When you were growing up, it’s a good bet that one or more of the adults in your life advised you not to stand out. Standing out, like showing off, causing trouble, or breaking the rules, was something that good boys and girls didn’t do. Now that you’re a business owner, you’re often told the opposite. You must stand out from the crowd, experts say, to have a successful business.

To many self-employed professionals, this advice may sound right but feel wrong. Most of us have spent years of our lives doing our best to fit in. Trying to stand out may feel unnatural, scary, or even vulgar. When other business owners try it, we sometimes don’t like what we see. And so we wonder — is standing out truly a necessity for getting clients? Here’s the argument:

The case for standing out

  • Make an impression – When you stand out, you become more noticeable and more memorable.
  • Gain competitive edge – The marketplace is crowded; you must stand out from the competition in order to be chosen.
  • Be special – If prospective clients don’t perceive you as special, you become a commodity, and must compete by lowering your prices or working harder to close sales.
  • Demonstrate uniqueness – Every business owner needs a Unique Selling Proposition. Your USP is what makes clients decide to do business with you instead of someone else.
  • Brand your value – Slogans like “the leader in [something],” “queen of [blank]”, or “the [whatever] guy” attract attention and can enhance your image.

The case for fitting in

  • Build trust – People like to do business with those they trust. Trust is inspired by the familiar. If you look too different from your peers, others can perceive you as untrustworthy.
  • Show humility – Nobody wants to hear people brag about themselves.
  • Get found – Prospects can’t find you in a Google search or membership directory if you don’t label what you do with common search terms.
  • Be clear – Clever tag lines and benefit points can be positive; obscure descriptions are not. Unique ways to express your value must still communicate what you actually do.
  • Gain recognition – Without an identifiable label or job title, clients can’t categorize you. What the heck does a “maker of awesomeness” do? Distinctive is fine; eccentric can be off-putting.

So what do I think? I’m a fan of the “just enough” principle, in business as well as in life. You should stand out just enough that potential clients can recognize the unique value you bring, but not so much that you seem like a weirdo. And you should fit in just enough that clients can find you, categorize you, and trust you, but not so much that they can’t remember you.

The key is to maintain a healthy balance between proudly declaring your value and being perceived as likable and approachable. Prospective clients should be attracted to you, but not be in so much awe that they won’t dial your number. People in your target market should know your name, but as a helpful resource, not a noisy showoff.

Above all, the image, brand, and reputation you carry must be authentic. Trying to behave in ways that are against your nature can make you appear dishonest, awkward, or fake. Know your value and don’t be afraid to share it. But make sure what and how you share reveals the real you.

C.J. Hayden, MCC, CPCC, is the author of the bestseller Get Clients Now! A 28-Day Marketing Program for Professionals, Consultants, and Coaches, Since 1992, she's been helping entrepreneurs survive and thrive. C.J. is the author of five other business how-to-books, and has taught marketing at Mills College and John F. Kennedy University. Find out more about C.J.'s books and courses or attend one of her upcoming programs.

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