In today’s super-competitive business environment, business owners and managers must work hard tostand out from their competitors. But before you can craft new ways to leave them in the dust, you need to know everything about your competition.
It’s challenging because most of us are too busy keeping up with daily tasks and endless to-do lists to spend time checking out the rest of the marketplace. Yet operating in a vacuum is a sure way to suck all the life out of your business — and lose your competitive edge.
The most successful people I’ve profiled over more than two decades as a small-business columnist are hyper-aware of their competitors. And it takes a fair bit of work.
Take my friend, Kathy, for instance. She’s the founder and CEO of the largest, private-label frozen pizza company west of the Mississippi. She and her 400 employees make more than one million pizzas a year for club stores, gourmet brands, the military and schools. Kathy attributes much of her success to being relentless when it comes to knowing how to beat her competition. She’s constantly scanning the landscape. For example, no matter how dressed up we are for a night out on the town, we visit a few supermarkets first. We go straight to the frozen food section to see where her private-label pizzas are on display. If the positioning in the case isn’t right, the manager will definitely hear about it. (Most of her clients pay “slotting allowances” to make sure their products are front and center in the frozen food section.)
Keep a High Profile
Kathy attracts new business by maintaining a high profile in the food processing industry. She speaks at events and attends national trade shows and conferences. Going to at least one big trade show is critical, no matter what you do for a living. You don’t have to set up an exhibit. Just spend a day or two checking out your competition.
I recently sign up to attend the biggest national television programming conference in January. Every network programming executive will be there and I’m preparing a list of new show ideas to pitch. I plan to attend every party and as many seminars as possible. I also plan to check out my competition.
Listen to Your Vendors
Your vendors and suppliers are another great source of competitive data because they deal with your competitors on a regular basis. If you befriend them and pay your bills in full and on time, they are more apt to spill the beans. My friend, John, who owned a popular online wine business, attributed much of his success to marketing tips he received from “Joe, the box guy.” Joe knew whether wine sales were going up and down based on how many boxes he shipped to wine merchants. Every year, John treated Joe to a meal at a five-star restaurant in New York City.
What else can you do to keep up with competitors? Visit their websites at least once a week, follow them on Twitter, visit their Facebook fan page and order their products. If you don’t want to place the orders, ask a friend or relative to make the purchase. Examine all their marketing materials and see how they pack and ship products. Read their instruction manuals and brochures.
Once you know everything about them, find the weak spots. If they charge too much for shipping, offer a discount or free shipping. If their products are boring, jazz yours up. Offer free gift wrapping and set up a gift registry. Encourage new customers to switch by offering a substantial discount on their first order.
Finally, think about how you can become a better spokesperson for your business. You are your brand and should be your company’s best sales person. Work on your “elevator pitch.”
Come up with a great description of what you do and why people should do business with you — in 30 or 40 seconds. Register to attend as many holiday parties as you can. Bring lots of business cards and collect as many as you can.
If you are shy, take along someone else from your team to do the schmoozing. Then, spend some time during the holidays writing a blog that positions you as an industry expert. Post timely, interesting tips on your Facebook page. Send a tweet and a link to a great article you’ve read or written. The idea is to expand your circle of influence.
Here’s a handy guide from BetterCloser.com on using social media for competitive intelligence.
Jane Applegate is the author of four books on small business management, including 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, published in paperback and most eBook formats by Wiley. She’s producing and hosting a new online, on demand, talk show sponsored by Microsoft. Tech Essentials with Jane Applegate debuts Dec. 5 at www.myfirstserver.com. Jane is not a Pitney Bowes employee and shares her insights on this blog as a paid contributor.