Most business owners have trouble defining what their company does that is indisputably better or different than everyone else. And even if you think you do better work or give better service than your competitors, how do you convince potential customers?

The acronym “USP” (Unique Selling Proposition) is one that has cropped up in this column from time to time, because I regard it as one of the best marketing concepts for any business to use. Basically, it answers the question, why should someone do business with me rather than any of the scores of competing firms that do the same kind of work in a given market?

Like so many things, though, coming up with a USP is easier said than done. Most business owners have trouble defining what their company does that is indisputably better or different than everyone else. And even if you think you do better work or give better service than your competitors, how do you convince potential customers?

This got me to thinking of some aspects of your business that could serve as the basis of a USP, as follows.

1. Longevity. If your business has been around longer than most competitors, play it up for all it’s worth. Longevity provides instant credibility. No business lasts a long time without leaving a lengthy trail of satisfied customers. “Since 1955” is a powerful statement that needs to be touted on all your signs, business cards, stationery and other marketing materials. The older the date, the more you should try to draw attention to it.

2. Awards and honors. Years ago Chicago Magazine had its food critic rank his favorite pizza restaurants in the city. Chicago is renowned for terrific pizza, but the critic’s number one choice was a neighborhood joint that hardly anyone except people in that neighborhood knew about. After the article came out, people were standing in line every night to get into the little place that had only a handful of tables. Now, thanks in large measure to that magazine publicity, Giordano’s is a chain with numerous outlets throughout the city and suburbs.

Only a handful of businesses are fortunate enough to be publicly recognized for excellence by a major metropolitan publication. But many of you have received smaller yet still notable honors within your local communities. Being named, for example, “Smithsville Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year,” is something nobody else can claim. Make the most of these opportunities.

3. Testimonials. Testimonials are perhaps the strongest marketing tool available to a contracting firm. That’s because people patronize contractors on the basis of trust more than anything else. They will believe friends, neighbors and fellow business owners who say good things about you.

None of you would disagree with this, I’m sure. In fact, at some point in your business lives, you’ve probably voiced the saying: “Word of mouth is the best form of advertising.” Undeniably true, as far as it goes.

Problem is, most contractors just sit and wait for testimonials to come their way. This puts the onus on customers to take time out from their busy lives to say something good about you and put it in writing. For every 10 satisfied customers, maybe one will be thoughtful enough to do this. What you need to do is make it easy for the other nine to go public with their testimony on your behalf.

Every time a satisfied customer says something good about your company, spring into action with a letter repeating his/her remarks and asking permission to use it for your promotional purposes.

4. Quantify good performance. I doubt there’s anybody reading this who doesn’t claim to do top quality work. Quality workmanship is indeed a powerful USP, but proving it is the tricky part when everyone in the world says so about themselves. What you need to do is figure out a way to quantify good performance.

One thought that comes to mind is the famous McDonald’s slogan of “More than XX billion hamburgers sold,” whatever the number might be these days. How about promoting your company as one with “Over XX satisfied customer served in the last five years.”

Or, “More than XX jobs performed without a complaint.”

Please don’t just pick numbers out of thin air. It’s easy enough to document the number of customers served or jobs performed simply by checking your records. How can you tell if they were satisfied? Well, just subtract the ones that complained about your services!

Whatever you do, don’t lie. This always comes back to haunt you. Besides, you don’t need to fib. When you stop to think how many jobs you’ve done over the years, impressive numbers quickly add up.

5. Tout niche specialties. A USP doesn’t have to be literally “unique,” meaning you are the only one in your market offering it. It could simply be a selective category of work that only a few other competitors offer.

Are there certain materials or techniques you like to work with that most others don’t? Is there something you do operationally that nobody else does? You can build a USP around these factors.

6. Build a special image. McGuire Plumbing & Heating in the Twin Cities dresses its service technicians in red neckties. Scottco Service Co. in Amarillo, Texas, has gotten a lot of mileage out of a jingle that says, “Uh oh, better call Scottco.” Marketers of everything from cigarettes (The Marlboro Man, Joe Camel) to toilet paper (Mr. Whipple) have capitalized on associating their products with fictional characters, slogans and tunes. It works.

Once you have created a distinct identity, nobody can take it away from you, nor use it for a “me too” marketing thrust. This makes it a USP.

Advertising gimmickry is of course no substitute for substance. To succeed in business, you still have to operate professionally and give good value. But sometimes you need a gimmick to create chances to show your stuff.