Years ago, in what now seems like pre-history, I sat at a typewriter staring at the words I had just written in response to a help-wanted advertisement in The New York Times.

“I am responding to your ad,” the letter went. At some point, a light went off and I realized that scores, perhaps hundreds of other people were responding to the same advertisement, using the same words to kick off the plea to be hired. That phrase--I am responding to your ad--just doesn’t set anybody apart.

Flash forward to the present as I sit here screening resumes. Replace the typewriter with the typical home-and-office PC and The New York Times with some online site for posting job ads, and the pleas coming in via email, not the old-fashioned postal service, often boil down to “I am responding to your ad” or even “Here’s my resume” without any elaboration.

Back in the typewriter era, I redesigned my cover letter to let perspective employers know what I could do for them and what set me apart from the rest of the mail pouring in. On top of that, it was good lively writing, designed to hook the reader’s interest. The change in approach suddenly opened doors. I got a couple of invites from companies that didn’t have jobs but just wanted to meet someone who could write that interesting a cover letter.

A lot of life is like that, including pitches that accountants and software resellers make to prospective clients. The accounting firm may pitch the fact that it prepares tax returns; the software reseller, that it sells a particular brand of accounting software.

Of course, that doesn’t do much to set the firms apart since many accounting firms prepare tax returns, and competing software resellers often try to nab contracts by offering exactly the same brand of accounting software.

It’s not saying anything new or particularly brilliant to say that firms seeking business need to differentiate themselves from all the other firms that offer what seem to be identical services. The trick, of course, is to point out how YOUR firm does things differently and why your firm should be hired instead of the look-alike contenders.

Things haven’t really changed. It was about selling yourself in the typewriter days. It’s about selling yourself in the online era.

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