Stop the ‘Woe is me’

Every company, every institution, every anything always believes the competitor is smarter, better or stronger.

I don’t care if it is Microsoft or Wal-Mart, Intel or Chrysler, I guarantee you they are all borderline paranoid, thinking that even the most miniscule competitor is gaining on them in some form or fashion. In many respects, a small to moderate dose of paranoia is a good thing — it forces organizations to change, improve, grow, innovate and execute.

Don’t you think that the board of General Motors is convinced that “Ford has a better idea” or that the trustees of Harvard fear that even Podunk U might overtake it in some obscure ranking?

While watching every move of the competitor is good, and fear of failure isn’t bad, too many organizations spend too much time looking over their shoulders. Way too much energy is wasted on “What if?” If we did what they do, we would be where they are; if only we’d thought of that before they did, we would be No. 1.

Instead of devoting time and effort in this woulda, coulda, shoulda exercise in futility, pick your priorities and decide how you want to be positioned before your competitors do it for you. The way to beat the competition is to pick your battles and fight them at the time and place of your choosing — not theirs. We all grew up hearing our parents and teachers telling us to “pick on someone your own size.”

Bad idea. This concept implies a 50/50 chance of winning and, of course, losing. I am not big on fair fights — find your strength by taking advantage of the other guy’s weakness.

The smart approach is to figure out how a David can take on a Goliath and prevail. First, identify your competitors and learn everything there is to know about them. Read every word ever published, read their press releases and study their ads. Talk to their customers, employees, supporters and detractors.

When you are done, do it again, but this time, read and listen between the lines. Think about how your organization is different and what works and what doesn’t. The competition has many of the same issues you have. The difference is, they may have cracked the code for an effective workaround, turning a negative into a positive.

Also, don’t believe every word that is written. A company’s public relations and projected persona can be mighty weapons in diverting attention so competitors don’t focus on what is really happening behind the curtain. When you are done, you will more than likely discover one or more of their Achilles’ heels.

Figure out how you should stand out and how you can differentiate your products or services. Marketers call this positioning — I call it picking your spot. If the competitor claims to be able to custom-make its widget for a customer in 30 days, the “David” position could be to promote that its product is ready for immediate delivery because it is custom designed for Industry X.

You package the message that hits the target’s needs. If your larger nemesis promotes its 24/7 call center, promote that your company assigns to every client a personal service rep. In every situation, there is almost always more than one key positioning opportunity and possibility.

Once you have the answer, target your positioning statement where you will get the biggest bang for your buck. Small marketing budgets can go a long way toward producing big results when a laser rifle approach is employed.

If you are trying to reach left-handed, freckled-faced accountants, don’t spend big money buying a spot during the Super Bowl to reach tens of millions of people, most of whom don’t have an interest in what you are pitching. Instead, run your ad in the “Left-handed, Freckled-faced Accountants’ Almanac.”

Finally, be sure that everybody on your team is tuned in and turned on. Some of the biggest positioning failures occur because management didn’t send the message to the troops before the big idea was launched.

To succeed, an organization must deliver on the promise. Every person in the organization needs not only to hear the message from the top but also understand it and buy into it, and then live by it.

Plan your launch, pay attention to every detail and listen for the fat lady of success to sing, savoring the thought that the board of directors in Goliath’s ivory tower is no doubt telling its people that you are smarter, stronger and better than they will ever be.

Remember, many a battle can be won with a well-aimed slingshot.

Michael Feuer is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital “operating” firm. Reach him with comments at [email protected].

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