Differentiation vs. Standardization

The Story

I remember playing an interesting game during my first corporate training. We were asked to pick an adjective that (a.) described us in a fair sense and (b.) spelled from the same alphabet as our names. Starting from the first person, each of us had to recall the adjectives and names of all those who played or attempted before them. Not to mention, the adjectives had to be different. So, be it. I chose “Sorcerer Suyog”.

In an article I read recently, by Anand Sankaran, I got a chance to read about how critical it is these days to standardize; similar to what I had written about in the last month. I liked the article so much that I replied to the author, thanking him for sharing his opinion. But, somewhere in my heart, I was puzzled. Puzzled so much – with respect to making choice; a strategic choice between when to differentiate and when to standardize – that I tried to delve.

Differentiation is the all-important art of sketching a line between you and all others. How dark that line is, depends mostly on how you want your customers to remember you. With the adjective “Sorcerer”, I wanted everyone to think that I am someone who has a magical touch in his behavior (And hence, I am different). But then, wasn’t everyone different in the training? Didn’t each one of us choose a different adjective? I mean, even when the initials were the same, the adjectives were different. Simple Sam and Sorcerer Suyog were two totally different – never to be confused – individuals. Was it really that differentiating a factor, then?

The Fact

The point here is, when everyone is trying to make a differentiation, practically no one is trying to make any difference. The outcome of such an exercise, during our induction into the company, was to break the ice, and create connections between individuals. But, with companies, things work differently.

Standardization, on the other hand, when mentally pictured, brings images of factory-set scenarios. So, a standardized process for creating a document will sure be imagined as an assembly line, where blank papers are inserted from one end into a human brain and what come out are printed, cross-checked documents.

The Flip side

Companies today have become competitive. Each action is replied with equal impact (if not more), in possibly all directions. But, shouldn’t such cases demand us to be on our toes to apply innovation in every possible respect? Shouldn’t we not apply standardization? May be not! Ensuring standardization does provide consistency to your behavior; a pattern in which you take things, a signature way in which you handle issues. Now, that in a way is differentiation isn’t it!

Some companies do follow different patterns every time they respond to the customers’ needs. One of my previous companies, for instance, provided customization into the flagship product, because for us, serving the “need” was more important than offering just a factory-made product. And, that for us was a standard procedure.

The Answer (that lies in the question)

Simple questions deserve simple answers, but what about the choice between the two (standardization and differentiation)? I will like the course of time to answer that question. But, I sure can take a stand by choosing when to implement what. Differentiation, for me, is the line that I must draw whenever I have a customer to talk to. My sales pitches should therefore talk about how differently I can serve my customers (and not about how different I am from my competitors).

Winning shots aren’t any different strokes. They are just played differently. How true that is. I have written many sales pitches, brochures, web sites, and ad copies. But, for all the while, I was only trying to tell people about the difference we can bring to their lives with our presence. My call to action was more on account of their conviction within my product, and not on account of the product features. I now realize that I did not purchase my cell phone because it had a lot of features, but because it had features I could use. That is where the differentiation lied. The features I looked for were available with various manufacturers. But, why did I choose the one I bought? Not because of what they felt was different. But, because what they knew made the difference.

The answer lies in understanding the need. In technical communication, for example, the customer needs your document to solve the issues and not because you have explained your product in detail.


Personally, I have experienced that simplicity brings better results. But, I will leave it to you to decide if simplicity is the act of differentiation or a section in your rule book.

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