Defining Your Competitive Advantage

In the book: Creating Competitive Advantage (2006), written by my friend Jaynie Smith, she asks the reader: “What is your competitive advantage?” After that question is where it gets interesting. If you want to read an insightful fast read, this is the one to buy today.

Ask yourself the above question and write out your responses. If you’re like most of us in the search business you may have come up with some of the following, supposedly, competitive advantages:

• Specialization in an industry—you know everybody
• Specialization in sales or management or accounting, etc.
• Longevity: You helped Noah recruit animal trainers for the Ark
• High ethics and you do what’s right
• Focus on the client
• Conduct thorough references, background checks, etc.
• A database to die for and you know everybody

Are these really competitive advantages? Are they really unique? Answer. No! The list is a good list of features and benefits, but none of them are a unique advantage that can’t be replicated by thousands of other search professionals, rookies, veterans—even Aunt Mildred. I once lost a search to a 2week old rookie who snatched a nifty 23K fee with the perfect candidate. Ouch!

Try the “So what?” test. Ask yourself “So what?” to any of the above features and benefits to see how they hold up to a client’s request for you to convince him/her to give you a search. Can you really provide a unique benefit to set you apart? Something that will define your competitive advantage? The rest is “so what?” stuff.

Creating competitive advantage in your search business. Put some real meat behind your features like the examples I gave above, by giving the features significant meaning. How? Do some research on your placement records and search assignments and find ways to put a statistical number to the list. For example, can you say:

• 85% of our searches are repeat customers
• 74% of our candidates stay in jobs longer than industry averages (make them call you for the industry average)
• We’ve conducted 48,000 interviews so you won’t have to
• 1/3 of our clients retain us to do all their management searches
• We provide a step-by-step action plan to assist you in completing the search quickly (make them call to get the action plan or deliver it yourself)
• Your management team will receive interview training at no extra cost
• Our database gives you access to candidates you can’t find
• You learn about compensation programs being used in your industry right now
• Less than 50% of our candidates eat chocolate cake on Thursday nights.

As you can see, the features now are dynamic, supported by real and compelling facts—advantages—that allow you to market and converse more confidently with clients. Create pie charts, bar graphs, timelines, cool graphics and streamline all your letters, website text, brochures, even your everyday emails. Change the way clients see your services. They’ll start to understand the value of your service and the extent of knowledge you have that they can’t get their hands on.

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Once you change the way you deliver your message, the easier it is to sell the client on full fee, on potential retainers, and it gives you courage to walk away from searches that are not right for you. Walking away from a search is the greatest technique to prove to a client that they need to rethink, rework and engage you to do the job. If you’re not prepared to tell the client “Sorry, but the search specs you gave me are not competitive enough to attract talent, for me to make a profit, or for me to spend my time chasing a purple squirrel on your behalf.

Let’s talk further when you’re committed to engage me and allow me to source qualified candidates. And only after we rewrite the job spec and skill sets required for the job.” WOW! Bold? Yes! Does it work? Yes! In every market? Yes!

In a busy and candidate-driven market as we have right now, there’s no reason to dip below the horizon for dinky fees and work with weak managers in search of the Holy Grail of a candidate. Give them your competitive advantage, get the signed agreement and go to work or make another call. Happy hunting.

Russ Riendeau is senior partner of The East Wing Search Group and 21-year veteran of the search business. Russ is an industry speaker and the author of Thinking On Your Seat, a long-selling field guide on the search business. For a sample brochure showing how to create competitive advantage email Russ at Or call 8473810977


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