In 1984, fast-food restaurant chain Wendy’s introduced one of the most iconic television ad campaigns in history. Wendy’s spokesperson, 81-year-old Clara Peller, when shown competitors’ hamburgers as compared to Wendy’s, exclaimed, “Where’s the beef?” and the rest is history. For those youngsters reading this, go take a look at some of these commercials on YouTube. They’re actually quite funny.

“Where’s the beef?” has since become a catchphrase to describe all sorts of ideas, products and services that lack real substance. Not unlike the term “vaporware” used to describe software that basically offers little benefit, “Where’s the beef?” instantly brings to mind something of limited or diminishing value.

Given the inflationary pressures impacting our daily lives, we’re all becoming accustomed to paying more for less. In some cases, this is just a reflection of the fact that in the last three and a half years, the value of the dollar has declined nearly 20%, while in others, it’s the recognition that our favorite snack bag is quite a bit lighter.

So, what does this have to do with office technology, you ask? Are MFPs coming with fewer parts? Are software features once standard in products now offered as options? Is toner now being provided in smaller bottles at the same price?

While there are certainly changes occurring in the office technology space that one might perceive as lessening value, generally speaking, MFPs, even of the A4 variety, offer plenty of utility. Software solutions tend to package more capability, not less, and last time I checked, your favorite toner is sold in the same-sized bottle in the same quantity. So, what’s the issue?

As the Wendy’s commercial vividly demonstrates, consumers are continually searching for value. Even in the hamburger business, which is even more commoditized than office technology, consumers are driven to offerings that deliver both real and perceived value.

Applying this to the office technology industry, one would have to ask where such a stark contrast resides. If we evaluate the traditional hardware part of the business, while most OEMs will claim differentiation, the perception on the part of customers is that most offerings are virtually the same. Certainly, there is not such a difference that hardware from one vendor is materially superior to that of another. Well, that certainly can’t be the case with respect to software, can it? While software was once a differentiator, even this part of the business has now become quite commoditized, leading most customers to the conclusion that although software offers more uniqueness than hardware, its core capabilities and value are relatively equal. Well, if hardware and software leave one pondering where the “beef” might be, for sure it has to be contained in services.

Services, by their nature, should always be an area where one provider can differentiate from another. Because services are intrinsically linked to people, the higher the quality of the people in an organization, the more likely they are capable of generating unique value. This, in my view, is absolutely true, but what happens when the services themselves being offered by an organization are commoditized? Can people alone overcome this lack of meatiness?

In my view, this is the question facing today’s industry players. In their rush to find new areas of differentiation, both OEMs and dealers have rapidly moved to diversify their business offerings to incorporate both software and services. These moves, while beneficial in the short term, raise questions concerning the sustainability of long-term value and a uniqueness that provides long-lasting competitive advantage. Take, for example, print management software. How much more runway does such software have in terms of unique value creation? Or is print management software already a commoditized offering? And on the services side, are managed print or IT managed services the panacea many would say they once were? Surely these areas have been beneficial for OEMs and dealers, but can anyone say that they continue to offer sustained competitive differentiation?

And therein lies my main gripe with the majority of services offered by OEMs and dealers alike. They tend to be “me too” offerings quick to commoditize and lacking in long-range margin preservation. Is there anything that separates one dealer offering managed services from another? Not much, in my estimation.

So, what’s the answer? In my view, workflow services tied to specific line of business applications are a fertile area worthy of evaluation. Although not greenfield in nature, services in these categories, particularly those targeted at small and medium-sized businesses, represent a sizable emerging opportunity. Such services, coupled with artificial intelligence-based software and the right skills, are a combination not easy for everyone to replicate.

The nature of today’s office market is one of complexity and challenge. Business viability isn’t just about having a comparable set of products and services in your portfolio. It is about a continued focus on delivering something that’s intrinsically unique and, dare I say, difficult to copy.

Is your business unique? Or are you leaving your customers and prospects asking, “Where’s the beef?”

Dennis Amorosano is the president and founder of Dendog Strategy Insights LLC, a management consulting firm focused on strategic planning, new business development and go to market execution. Providing services in the areas of strategic business planning/execution, new business development, content creation/marketing automation and technology sourcing support, Dendog Strategy Insights brings 30 years of technology marketing, sales, product planning, software engineering, and professional service experience to help clients implement strategies that yield success.