Actual vs. Perceived Market Differentiation

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To succeed in business and your career, it helps for two things to be true:

  1. To be differentiated from the competition
  2. To be perceived to be differentiated from the competition

Differentiation helps because it reduces the scope and intensity of direct competition. This is true when a business competes for customers, and in careers amongst professionals who compete for job offers from employers (or stretch assignments within a company).

If you offer a good service (or good skills as an employee) that is a commodity, there is no legitimate reason why a customer should buy from you versus someone else.

In this situation, the ideal next step is to work on increasing market differentiation — usually by focusing more intensely on meeting the needs of a specific market segment that’s underserved by the competition (usually not the largest segment of the market) or by dramatically improving or reducing a specific product attribute (e.g., FedEx dramatically improved delivery speed, while dramatically worsening the price for its overnight delivery offering versus the postal service).

In a situation where actual market differentiation exists, but is not perceived by your customers, the optimal next step is to work on improving your marketing communication efforts.

The distinction between these two scenarios is profoundly important but quite often misunderstood — especially in industry, as well as by those managing their careers.

Fundamentally, improving the marketing communication of an undifferentiated product that stinks doesn’t do much good.

In the technology sector, there’s a saying to describe this phenomenon of attempting to market a product as differentiated, when it’s really not. The saying is, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still going to be a pig.”

Using the late Steve Jobs' terminology, first “be different,” then tell the world about it. Otherwise, all you do is advertise your lack of competence (or differentiation).

When it comes to managing your career, the same guidelines apply. If you have no unique skill set, devote time, effort and resources to developing your skills. I find most professionals today incorrectly assume that just graduating from college or graduate school is enough to have a career. It is enough to have a career, but is not nearly enough to have a great career.

School is not (or shouldn’t be) the end of your education. It should really be the beginning.

As your career progresses beyond school into internships, a few key initial jobs, you’ll have accomplishments you can communicate to future employers. It is at this stage that you want to respect and take seriously the skill of communicating these accomplishments to others.

In essence, now it is time to market your talents to the marketplace of employers.

In today’s world of recruiting, the primary marketing communication tool to convey your career skills is your resume.

The ability to write your resume effectively is a massive 80/20 skill. It is a relatively small task that has enormous ability to impact your career.

It reminds me of the following old quote:

“If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it... did it make a sound?”

My version of this quote is as follows:

If you have a great skill, talent or accomplishment, but didn’t include it in the right way on your resume, does it really exist (in the eye of the resume reader)?

Think about everything you’ve accomplished in your life - the admission to school, the tests taken, the internships, the job offers, literally everything.

Then think about how hard you worked — the gazillion hours of studying, the papers written, the problem sets, the late nights finishing client projects, thousands of hours in front of the computer, etc…

All of that is completely irrelevant to the resume reader, unless you communicate all of that in the specific way that makes that stand out to the resume reader.

As a former resume reader for McKinsey and hiring manager in industry and for my own business, I am just shocked at how poorly most resumes are written.

I remember back when I was on the McKinsey recruiting team for Stanford and had to take 600 resumes of Stanford undergrads and narrow it down to the 30 or so people to grant case interviews to.

You think it is hard to get a McKinsey interview? It’s also pretty hard to decide whom to interview too! So many resumes for every kind of job (not just in consulting) look alike.

Pick candidate A or B? Who cares? Flip a coin, they look identical.

Here’s the secret to becoming a good writer:

Think like the reader.

If you want to write a children’s book, immerse yourself in the world of children and learn to see how they see, think how they think, feel how they feel.

If you want to write to get corporate buyers to buy, immerse yourself in their world. Perceive what they perceive from vendors. Think like they think. Feel like they feel.

Similarly, if you want to write a killer resume, immerse yourself in the world of the resume reader. See a resume the way they see it. Notice the specific wording and phrases that force them to stop skimming the resume and actually read it. Observe what makes the difference between a resume that lands in the “reject” pile vs. the one that lands in the “call to interview” pile.

It is truly grasping these subtleties that often makes the difference between a resume generating an interview request versus one that earns a reject letter.

Learning to write a brutally effective resume is an enormously leveraged 80/20 skill. Your entire career is enabled (or not) by just a handful of resumes. For example, in my entire career, I’ve only written five resumes (only two since graduating from school).

Every job offer that I got and accepted was directly related to one of those five resumes. If those resumes did not exist, literally none of my career accomplishments in consulting and industry would have ever happened.

How’s that for 80/20 leverage?

To learn how to write extremely effective resumes, I would recommend getting my Resume Writing Toolkit.

In the toolkit, I teach you the mindset of the resume reader (both in consulting and in industry — especially for those professions that hire consultant-like candidates) and how to write a resume that gives the reader what they want.

In addition, I include videos of my grading nearly 100 resumes — pointing out the specific items I noticed, what I liked, what I did not, and what I found confusing.

You will hear me “think out loud.” You’ll get inside my head as I’m in resume-reading mode, and learn to see what I see as a resume reader.

Then, I’ll show you how to write and re-write your resume to get full credit for your lifetime of accomplishments.

If you accomplished 1,000 “units” of career success, but were only able to communicate and get “credit” for half of it, your resume is “rated” a 500.

If another candidate accomplished 550 “units” of career success and was able to communicate all of it, that person’s resume will be “rated” a 550.

Guess who is going to get the job interview?

It’s going to be the second less "accomplished” candidate.

Is this fair?

I have no idea if it is fair.

What I do know is that it is absolutely true.

Welcome to the real world, where perception is reality, and perception is subjective.

If you’re used to the objectivity of the standardized tests and GPAs, well get used to how the rest of the world operates… subjectively.

In this world, perception is reality.

And the 80/20 insight is that perception can very much be managed… but only if you learn how to do it properly.

While my resume writing toolkit is nominally geared towards those applying for consulting jobs, I used the exact same process to land executive positions in industry.

My favorite part of the toolkit (and probably the most useful part) is the videos of my re-writing someone else’s mediocre resume and turning it into a killer resume. I don’t just tell you what to do, I let you watch me actually do it.

These videos are incredibly revealing, as you not only see the end product, but you also see the initial version, and the entire process between the two.

Just click here to learn more about my resume writing toolkit: Resume Writing Toolkit

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