“I’m concerned about what my competition may be doing. I know I should be aware of what they’re doing, but I’m not sure how I can find that out.”
This is an issue that’s growing in importance. Our industry is heating up and becoming more competitive. All around us things are changing at an ever-increasing rate. That means that it’s more important than ever for you to be aware of what your competitors are doing so that you don’t get blindsided or seriously outmaneuvered.
That happened to me. To this day, I still get a sick feeling in my stomach as I remember the day when I lost my largest account to my arch competitor. It was an account that made up 20% of my total volume. In my blissful ignorance, I was content to grow my business by calling on the end users and purchasing department, while my competition was successfully building a relationship with the administration. The result? My best account signed a prime vendor, sole-source agreement with my competitor, and within 60 days, I was almost totally out of that account. I was blindsided.
That’s a lesson that sticks with me and one from which you can learn. To become good at knowing what your competition is up to, begin by thinking of yourself a little differently. If you’ve read my book, “How To Excel at Distributor Sales”, you know that I believe that sales people must see themselves as “managers of information” as well as “sellers of stuff.” To be effective in the Information Age economy, you must become adept at collecting, storing and using good information. The knowledge of what your competition is doing is one such piece of information.
Begin by consciously collecting little bits and pieces of information at every opportunity. For example, you may have lost a bid or a particular piece of business to your competitors. Rather than just moping about it, use it as a learning opportunity. Try to find out from your customer why they awarded the business the way they did. If it was price alone, try to find out how much lower was their price. If it’s something else, find out what. That information won’t help for that particular piece of business, but it may give you an insight into the pricing policies of your competition. Write the information down on a 3 X 5 card, or piece of scrap paper.
Take your good customers to lunch, and casually see if you can steer the conversation in such a way as to learn something about your competition.
Keep your eyes open to the coming and going of competitive salesmen. Note when you see them, and in what account.
Subtly probe the manufacturer reps with whom you work. See if they can give you some insight into the strategies and tactics they’ve seen. Be sensitive and aware of competitive literature, business cards and price quotes lying around. And don’t forget to talk with the other sales people who work for your company to get their insights.
All these are ways to collect bits and pieces of information. By themselves, they won’t help much. But, if you combine these bits and pieces, you may very well see trends, uncover strategies, and discover tactics your competition is using. As you collect each bit of information, capture it by writing it down, and putting the note in a manila folder marked “competition.” If you’re automated, type the information into your computer, and store it in either a Word or database file.
A manager of information
Regardless, what you’re doing is assembling a quantity of information. Diligently collect those bits and piece of information, and file them away. After you collected a quantity of these, you’ll be able to open that file on a regular basis, consider all the pieces of information, and discover a great deal about your competitors.
The trick is to consistently collect and store information. Eventually, you’ll assemble an accurate picture. It’s like the popular game show “Wheel of Fortune.” When Vanna White turns over one letter, it doesn’t give you much of a picture of the total answer. But after she’s turned over several of these small individual pieces, the whole becomes clear, and the answer to the riddle is simple to understand. That’s the way collecting information about your competition works.
The back of an old business card on which you noted that you saw a competitive sales person showing a new carbide line, by itself, doesn’t mean much. But if you filed that along with all the bits and pieces of information you’ve collected, and then pulled it all out and analyzed it, you might see an entirely different situation. Suppose you reviewed that business card note, and combined it with the note you made to yourself that you saw some sales literature on the competitive carbide line on the desk of one of your purchasing agents, and then saw that you lost a major bid to the competition because he quoted a new line at lower than traditional prices. All at once you’ve uncovered a potential threat to your business. Clearly, your competitor is pushing a new, lower price carbide line. You didn’t learn that from any one piece of information, but rather from the combination of all those pieces, considered as a whole.
The key to uncovering that information, to discovering what your competition is up to, is to consistently collect pieces of information, store them, and then analyze them as a whole from time to time.
Some of the best companies I deal with do that and take it to one layer deeper. They meet from time to time in sales meetings and share the information each individual sales person has collected. The sum of all the information collected by the entire sales force is bigger and greater than that of any one person. So, the composite information, collected by the entire sales force and assembled and analyzed by the sales manager, gives the company an insightful picture of the competition.
Keep in mind, as a sales person in the Information Age, you’re a dealer in information as well as a seller of stuff. Seriously address the process of systematically collecting, storing, and analyzing information, and you’ll gain incredible insights into your competition.