Four Reasons to Thank the Competition

It can you help you better define your product or service, improve on it, energize you, and educate potential customers

Have you thanked your competitors lately? At first it might sound counterintuitive (or just plain nuts) but when you stop to think about it, your competition can actually help you sell more. Hear me out. Without competitors, you would miss out on the four big benefits every salesperson should take advantage of.

1. Competitors help you define who you are to your customers. Consider this: Where would Pepsi (PEP) be without Coke (KO)? If Pepsi was the only household name cola available, it would have to tell its customers it sold a sweet, brown, fizzy beverage. Instead, it markets its product as a cooler, hipper alternative to Coke.

As a sales speaker, I've also benefited from having one major competitor. We share roughly the same sales philosophy. The big differences between us are that he is better known, a lot older, and uses coarser language. So when potential clients ask me for a point of reference when considering me for a speaking gig, I say "I'm the kinder, gentler, female version of Mr. X who doesn't curse." That usually produces a smile of understanding—and often, a deal.

2. Rivalry can bring out your best. For example, when Japanese automakers began to make serious inroads into the American marketplace, U.S. manufacturers responded by improving the quality of their cars—though, unfortunately for them, they're still struggling at it (see, 1/25/07, "The Record Year Ford Hopes to Shake Off"). Obviously, when your competitors improve, you had better improve too—or risk getting fired by your customers. Even though it's painful and expensive, over time you can provide better products and services.

3. Competition adds energy to your selling efforts. A good example of this was the battle between Nike (NKE) and Reebok (RBK). At one time, Nike's mission statement was "crush Reebok." Those were words the sales forces of both shoe manufacturers could rally around. (Never mind that Nike won.) Your customers also get to join in on the fun of choosing sides and participating in the duel with their dollars.

4. Competitors educate your customers through their advertising and marketing. While their campaigns push customers on their specific new products and services, they're simultaneously marketing potentials on new features available industrywide. This means your competitor is doing some pre-selling for you, legitimizing the latest widget. Instead of glaring at your competitor's large, glossy ads next time you see them, understand that they could be paving the way to a sale for you.

My sales-speaking competitor spends a lot of money selling companies, groups, and individuals on the importance of investing in their sales knowledge, whether it's through a book, CD, training series, consulting agreement, or speaking event. I like to think of him as a big cruise ship crossing the ocean. In this scenario, I'm a smaller boat that tucks in behind him, not expending as much energy as he does, but quickly moving forward. I reap some of the benefit of his efforts, as potential customers become more knowledgeable about the benefits of spending money on becoming better at selling.

However, before you order a floral bouquet for your competitors, make sure you're in your best fighting form. Here are three suggestions to strengthen your competitive position.

1. Information is power. Learn everything there is to know about your primary competitors. Make a scorecard of the key points you want to evaluate, and measure them on a regular basis. If they have a store, go there and shop, and pay attention to everything from the cleanliness of the parking lot to the type of customers to the store’s layout and signage.

Whether or not your competitors operate out of physical stores, learn what types of products or services they're featuring and which products they're clearing out. Make a purchase, arrange a layaway or financing, make a return, an exchange, and a complaint. Write for information, study their financial filings, their brochures, their ads, and call them on the phone or e-mail them.

2. Track their trends. If you fill out a scorecard on your major competitors on a monthly basis, after only a couple of months you will begin to see trends. What are they doing more of? Less of? What is changing for them and staying the same for you—or vice versa?

3. Once you understand your competitors, you can start to see how they think and act. Strategize how you can excel where they're weak and match them where they're strong. Once you've done this work, don't keep it a secret. Let your customers and potential buyers know how you outshine your competitors.

Years ago, my boss taught me not to call them "competitors" but rather "valued associates." Regardless of what you call them, competitors can spur you on to proclaim victory. Happy selling!

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