Watford Gap Service Station on the M1 is the only place where I have encountered real competition for a lift. Hitchhiking north from London one sunny Sunday afternoon, I was dropped off at the services only to find myself staring at a long queue of hitchhikers all desperate to travel my way. Buggar!
Fortunately, I formed a quick plan to get around the problem. This idea was based entirely on knowing how my fellow travellers and drivers behaved. I just had to be different in order to get moving again.
And it’s the same in business. If you want to stand out from the crowd and achieve business competitive advantage you have to know your competitors and be different. Do this and you are much more likely to be found by customers.
Through observation, primary/secondary research or mystery shopping, you need to know your business competitors and what they are doing in order to achieve business competitive advantage. You need to know prices, how they promote themselves, what makes their product/service special and more. You then can use this information alongside market research to make informed decisions and thus position your product/service so that it has the greatest chance of being sold. The Stalker’s Guide to Competitive Research available on the Blueglass Blog offers practical ideas on this subject.
But for many businesses, achieving business competitive advantage is not necessarily as straightforward as observing the Watford Gap queue. Take Tourism attractions for example; it’s not just other attractions they need to monitor. Tourism attractions are competing for peoples’ time and as such there is much indirect competitor activity to consider. For more helpful theory see Michael Porter’s Five forces of Competitive Position Model or use the library of websites and articles collected by Cayenne Consulting which are all designed to help startups complete competitor research.
If you don’t think deeply enough about your competitive position, you risk living with a false sense of security. People who believe they don’t have any competitors because their ‘product/service is unique’ are only kidding themselves and risk a painful fall much later.
When I first saw the Watford Gap queue my heart sank because the reality of my situation was stark. Yet these moments are defining. Starting and running a business is akin to walking into a meteorite storm – but you can’t just give up because you don’t like what’s being thrown at you. Invariably, the solution to the problem being faced is closer than you think. You just have to assess how you will go about achieving business competitive advantage, think differently and if necessary be brave.
From all my market and competitor research I knew hitchhiker queues were uncommon. I also knew that if a vehicle was going to pull over, the driver wanted time to judge the hiker and the relative safety of the situation. As a consequence, I reasoned that the best place to stand to get a lift was at the back of the queue, plus about 10 metres. Get on the edge and stand out from the crowd*.
Apologies if you were in that queue back in 1986; I was picked up within 5 minutes. Two guys in a car with canoes on the roof-rack screeched to a halt and shouted at me to get in quickly. They read the situation too. Looking in his mirror the driver could see several other peeved hitchhikers making for his car. But within 30 seconds we were gone. Thanks to some basic analysis and preparedness to be different I was able to work what at first seemed a highly competitive situation to my advantage.
And that’s my last point in this post. So many businesses in every industry conform to unwritten rules and thus behave just like their competitors. As a result they camouflage themselves and make it difficult for potential customers to make an informed choice. It’s only when a new player comes along, behaves differently (e.g. Innocent Drinks) and takes a chunk of the market that they sit up and take note – and sometimes that’s too late.
Key Learning Points: No product or service is unique and to achieve business competitive advantage you must know who you are up against. Innovate and be different so that potential customers not only know where to find you but also beat a path to your door.
*Not sure who first said this, but I heard the cricket commentator Phil Tuffnell quote it on the radio. It’s very true. “If you’re not on the edge, you’re taking up space.”