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In my global travels, I meet a lot of sales, marketing and business people.

Frequently, our discussions dive into the issue of competitiveness, brand differentiation and unique value propositions. Owners want to be perceived as special, better or different than competitors. Managers want to be more attractive to talent, and worthy of keeping it as long as possible. As for salespeople, their primary anxiety revolves around being better than other salespeople in their industry, most usually who is right down the street. While audiences like to generate a lot of ideas, and pride, in their brand, company and personal talents in these areas, they almost always suffer from a fatal oversight:

Tunnel vision.

Perhaps there was a time when companies only had to worry about their same business competitionCadillac watched Audi; Dell outmaneuvered Lenovo; Lady Gaga differentiate herself from Pink, and so on. But in my experience, that time is over (if it ever was at all). Today, the competition for consumers dollars isn’t only against your internal competitors, but against anyone else who engages your customer, too.

Which means: just about everybody.

In other words, Cadillac’s cars don’t just have to beat Audi’s; their service department experience must to feel as welcoming as shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue: because it’s the same customer.  Dell laptops can’t just outperform Lenovo ones; their tech support must deliver as positive an experience as a night at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Lady Gaga must concern herself with delivering an experience as personal, or better, than what the same teenagers experienced at Disney World or the Apple Store.

I’ve told the story of how the Mandarin Oriental raised the bar three years ago, using social media to create positive anticipation and reward word-of-mouth referrals. Last week, United Airlines performed a similarly high level experience regarding a delayed flight, keeping me pre-informed by social media and offering immediate concessions with refunds or award miles before we even landed. Hotels are raising the bar on airlines; who, in turn, are raising the bar on airports themselves, and so on.

Likewise, one of the best experiences I ever had involved California Closets’ superstar salesperson Diane, who wowed us with her interactive, iPad-driven presentation. Diane forever changed our expectations for how any home improvement or housing related salesperson needs to compete for our business in the future. Paper presentations and pencil drawings won’t earn our business for one replacement window – let alone the complete sale of our home – after what we experienced with the home improvement company.  After all, the amount spent to renovate one room into a California Closet is quite similar to what we’d spend on a real estate commission to sell the whole thing. So the sales experience should at least start out the same way, too.

Anyone who seeks to set the standard by which customers form trusted relationships can do this.

In fact, earlier today, the owner of my local Tide dry-cleaner called my cell phone to apologize for a cleaning error that damaged one of my dress shirts. Imagine how amazed I was to be receiving a personal phone call from the owner expressing his concern, telling me exactly how he would prevent it in the future, and  asking me for a chance to prove he could regain my confidence.

That’s right: The owner. Of a dry cleaner. Calling me on my cell phone. To apologize over a ruined shirt collar, on a $2 service. With a solution and a humble request to let him prove it.

Compare that to all the times you can’t even find a manager in a retail store; or speak to one in a restaurant. All the times you get an email apology instead of a personal handshake, or a phone call. The manager at the Tide dry cleaner has irrevocably raised the bar for every other weekly service vendor. The diner, the car wash, the exercise gym. Should my eggs be cold, my car not spotless or the treadmill out of order (again!), I now expect nothing less than the same level of courtesy, concern and care that I got from my Tide dry cleaner.

Take a good look around. Your competition is everyone, everywhere. Anybody who is changing what customers expect at an office, talking to a salesperson, browsing your website, or tweeting a question. Stop worrying about how you stack up against the usual suspects. Instead, make sure you’re ready to compete against everyone else who is raising the expectations of what it means to stay in a hotel, take a flight, or have your shirts cleaned. Get ready to deliver a whole new level of delight; courtesy of your competitor, the Tide dry cleaner.

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