Whisper it: your competitors are quite good, actually

When I was a trade magazine editor, one of the interesting (almost unique) situations I found myself in was knowing most of the competing suppliers in a particular field. When we did regular “market surveys” in the 1990s, I would often get to talk to every single company selling, say, blue widgets in this country, over the course of just a week or two. It was fascinating.

Some of the companies seemed to thrive by being really organised and smart. Others just had one or two individuals who were bright business people. Some companies were genuine experts with great products too. It’s always been this way – your competitors are usually quite different to you, but most do have something going for them.

However, my experience has been that nearly all of us in business have one thing in common: we underestimate the competition. It’s human nature. We focus on the weak parts of their offering, rather than learning from where they’re better than us.

Desperate stuff

I once worked for a company where I’d be forced along to a meeting every week to tell the sales team anything new I’d noticed about where the competitor’s product was worse than ours. This just seemed like desperate stuff. As someone responsible for the product, I would ask the sales team in return for information about how the competitor’s product was better than ours. They wouldn’t entertain the idea that this was even possible.

Anyone under 40 won’t be able to remember the time when it was actually quite hard to find out about your competitors. Now everyone lays out their heart and soul on the line – indeed, online – for all to see. You can assess the market through a few simple Google searches in exactly the same way as most of your customers do. What do you see? How does their presence on Google look better than yours? How does the first impression given by their website impress you? How good do you feel about their products or services by spending five minutes on their site? In terms of what’s on display to the world, how can you catch up and overtake those who are doing better than you?

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