Disability Demands Differentiation

We keep hearing that NDIS is changing the face of the disability sector. Disrupting. Innovating. Bringing about new ways of doing things, new ideas, and new models. Yet from the perspective of lots of participants, it seems like the same organisations doing things the same way, just being funded from a different place (and that’s potentially a lot of money in marketing, that isn’t having much influence on which providers clients chose). There are new providers and new models emerging but most of the providers have been around for a while. If there is one thing the NDIA is doing, it’s forcing us to look again at the idea of competition.

There is a principle in marketing called ‘differentiation’, which can be defined as simply as distinguishing your service from others, with the aim of making it more attractive to a specific target market (it can also be defined in a much more complex way). The fantastic and challenging thing about differentiation is that it can take so many forms – price, features and functions, technology used, packaging, design, advertising, location, delivery time, customer service approach.

Ketchup. Go into any supermarket and look at the ketchup aisle. It seems like essentially the same thing in the bottle, but there are dozens of choices each with their own form of differentiation to appeal to a specific part of the market. Rosellas. Fountain. Barilla. Heinz. Low salt. 50% extra free. Made from Australian grown tomatoes. With added chilli… the list goes on. There is even differentiation in which supermarket you chose to buy your ketchup from: one shop might help you pack your carrier bags, another might not (and that’s before we get deep into the differentiation between whether the cashier offers you plastic carrier bags or cloth ones. Or whether you can park right out the front of the store. Or what colour the sign is). There is a common misconception that we cannot differentiate as much in services as organisations can that are selling products, but this isn’t correct.

Every disability service provider has points-of-difference (things that customers associate strongly with the brand and the service).

You don’t have to dig very deep to see that across the country, every 1hour Assistance With Daily Living shift, funded by the NDIS, delivered by an Approved Provider, isn’t the same. Embedded deep in our service models, there are huge differences in what training and direction the frontline worker is offered and receives, how the worker delivers the service, how they interact with the participant, how or if they give feedback on how the service went, etc. And that’s just at the frontline workers showing the result of differentiation. There is also incredible variety in the participant journey up to the minute that service begins: how a provider interacts with the participant prior to the service being delivered, what the intake form looks like, how the receptionist answers the phone, if it is the receptionist answering the phone or someone else with more knowledge or less knowledge, what the values of the provider are, what other formal services or informal support and connections the provider can offer, how is feedback dealt with, etc. A lot of these differences have evolved through years of refining a strategy and service to meet the needs of the market. The way the NDIA is changing the game is that the market is now made up of discerning clients and families, not funders and government departments who sign the cheques.

At DSC one of our most repeated themes in that every change you make in an NDIS environment needs to be aligned to a wider organisational strategy. Making a small change to your service delivery or back office – you might outsource the After Hours On Call Service to a national call centre to save a few dollars – can have unintended consequences for the differentiation of your service. It’s a lot like the butterfly effect: a small change you make to employee training, or your IT system, or the process you use to take on feedback can in turn have a huge effect on how your service is viewed and experienced by your target market. Moving to an outsourced On Call Service certainly distinguishes you, but is it the kind of difference you want to be known for?

Although differentiation sounds simple, it’s not easy.

Turning a point-of-difference into a differentiation requires an aligned, strategic business vision behind it. If it’s something on the surface that you do differently, there is no guarantee of consistency in how that point is offered to clients. A point-of-difference could be that a Coordinator always offers the phone numbers of a few other providers if they aren’t able to support a client – it’s not a differentiation until that approach is cemented into a broader strategy, service design and marketing approach.

Differentiation never happens in isolation, it always has to be part of a larger strategic shift in the way we do business, support our staff and deliver services in response to clearly defined. Why would a customer come to a service that has an outsourced On Call Service, rather than a provider that has a person in the adjoining suburb answering the on call phone? What is different about a service compared to another? Why would a customer chose to buy Heinz ketchup rather than Rosella ketchup? Why pick an iPhone over a Samsung? Why choose the local handyman to come and tidy up the garden over Jims Mowing?

All of these differentiations are subtly but undoubtedly tied up in strategically addressing a specific part of the market.

There are some providers in the market right now (and some who will be entering soon) who have the resources to throw millions of dollars at marketing and advertising to try and spend their way around differentiation. Most of us don’t have that option. Survival and growth for most providers lies in differentiation. As the Scheme rolls out, your differentiation strategy can evolve as much as the market does. What makes you different today won’t necessarily make you different tomorrow.