.

The best you can do is keep your differentiator in mind as you go through your daily business, and—especially important—keep your messaging clear. Synchronize as much as you can with your differentiator. For example, the computer store added branding about service on the vans their installers drove around, and a large service counter in the store staffed by service professionals in white coats.

I was reminded of this today after some consulting with Two Maids and a Mop, an award-winning franchisor in the home cleaning business with a strong differentiator: The customers’ performance rating—and that rating alone—directly determines the compensation level paid to the two team members responsible for cleaning the home. That’s easy to understand, easy to explain, and it shows up well in the website and collaterals. That’s a great specific example.

Know your differentiator. Talk about it. Explain it. Hope that your customers validate it.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.