Zebra Effect Thwarts Client Attraction Efforts

Have you ever wondered why zebras have stripes? The answer is simple. Zebras have stripes so they have a greater chance of survival. In essence, their most prominent feature is also one of their greatest means of defense.

Take, for instance, the Plains Zebras that live on the savannas of Africa. They live in large herds and stay in close proximity of each other, their stripes blending and clashing. When a lioness, the zebra’s top predator, spots a herd, it does not see a large number of individual animals moving or standing together. Instead, it only sees a confusing mass of light and dark.

Sometimes, however, the lioness is down wind from a herd and her nose knows for a fact that a potential meal is close by. But that doesn’t mean the lioness should tuck in her bib quite yet. When she approaches the herd, she cannot distinguish one zebra from another. Nor can she decipher where one of her prey begins and another ends. Making matters worse for the would-be predator, it is just as difficult for the lioness to determine in which direction any zebra is facing. As a result, the lioness cannot focus on any one animal. Her chances of victory are diminished, while the zebra’s chances of survival remain high.

Blending into each other is not the only defense provided by the zebra’s stripes. Nature gave the animal such camouflage for another reason. When zebras are in or behind tall grasses, the herd blends in with the surrounding vegetation. You might think that this wouldn’t be the case since zebras sport black stripes on a white background and the grasses are a blend of greens, yellows, and browns. However, lions are colorblind.

At this point, you may be wondering what this lesson in the zebra’s defense system has to do with you, your business, and attracting more clients. That’s easy. Unless you are meaningfully different and stand out from your competitors, you are blending in with the herd, just like the zebras.

Let’s look at this in a little more detail. A potential client is in need of the services you and your competitors provide. Although he does some research, you all still look about the same. He talks to several of you, and still no one stands out. Although the prospect probably won’t think about it in these terms, none of you have differentiated yourselves in a way that he sees as important to him. Like the lioness that sees a herd of zebras as a huge indistinguishable mass, your prospect sees you and your competitors as blending together. This is unfortunate and can be disastrous. We all know that when things are the same (or appear to be the same) people often make their buying decisions based on price.

The Zebra Effect is one of the major causes of increased price competition among professional service providers, and it ultimately leads to lower profit margins. It also negatively impacts profitability in other ways. For example, if you are not obviously and meaningfully different from your competitors, your marketing is less effective than it should be. The natural reaction to ineffective marketing is to throw even more money at it, but without differentiating yourself, any subsequent marketing will likely also underperform. This is a waste of your time, money, and effort and leads to even more frustration.

The funny thing about the Zebra Effect is that most small business owners don’t realize they are experiencing it. They believe that their prospects clearly understand how their companies are different from competing businesses. However, the businesspeople are making two terrible mistakes. One is thinking that being different is equal to being meaningfully different. In other words, they think their prospects care when, in fact, they do not. The other is believing that their target markets do not need to be told about the differentiators or how those differentiators are beneficial to them.

So how do you get yourself out of the herd? How do you stand out from your competitors? You must understand that the idea is not to just stand out but to stand out in a way that is meaningful to your most profitable target markets. Differentiating yourself based on your perceptions is risky. There may be a wide divide between what you and your prospects believe to be relevant.

My advice is to talk to your clients and prospects. Ask your most profitable clients why they chose you — why they selected you over your competition. Ask them if their needs and desires were fulfilled. Ask them if they are happy they chose to do business with you and if they would again. By having this conversation with your clients, you learn what they are actually looking for and if they found it.

Likewise, have conversations with your prospects. Ask them their thoughts on how you are different from your competition and if that differentiation matters to them. Ask them if they want any products or services that are not being offered by you or your competitors. When you hear the same answers numerous times, you are onto something.

Take the information you compile from these conversations and determine how you can better benefit your target markets. If you are already providing what it is they want, determine how you can better inform them that you are the one they want to do business with.

Effectively and meaningfully differentiating yourself from your competitors — separating yourself from the herd — is one of the most difficult things you will do as a professional service provider, but it is essential. Differentiate yourself, and you attract all the clients you can handle. Do not, and you remain a zebra, eventually discovering that the very feature that provides zebras a greater opportunity for survival was the cause of your business’s demise.

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