Learn from Your Competition

“It’s competition that forces companies to get out of their complacency.”

—John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods

Companies that rest on their laurels are often doomed to fail. Just take a look at the many cautionary tales that have emerged over the past decade alone about once-mighty companies that have fallen because they couldn’t adapt to changing markets—and new competition.

For example, remember Blockbuster? After achieving industry dominance by 2004, it was slow to enter the burgeoning online market and declined so rapidly that it declared bankruptcy in 2010. On the other hand, Netflix leveraged the rise of e-commerce when developing its own business model in 1997. By observing its main competitor, Netflix learned valuable lessons that prepared it to adapt to new technologies and changing consumer expectations when mail-order DVD rentals declined in popularity a decade later.

Never underestimate the value of studying the competition. Watching what works (and what doesn’t work) and then forging its own unique path can help a company stay ahead, win more market share, and (eventually) outlast its competition. This strategy works for companies of all sizes and in all industries—and it can work for yours, too!

Become a secret shopper

Study what your competitors do and how they do it. Whether their customer interactions take place primarily in brick-and-mortar locations or are completely online, pay each of your competitors a visit and reflect on your first impressions. How did you feel when you walked through a competitor’s doors or logged onto its website? If you’re able to go through the experience of buying from your competitors, what did you like (and not like) about the purchasing process? What did you think of the pricing? What factors shaped your positive and negative feelings about that company as you interacted with it?

Leverage Google alerts

In addition to learning about your competitors’ day-to-day practices, find out what you can about their out-of-the-ordinary behavior as well. (Google Alerts is an excellent tool for this!) For example, if you hear that a competitor is expanding into a market that you previously thought would not be fruitful, does that mean its management knows something you don’t? (And if so, you need to find out what that is!) If a competitor just received a large influx of VC funding, try to find out what it plans to do with that money—and how those plans might affect your business.

Conduct a SWOT analysis

When a company wants to develop a strategic plan, one of the first things it usually does is examine its strengths and weaknesses as well as any opportunities or threats it faces. A so-called SWOT analysis can yield valuable information. So why limit its use to self-study? Doing this research on other companies might produce comparative data that can help your organization pinpoint areas in which it can push ahead of its competitors.

Don’t just copy—adapt!

Whether you and your competitors are competing head to head with the same product or service or are striving for the same budget share (for example, in the HR or marketing budget), it is imperative to learn everything you can about them. Simply copying what they do, though, will just leave you perpetually one step behind. Instead, take a good hard look at the data you gather and figure out how to make it work for you. If you pay attention to what others in your field are doing, you may spot opportunities for your company to grow, innovate, and achieve its goals.

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