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Grace Under Fire

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2006

How we treat the people in our interpersonal business relationships unquestionably affects our success. We're more apt to succeed if we hug our customers, care about our employees and respect and appreciate our vendors. But how should we handle competitors?

Business wasn't even a passing thought of Sun Tzu when he wrote The Art of War 2,500 years ago. Yet while his 13-chapter military treatise has had major influence on generals and chiefs of state, it has also spawned business adaptations. And these adaptations have followers who equate business with war, in some cases putting more emphasis on beating the competition than on achieving what should be their real goals. The risk in drawing the analogy between battlefield strategies and competing in business is that the goals are different, or at least I think they should be.

In war the essential goal is to destroy the enemy, and so the focus must be on the opposition. The objective of most businesses, however, is to grow revenues, and ultimately profits, by consistently producing the best products or services to fulfill customers' needs, and then by marketing them as effectively as possible. Achieving increased market share-the revenue goal of many companies-inherently has to be at the expense of competitors. But because one company wins and another loses doesn't mean the focus should be on the rival company. Knowing as much as possible about the competition is vital, but the real focus ought to be on those who have the most influence on revenues: customers. Knowledge of customers and their needs can translate to making the right decisions needed to grow revenues.

Those who are obsessed with the competition often display their fixation when talking to customers. Badmouthing is hardly ever well received. In fact, it usually works against the maligner. Buyers have often told me that they'd never buy from a person or company that engages in negative selling and have no respect for those who practice it. They want to hear from a salesperson about his or her own products or services, not a biased opinion of their competition. I once heard from a client about a salesperson who spent the entire meeting trashing a competitor, and when the meeting was over the client hadn't learned anything about that salesperson's product. The only impression left was a totally negative one.

Printhead.net, a news content provider for the printing industry, provides this assessment of negative selling: "Attacking the competition is a dangerous tactic that can backfire in two ways. First, it can reduce your credibility. Second, it focuses the conversation on the competitor's solution rather than on your own. Talking about the competition opens up areas you can't control. Furthermore, the more you talk, the more you run the risk of building the competitor's importance in the mind of the customer."

So how should we treat competitors? Respectfully, while keeping a close eye on what they're doing. It's about having class and grace and taking the high road, while winning what is truly important to our business.

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