Study your competition if you want to win the game

If you were the coach of a football team, one of the things you would spend a lot of time doing is studying your opponents. You would watch tapes of their games over and over again to learn more about their strengths and weaknesses. Then you’d use this information to develop strategies that would make you better than your opponents so you could win the next time you met on the field.

A business is much like a football team and if you own a business one of your goals is to try to beat your competitors every time you face them. This reality can seem harsh because you may actually like your competitors on a personal level. But when there’s a limited “pie” of people or companies to sell to or service, you want a hefty piece of that pie and want to beat the competition.

Like a football coach, if you want to win, you need to learn as much as possible about your competitors so that you understand what you’re up against. You need to know where your competitors are strong and weak, and develop the necessary strategies to win.

Let’s say you have a competitor called “ABC.” What are some ways you could gather more information about that company?

First, a caveat. Do not damage relationships and your reputation by doing anything unethical. We don’t believe it’s okay to dumpster-dive or place a bogus call for a quote that can cost ABC several hours to prepare. Treat your competitors with respect and conduct your investigation ethically, honestly and legally. That said, there are many ways to learn more about ABC.

Start by studying ABC’s website to learn what they say about themselves, and the types of products or services they sell. Read any testimonials from customers. You may even be able to see a customer list and how their products are priced. If ABC is a franchise or part of a national chain, also check out the parent company’s website. It may reveal additional information that isn’t included on ABC’s site.

Do a web search using a couple of different search engines to see what comes up about ABC, and their parent company, if applicable. You may find some revealing information, especially if they’ve had complaints. Check the local Better Business Bureau’s website to see if anyone has posted a comment about ABC and to see how they’re rated. Also look for reviews on Yelp.com or AngiesList.com. If ABC does government work, you may be able to find information on the Internet since some data regarding government contracts is public.

If ABC has a booth at a tradeshow, pick up one of their brochures and pay attention to how they set up the booth and interact with people. If they send out an e-newsletter, subscribe to it. When they send you direct mail or you come across one of their coupons, study it. Understanding how ABC markets might help you strategize ways to better compete against them.

If financially practical, order one of ABC’s products. You can get a wealth of information simply by buying something from your competitor. Pay attention to the ease of their ordering process, how they confirm orders or follow up, how the product is shipped or delivered, what it contains, and its condition upon arrival. Also take note of any instructions they include for returns or support. This information will give you a better idea of what they sell, its quality, and their level of customer service.

Consider taking your vendors to lunch or accepting their lunch invitations, especially if you suspect they also sell to ABC. They’d probably welcome a chance to try to sell you more and might offer information about whether ABC is easy to work with or the types of things it’s buying.

If one of ABC’s customers is willing to talk to you, take the opportunity to learn more even if you may not have a chance of getting their business. Ask what they do or don’t like about ABC’s product or service, and what ABC could do better.

The expression “knowledge is power” very aptly applies to learning as much as you can about your competition. You may not be able to watch a video of your opponents but you can take steps to study and better understand them. It may just give you the edge you need to win more games.

Laddie and Judy Blaskowski are partners in several businesses, including BusinessTruths Consulting. They are authors of The Step Dynamic: A Powerful Strategy for Successfully Growing Your Business. Judy@BusinessTruths.com.