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How do you take your coffee?

Differentiation and Customization

As a kid who grew up and came of age in a small, New Jersey town, one of my fondest memories is running into the bus stop every Sunday morning and putting a dime into the big mitt of the cashier when he handed me my father’s Sunday paper.  I’d rush out to the car, paper in hand, and jump onto my father’s lap ready to steer our old Buick up Main Street.  Dad would work the pedals, but for a few minutes I felt like I was enjoying the freedom of the open road as I held the wheel steady passed all the little shops and businesses closed for church.  He’d tousle my hair and tell me to look around, this was my hometown – wait…that was definitely not me!  That was Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen or not, many of us hold our hometowns in high nostalgia, or defend our current town by vehemently supporting the small businesses and proprietors that occupy each of its nooks and crannies.  Often times this means making those businesses part of our lives and daily routines.  For me, and for my family, that place is The Cheesecake Caffe in downtown Irwin, PA.  Despite having tried to buy new coffee pots and cycle through the various flavors and bean-types, there isn’t a better cup of joe (or breakfast sandwich, or pastry, or…) than you’ll be served there, which includes a certain behemoth Seattle-based chain found in every strip mall in America.

But the consumables are only half of the story, because the experience of having someone know who I am by name (as well as being able to properly spell it on my cup) and recognizing that I don’t like fully caffeinated nor decaf but rather “half-caf”, so I don’t want to jump out of my skin, without having to tell them is invaluable.  The employees, many from the local high school, fawn over my son and daughter and are quick to slip a little extra treat at no charge into our order, whether the kids are all smiles or screaming and crying when we walk in. 

Places like the Cheesecake Caffe in every one of our towns and cities encourage us all to return again and again because of exemplary service and a quality product that is mostly specific to our individual needs.  They’ve found success in building a reputation and a brand based on customizing the experience to each of their clients, rather than going through the motions based solely on cutting costs and upselling the client.

So, what does this have to do with Procurement Consulting?

Most procurement consulting firms will market their deep industry knowledge, innovation, quality and skill as what differentiates them from their competition; but when everyone has the same differentiator, suddenly they all start to blend together. If multiple consulting practices are marketing the same key concepts, then the perception of uniqueness is lost. To have a solid differentiation, it needs to be unique – what truly sets your practice apart? The best way to set your practice apart is to realize what your clients truly value. Clients value recognition through white glove service. They want to know that their procurement needs are being reviewed and catered to at a meticulous level of detail.

When considering different sized consulting firms, clients may be drawn to choose one of the large, recognizable consulting firms. These options may seem to be the most obvious choices at first, but smaller, more specialized firms create tailored solutions for a smaller price tag. These niche firms offer their own set of advantages. It’s important to look at the different advantages of these providers.

What can small boutique consulting firms offer?

  • Niche: Smaller firms are not as far-reaching in their capacity, but they offer distinct subject matter expertise from the business. These firms cannot afford to learn on the job as many of the larger firms tend to do. In other words, clients won’t get ten junior analysts “on the ground” Monday through Thursday.  They will, however, receive well thought out input based on data/process analysis, and solutions that have proven successful in real-life use cases.  
  • Flexibility, Customization, and Personalization: Smaller firms are more apt to accommodate for solutions that target their clients’ specific needs.
  • Attention: With a smaller firm, clients usually work one-on-one, or with a small team, and can connect with them more consistently face-to-face, which encourages cultural integration. Many engagements are C-level engagements for the firm, meaning that the founders and/or managing partners are directly involved.

Just like The Cheesecake Caffe, lesser known brands differentiate through a bond with the client’s team, stakeholders, and executives, that is ignored by larger firms simply because they are looking past it to turn projects over.  Those smaller, boutique firms become an extension to the client’s team, blurring the lines of where one begins and the other ends. They easily adapt to, and intertwine with, the clients’ culture in order to earn trust, better understand “as is” and “to be” processes, and, ultimately, enable clients to transform while achieving a more significant impact.

In conclusion, if you are just looking for a cup of coffee that’s hot water over grounds, then perhaps the impersonal, templatized methods of the larger firms are for you.  If you recognize, however, your needs and requirements (coffee or otherwise) to be unique requiring a certain level of service with a splash of human interaction, then dig deeper into the market for the firm that matches up to your culture and aligns with your business.  Just like a custom order and by-name customer service from your neighborhood coffee shop, smaller, more nimble firms customize the transformation approach, and tailor the solution(s) to meet the individual client’s business needs and objectives.