In the 1940s, advertising pioneer Rosser Reeves coined the term "Unique Selling Proposition." A USP is the compelling reason or quality you have that would make people want to do business with you. If you want to succeed in challenging times, it is imperative that you define a USP for your company.

Rick Davis Photo: Tom Gennara The burger industry has long exemplified how USPs can separate a product from the competition. "You deserve a break today" promises convenience and a night out of the kitchen. When a rival realized it had to differentiate, it promised that you could "have it your way." A third burger chain noticed and came up with the famous "Where's the beef?" campaign.

Each advertising campaign was based on unique differences in an industry that, to many consumers, offers pretty much the same product. Until recently, the housing market was so hot that lumber dealers could thrive without offering a unique proposition to their clients; all they needed to do was be a source for building materials. Now the abundance has stopped, and to get the business that's left you need a unique reason for builders to come to you.

But beware: Saying you deliver "value" and "service" is not strong enough to support a USP. These are generic terms, typically found in the scores of (often ineffective) mission statements in our industry that promise "value and service to our customer partners while providing a safe environment for the growth of our employees."

To establish your own USP, try asking your customers two key questions. First, ask them what the best suppliers are doing to help support clients. Second, ask what they value most about your organization. Those two answers will go a long way toward helping you discover a USP.

Even if your company lacks a clearly defined USP, you can distinguish yourself from other salespeople by creating your own USP. Here are three ideas that might help you get started:

1. "I get your product to the jobsite on time and complete." A ProSales study once found that the leading reason a contractor chooses a supplier is prompt delivery. This USP implies that you will ask the right questions to understand the scheduling process; tell clients when they need to order; and ensure that all deliveries comes complete as promised. You are telling your customer that you take responsibility for navigating through the efficiencies of your own employer as well as the inefficiencies. You are guaranteeing that you will personally be responsible for the details of the project where your products are concerned.

2. "I bring you leads." This is a particularly powerful USP if your client base includes remodelers. You can capture leads from walk-in clients, manufacturer lead sheets, home shows your company sponsors, and many more sources. The value of a lead that you supply is loyalty, less combative negotiations, and a feeling of security that you gain in knowing you are achieving a new level of sales leadership.

3. "I help you create profits." There are literally dozens of ways in which you can help your client create profits. Some of them include training seminars for its salespeople; measuring the actual cost of installation and then helping to reduce it; sponsoring an event; helping the client assemble sales literature; providing leads as noted above; going on joint sales calls to homeowners; and cultivating a networks of close working associates that might include designers and subcontractors.

During these challenging times, one fact is clear: Your competitors are going out of business, so there will never be a better time to gain market share. Don't let it pass you by. Strive to be different and you will gain a bigger slice of the pie.