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Identifying What Makes Your Competition Different: The 3rd Step to Mastering the Lost Art of Differentiation

Mark Twain's quote

Part 3 of 6.5

Author’s note: IndustRetail blog is exploring the Six-and-a-half Steps to Mastering the Lost Art of Differentiation. The first article examined the first step—identifying your key targets. The second article looked at what makes you different. This is the third article in the series.

It’s possibly the simplest, most straightforward step in the process of differentiating your business. But it’s the step most businesses tend to make the most difficult. I’m not sure why, but this seems to apply doubly to MRO businesses.

And I don’t think it’s laziness. It might be false security, accepting conventional wisdom as actual wisdom. Perhaps the process is simply too intimidating for some of us. Maybe we’re afraid of the answers we’ll find when we explore what makes our competitors different and better? There’s a perverse comfort some find when their heads are buried in the sand. (Or maybe somewhere else?)

And your competitors thank you for it every day your head remains firmly entrenched there.

But now’s the time, if you haven’t already, to pull your head out. Dust the sand from your eyes and see the landscape for what it is. Your competitors are worthy. They’re good—really good.

But they’re far from perfect—and you have the ability to discern critical points of differentiation and exploit them to your benefit. It’s not too late.

Or, worse yet, they may be an absolute train wreck and you’ve been losing out on incredible opportunities to steal business and win market share because you didn’t have the discipline to pursue the answers you needed to pursue. Again, it’s not too late.

Regardless of your situation, the good news is, unless they’re a national player, your competition probably hasn’t gone through this exercise either. (And, if they’re a national player, you have a LOT to position against!)

Before you start this process, it begs the question, who is your key competition? You probably have tons of competitors. But think of it this way; if I gave you a magic wand and you could make substantial inroads against just two or three other companies (or to prevent just two or three of them from making inroads on your business), which ones would you chose?

Start there.

What is it about them that keeps you up at night? What do they do well that causes them to win business head-to-head against you?

Conversely, what is it about them that causes you to salivate when you learn they’re your key competition on a big piece of business? What do they do poorly that causes them to lose business head-to-head against you?

Having the courage to ask these questions honestly is paramount. Without a candid self-understanding and an unbiased view of your key competition, you cannot effectively differentiate your business. Rather than working from conjecture, rumor, conventional wisdom and just plain wishing it were so, work from facts. Here’s how to get them.

Clip and save this quick list of competitive research techniques and use them regularly to gain an increasingly more robust understanding of your key competitors:

  • Read their website: Yes—they may be serving up much of what you’re looking for on their website. If they know why they are good, they should be telling that story. (As should you. Don’t avoid sharing your value proposition online because you think you’re aiding and abetting your competition. If your value proposition is unique and meaningful, it should also be difficult to replicate.)
  • Social Media: Same thing goes for competitive social media. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Make a regular point of reading their posts.
  • Google Alerts: Register your competitors for Google Alerts to get updated on new search results. It may be the perfect tip off for a new product, new hire, new location, etc.
  • Online Reviews: Look at Google, Yelp, Facebook, Glassdoor and others. Online customer reviews can be golden.
  • Sales Literature: Ask your sales team to gather competitive sales literature. You may even want to put bounties out on it to give them the incentive to keep an eye out.
  • Ask Your Customers: Talk to your customers who have dealt with your competitors. Ask them about their experience. Better yet, ask them to compare their experiences.
  • Ask Your Sales Team: They have a pulse on the customer—and they’re dying to tell you what they’re hearing. Just ask them.
  • Perform Win/Loss Audits: When you win or lose business, spend some time with the customer learning the reasons why. Ask them for candid feedback.
  • Do Formal Surveys: Use online tools like SurveyMonkey to gather feedback.
  • Hire Professionals: The art of gathering unbiased feedback is tricky and complicated. If you’re truly committed to differentiating your business and see big financial rewards associated with it, make this investment. Hire professionals who understand how to gather actionable information the right way. This is an exceedingly small cost compared to the eventual reward.
  • 3rd Party Resources: Buy company reports from D&B Hoovers or a similar service.

Once you’ve gathered this data, it’s time to analyze the differences between you and the competition—and time to identify your unique strengths and prepare to exploit them!

But that’s our next blog post.

Until then, be undaunted. Be fearless in asking questions about yourselves and your competitors. Pull your heads out…of the sand. Look in the mirror, then at the horizon.

It’s the easiest hard thing you’ll ever do. And vice versa. Either way, it will be worth it.



Tim Rasmussen

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