Managers often spend too much time looking at their businesses from the inside.  They focus on what they are doing rather than what their customers are doing.  They also miss important opportunities to understand what’s happening with other players in their industry.

In order to build sustainable competitive advantages, businesses need a solid grounding in how customers view their products and services in comparison with other choices.  I want you to hone your distinctive value and focus on your ideal customers.  This will make your business both profitable and personally satisfying.

Here are some real-time steps you can take to deepen your insights.

  • Mystery shop your competitors and your own business.

There’s no quicker way to find out what’s happening than to gather information as a customer or prospective customer.  Find out how you stack up with what other firms provide.

Recently, an executive team asked me to facilitate its strategic planning review.  The team particularly wanted to boost sagging sales.  In advance of the review, I went to several of its stores and asked the sales people about its products.  Strikingly, some of the stores didn’t even have standard literature about the latest products.  Others lacked knowledgeable sales people to present them effectively.  In contrast, a leading competitor had clear signage, catchy literature, and sales people who followed up with a consistent and compelling message.  No wonder my client had lost market share.

Now, you might expect that the executives in a billion-dollar division of a Fortune 100 company would be on top of what’s happening in their distribution network.  Unfortunately, they hadn’t taken the time to check things out themselves.  They relied on summary reports rather than first-hand information.

Whether you are in a large or small business, be sure that you are learning how your business looks from customers’ perspectives.  If you are too close to see it for yourself, get someone to mystery shop for you.  There are services that do mystery shopping or you can ask an employee or willing customer.

  • Mine trade shows and conferences.

Walk the aisles at trade shows, conferences, and presentations and listen in on sales pitches, check marketing approaches, and glean key insights.  Participants will answer questions and provide information at these events that you’d never get if you called them up.

Many firms stay fixed in their own exhibit booths.  They don’t get out to learn what others are doing and how prospective customers respond.

If people in your industry know you too well for you to do it yourself, ask someone to walk the conference for you.  A third party can visit the booths, ask questions at presentations, and gather key information.

Identify the next trade show or conference for your industry.  Specify the information that will be most valuable and assign people to uncover it.

  • Survey your competitors.

That’s right. Just call up and ask your questions.  Many customer service or marketing personnel will provide substantial information.  You can say that you are conducting a survey on your topic and want to get information from leading businesses in the field.

When I do a competitive analysis or advise my clients about doing it, I always encourage them to maintain the highest ethics.  We never misrepresent ourselves.  There’s no need to be disingenuous.  You can get the information that you need straightforwardly.

Remember that what you are trying to do with your research about other players in your industry is to sharpen your business’ focus.  If you’re doing your work effectively, you will have no competition.  That is, you will be providing something of distinctive value where your targeted customers perceive that there really isn’t another choice to fully satisfy their needs.


Photo Credit: Copyright: marchcattle / 123RF Stock Photo

About Don Maruska

As a founder and CEO of three Silicon Valley companies, venture investor, and recipient of the National Innovators Award, Don writes, speaks, and coaches from a broad base of experience » Learn More

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