Every good business person appreciates that they should know everything there is to know about their customers – without actually stalking them. However, we could all spend more time finding out about, and learning from, our competitors. To misquote an often misattributed line “Keep your customers close and your competitors closer”.
If they have been out there doing what you do for a long time you can learn from their mistakes and successes. They will have done the market research and gone through the pain and pleasure of new product development. They will almost certainly be practiced in the dark arts of effective marketing. However, don’t just go in there and copy them – innovate don’t imitate. Combine your knowledge with their experience to save yourself some time, and possibly money, and improve on what they have done, for the benefit of your customers and your business.
And of course, it’s not just the businesses that do what you do that you should be thinking about. You should also be looking at those that offer products and services that compete for your customers’ time and/or money. If you sell holidays your business is not only competing with other travel agents but with any product that forces your customers to choose what to spend their money on. It could come down to the choice between the family holiday, a new kitchen or a new car.
If you are the ‘old hand’ in the market and your competitors are the new entrants you need to keep an eye on what they are doing. You can’t afford to get complacent just because you have been in business for a while – you could be at your most vulnerable. Take your eye off the ball and someone else will pick it up and run away with it.
What do you need to know?
Keep up-to-date with the main players in your markets. Know who they are, what they do well and not-so-well. Find out what the market thinks of them, and their products, and get in there and do some mystery shopping if possible. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers where else they go for their purchases and how you compare. Suppliers may also have useful information on their other customers (your competitors) but may be understandably more reluctant to share – there’s no harm in asking.
There’s a wealth of information out there on you and your competitors so take advantage of it. In addition to getting their marketing materials, researching online, and accessing business libraries, don’t forget to take full advantage of the trade and consumer media, exhibitions and networking events.
At the end of the day you want to be able to gather the information that will help you exploit competitor weaknesses, inform your marketing strategy and improve business performance.
A healthy competitive attitude makes good business sense but play nicely – they are the competition not the enemy. You probably meet competitors at business and networking events on a regular basis and it can be a great opportunity to find out about the people behind the business. Not only that, things change and you never know when you might want to work together on an industry project or business collaboration in the future.
If you know who your competitors are and what they are getting up to you will always be in a good position to meet the competitive challenge. If you don’t think about them you may not realise they were a serious competitor until it’s too late to do anything about it.
About the author: Deborah Rowe, Consultant, Sheba Marketing, is a chartered marketer, member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and fellow of both the Institute of Direct Marketing and the RSA. She has more than 20 years of solid marketing and communications experience which she puts to good use as principal consultant of Sheba Marketing.
Sheba Marketing provides no-nonsense business-to-business marketing support to small and medium-sized organisations that want to achieve great things. www.shebamarketing.co.uk