One of the most enjoyable aspects of my career is talking to other entrepreneurs about their companies. Whether it’s a retail store, a consulting firm, or a business in the luxury and fashion space, I like helping entrepreneurs turn obstacles into opportunities.
At some point in our meetings, I ask business owners about other companies in the field: “How well do you know them?” “Where do you rank against the competition?” "What business have you won or lost to your competitors?" I am always stunned when I hear, “Well, we really don’t have too much competition because what we do is so unique to the market.”
Everyone has competition. If you don’t know the other players who are trying to take your largest clients away from you, now would be a good time to start making a list. Ask your clients, “Who else did you consider for your business before selecting us?” Some of their answers might surprise you.
Once you determine your competitive set, the next step is figuring out how you can better them. In business today, you don’t always have to be the best. In many instances, you spend more time defending your claim and less time on the needs of your customers. Sometimes, people want reliability, convenience, or a product that is easy to use rather than one that's the best. Focus your efforts on being better than your competition. Below are four ways you can compete for business and win.
1. Offer better customer service. What is it like to buy from your company? When was the last time you called your own business to order something? Is it easy to navigate your website? Do you talk and listen to your customers when they give you feedback? Customer service is the easiest way to win and lose business. An account that took you a year to win might be gone in five minutes if someone on your team under-delivers on the promise you made to win the account in the first place. Don’t let another company steal your business because of better customer service.
2. Show a better understanding of your customer’s customer. If you sell to the retail market, how much do you know about the customers buying your product or service from your retailers? If it’s not selling, your retailers aren’t going to buy from you. Help them sell by better understanding the needs of their customers. Create collateral material that highlights the features customers are looking for in your type of product. How are similar companies positioning their products/services in retail stores? What’s their Unique Selling Proposition (USP)? It’s imperative to make sure you don’t sound like a copycat by promoting the same USPs as your competitors. It will confuse customers if you’re all saying the same thing. For example, which towel brand is the “quicker picker-upper?” Bounty. Who makes “real comfortable jeans?” Wrangler. These USPs separate the two products from their competition. If you’re Levi's, you don’t want to describe your jeans as really comfortable.
3. Create a better social-media presence. Customers today are doing everything online and on their phones. They buy and sell. They review restaurants and make recommendations to friends, family, and even strangers. In short, most of the discussions that took place offline years ago are now happening online.
Is your business part of the discussion? If it is, you can get a big leg up on competitors that have beaten you out of business for years. Social media completely disrupted the way the world did business. You can now connect with customers, influencers, partners, and even the media using social media. More importantly, you can keep an eye on your competition via social media. By following them on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, you will find out about accounts they have won and lost, events and conferences they are attending, new hires and people who left the company. How? Most companies think nothing of keeping their network informed as to what’s happening in their business. When people leave a company, one of the first things they do is change their LinkedIn profile and update their Twitter account. It’s one of the many ways you can use social media to your advantage.
4. Get a better handle on what lies ahead. If business were a road race, how advantageous would it be to know when to slow down and when to speed up? In a word, very! The right information (e.g. economic indicators) can help you figure out when to move forward with your business and when to hunker down. If your business is seasonal (or your customer’s business is seasonal), you can use pertinent information to put together better business plans as well as a better contingency plan. These steps, along with some luck, give you a distinct advantage over other businesses that fly blindly into the future.
Notice how I never brought up better pricing. In the end, you don’t want to commoditize your product or service (if it isn’t a commodity). Trying to win on price is a race to the bottom. At some point, everyone enters negative territory in which the more you sell, the more money you lose. Instead, set your sights on differentiating your business using the four areas above. Study your competition and then better them.
As the founder and CEO of Brian Moran & Associates, Brian helps entrepreneurs run better businesses. He was formerly the executive director at The Wall Street Journal, overseeing the financial and small-business markets across the WSJ franchise. From 2002 to 2010, Brian ran Veracle Media and Moran Media Group, content companies in the SMB market.