American Society has developed an attitude based on its sports obsession – win at all costs. There are no accolades for playing fair or overachieving when standing up against insurmountable odds. If you lose, you’re a failure. How many people celebrate the loser of the Super Bowl? Do we even remember which team lost to Tampa Bay and Tom Brady in Super Bowl LV? Yet only 2 teams make it to the Super Bowl. Isn’t participating in the Super Bowl an accomplishment worthy of recognition?
Unfortunately, this win at all costs attitude permeates the business world too. We focus on our competition, expending significant resources on trying to beat them. After all, they’re the enemy. Sometimes this fervor even results in demonizing our competitors. But the question arises, does this competitive hyper-focus actually improve company performance? Does it help the company’s customers? I propose this mania about outdoing the competition is a suboptimal business strategy.
The downside to focusing on the competition
There are several reasons why focusing too much on the competition sub-optimizes business results:
- The customer, not your competition, is the major determinant for sales and profitability, which are of course are the ultimate measures of any company’s success. The competition does not pay for your products; your customers do. So, by focusing on the competition, you are distracting yourself from the “main thing,” – providing customer value. Customers don’t buy a company. They buy an important benefit that results from a company’s product. So, it stands to reason that the best approach for winning the customer purchase is to ensure that the product provides the benefits that best meet their needs.
- Focusing too heavily on the competition potentially leads a company down a false path. Where’s the certainty that improving upon a competitive feature will actually improve the company’s standing with its customer? That assumes that the competition correctly identified that feature as an important customer need. If they were wrong, then your company just wasted time and resources to copycat a feature that customers don’t desire. How does that generate success?
- It assumes that the competition has based their product benefits on valid customer research. What if their research was inadequately performed or hampered by internal biases? What if they never performed customer research in the first place? You’d be surprised how often companies, even successful ones, launch products with little to no customer research. For this reason, it doesn’t make sense to improve upon competitive features unless you know that your competition fully understands the customer.
- It’s likely that features and benefits, especially those that are heavily promoted by the competition, are leveraging their strengths or unique capabilities. These are inherently more difficult features for your company to overcome. Wouldn’t it make more sense to base your product benefits on your company’s strengths (assuming the resulting features address key customer needs).
I’m sure you’re thinking right now, “I can’t ignore my competition’s products!” You’re right. It’s all a matter of degree. I believe there is significant value in analyzing both competitive products and their marketing collateral to see how their product benefits are positioned. This is valuable for the dance that exists between your company’s and your competitor’s sales message. The point is not to ignore the competition. Rather make it secondary to a customer focus.
Focusing heavily on the competition is old school
Targeting the competition over the customer is “old school” marketing. It assumes that the primary source of product validation today is through the company sales team and the marketing collateral they distribute. But that is not the way most customers make purchases today. Research shows that customers have already made 70% of their purchase decision before seeking information from the company that manufactures the product. That’s before they search your company website; before they engage with your sales team and before they review your marketing collateral. And before they do any of this with competitors.
Today’s customer searches the Internet for objective information about products that will solve their problem. They rely on third party validation; from experts, influencers, from their peers who experienced the product. Customers believe these sources bring an unbiased view of the product, whereas the manufacturer’s information is prejudiced marketing hype. So, if customers are relying on sources other than your competition to validate potential purchases, why place such a high emphasis on beating the competition?
How to avoid mis-steps
A better way to ensure business success is to focus on your customer. This involves executing customer discovery research. Find out what you customers are currently doing to solve the problem your product addresses. What needs are unserved or underserved? How successful are they at achieving their goals? What benefits do they value? What tasks do they perform? How can their operations be improved? Do they feel there are ways that could enhance their effectiveness?
From this preliminary investigation you can develop solutions that can be tested with the customer. Chances are you’ll need to iterate. But when your customer discovery research results in an enthusiastic prospect, you’ll know you’ve got a winner.
A number of times, when my clients have conducted this customer discovery research, they uncover customer needs that no other company has identified. If this need is satisfied, it can translate into the golden egg for commercial success. On other occasions, customer research has uncovered a need that, because of the company’s unique strengths and capabilities, can only be addressed by that company. The benefits created in these circumstances are easily leveraged into higher market share and profitability. Not because they are better than the competition, but because they better address the customer’s requirements.
Finally, approach customer discovery with a clean slate. Relying on pre-conceived notions biases your customer observation and customer discovery results. This results in poor product market fit.
Don’t treat your business like it’s a sporting event, where beating the competition is the ultimate goal. Focus on being the best at addressing your customer’s needs.