05 November 2007

Why Being Nice to your Competitors is Good Business

One of the long standing business rules in my family is to be kind, friendly, and helpful to any colleague in your industry that is professional, charging a fair price, and treating clients well. This is a cross industry tenet that has helped my family to stay in business over the generations. I've heard arguments over the years about your competition being evil, and wanting to steal your business. In some cases that is true, and the best way to handle this problem is simply being polite and distant with these competitors. Here are the arguments for professional camaraderie.

Since most people shop around for the products they want, your competition will have a say in how you are perceived by your customers. If your competitors like you, it's hard for them to knock you down in the clients mind. They will sell based on what they can do, rather than what you aren't doing. When a customer asks them, "How does your service compare with X?" You want them replying, "She is fair to her customers and has a different style, niche, or look than I do." You do not want them saying, "I've bailed a lot of people out over the years that have used X service, you might pay a little more with me, but in the end you will be much happier staying with my business because of the service you will receive." The tone of your competition's sales pitch as regards to your business will be influenced by whether they like you and think you are serving your market well.

While some competitors will stay cold and distant, others are perfectly willing to have a professional relationship sharing techniques, tips, or tricks. As long as this is not one sided, (you have to share too) this can greatly benefit your industry over time. You will learn more, they will learn more, and you will get better, be able to serve your clients better, and you can raise your prices. If your local competition is not willing to have this kind of relationship get yourself plugged in with a professional association, industry magazines, or a mentor relationship outside your immediate market area. When I was first starting, I needed professional experience in a studio. I couldn't get it locally because no one wanted to train their competition, and I didn't blame them. I traveled to another city to take my internship and its one of the best moves I've ever made. I expanded my knowledge, learned the ropes, and came back and networked as a colleague with the same competitors that didn't want to train me. When I handled the relationship professionally, shared some things I had learned and participated in a local industry group, I became a friendly competitor; someone they were comfortable with, could refer to, and liked being around.

Did you know that your competitors can be one of your most valuable sources of referrals? If they have a problem, are booked and can't take a client, or get a client outside their niche, they are likely to give a professional referral. These referrals ALWAYS go to the professional in their area that they like and trust. If that person is you, your business will benefit and have a greater chance of surviving. In my area my niche is Adobe program consulting, concept art, commercial photography and family photography. I don't really like shooting weddings or small children. When I am asked by clients to do those things, I almost always give a referral saying, "You know I'm not really set up for small children/weddings but this photographer over here specializes in that niche, and you will be very happy if you become their client for that service." My client stays happy, I stay happy, and here's the awesome thing...I usually keep the client I referred in my niche area, because I am viewed as an honest competent professional for being able to make the recommendation. I have a very short list that I will refer to. Almost every one of those people has built a professional relationship with me over time. There are probably other people in my area that would work for a referral, but I don't know them, so they don't make my list.

Your friendly competition can help your business grow. Last year, a photographer in my area came to a professional gathering with some images she was considering for professional competition. After the critique of her work by her peers, she was scared to enter. I asked her if I could trade a few hours of studio time for computer lessons. I helped her with the skills she needed to retouch her images and stretched her to grow and enter the competition. At the end of the day she became one of the top ten photographers in my state. She has been able to market with that award for a year and her confidence has soared. I used the studio time I traded to create some images I needed for marketing in my business. Our businesses both grew from the professional relationship we have.

If you have a problem, do you have someone who will help you? My father is the person who taught me this friendly competition benefit. He's a home inspector. Last year his main competitor, who had trained him, helped him get involved with his professional association, and given him some great advice on how to start his second career, broke his leg in an accident.
He was told to go home and rest for 3 months in order to heal his leg properly. My father called him and said, "You've really helped me over the last few years, let me do inspections for your business on the days when I'm not booked out to help you keep some income coming in. You can keep the money for your family, and I'll get the experience of working with you for a few weeks." Dad improved his skill level, and his competitor kept his business. I asked my dad why he had helped his competitor stay in business when some people would have just let them go out of the industry and not have to deal with them. My father replied, "Every business has hurdles it has to jump, from equipment, to training, to crisis. Your competition is in the best position to help you. They know your industry, they are well trained, and they are often your best resource when you are dealing with a problem. My competition knows I helped him when he really needed it, and it just about ensures that he will stay friendly toward my business in this market. That's a good thing to have. I want good competitors in my field, it helps my business overall, because I have a better industry in which to be involved."

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