Craggy Peak Research
Driving empathovation.

The story of the specialist

Todd Haskell | February 3, 2020

The customer's dilemma: Choices, choices

My family has a 19-year-old Audi A4. It has over 220,000 miles on it. I love that car. But let's face it, that's an old car. Things go wrong. A lot. I've got a local mechanic that I like - they're nice guys, and their prices are fair. But when it got to the point when they could recognize my voice on the phone, I knew it was time for us to take a break from each other.

Now, one of the things that happens with the car is that the check engine light will come on, and I have no clue how serious the problem is. Nothing looks out of the ordinary under the hood, everything sounds fine when the car is running. Am I going to be fine if I wait another 100 miles before bringing it in? Or am I going to end up with a big lawn ornament?

The mechanic charges me $125 to share that precious information. What do they do for this money? They have a fancy diagnostic tool they hook up to the computer in my car, and it tells them what's wrong, and then they tell me. Sure, when it comes to "how long before my car explodes," they do have some specialized expertise. But if it's, say, a faulty oil level sensor, I don't need them to tell me that I can drive it safely for a while, as long as I check my oil regularly.

And of course, a few days ago, the light came on again. So I pulled up Google to see if there are tools for end consumers that will tell you the diagnostic codes in the car's computer. Turns out there are. Many, in fact. So how do I decide what to buy?

Interlude: Generalist versus specialist

Marketers have a fancy term for the set of options that a consumer considers when making a purchase decision. It's called the consideration set. Consider the companies that sell diagnostic tools for my car. They basically have two goals:

  • Their tool is in my consideration set.
  • As few competitors as possible are in my consideration set.

The thing is, there's a trade-off between these two goals. What's the best strategy for achieving goal #1? You want a product that is, well, a little generic. It should be a reasonable option for a broad range of people and a broad range of situations. What's the best strategy for achieving goal #2? To be unique or different, so that not many people offer exactly what you offer.

To see how this trade-off works, imagine Business A decides to go the generalist route. The result is that there are 10,000 potential customers for their product. But there are also 20 competitors who have similar products. If we assume there's no particular difference between the options, such that customers essentially choose randomly, then Business A will get 500 sales.

Business B takes the other approach, and specializes. That means that there are only 1,000 potential customers for them. But there's also only 1 competitor. Again assuming customers choose randomly, then Business B will get 500 sales.

Of course, I just made up the numbers here, and customers are unlikely to choose randomly. But hopefully you get the idea. What I want to talk about now is what the generalist versus specialist choice means for your marketing message.

The specialist's secret weapon

So, what came back from my Google search for diagnostic tools for my Audi? Well, I learned that there is a standard system for car diagnostic codes called OBD-II. And there are a LOT of scan tools that can read these codes from your car, regardless of the make and model. But, not surprisingly, Audis have some special additional codes that are specific to Volkswagen/Audi cars. So, some folks make tools that are designed to read these custom codes. In other words, they've gone the specialist route.

For the first such tool I found, I checked out their website. They had a story on their site about a situation where a car kept stalling out, and a generic OBD-II scan tool reported nothing was wrong. And a second generic tool reported nothing was wrong. But their Volkswagen/Audi-specifc scan tool found the problem, and a $22 part got their car running again.

Call me a sucker if you like, but at that point, all generic tools dropped out of my consideration set. Chances are, whatever the problem is with my Audi, a generic tool will probably be able to tell me what it is. But what if I'm wrong? Then I'll be out the money I spent on the tool, and I'll still need to get the specialist tool. So, I went on Amazon and plunked down my money for one the specialist tools. Naturally, I also paid a premium for doing so.

Naturally, if I owned a Toyota or a Ford, I never would have considered the Volkswagen/Audi specific tool. So this company was willing to pass on those car owners. But in exchange, they gained the story I shared above. And that story played on my emotions, and pushed me toward purchasing their product. A company with a more generic tool might need to run promotions or do heavy advertising or some other expensive tactic to get the same benefit that came from a simple story. That's why I like to say, your story is your business. And focusing on a more specific target market let's you have a more customized, finely-tuned story.