Be Careful When Discussing Your Competition

Posted on September 19, 2012
Filed Under Business |

Some people think the way to grow a business is to badmouth the competition. That is what I thought 10 years ago when I started my first company. I would talk to customers who might ask about our competition, or ask if there were other options, and I would rant about all the problems of our competitors. And yet, we still lost business to them.

One day, as I was in the middle of my rant, a guy told me “I don’t think that’s true, I kind of liked them.” That guy became a customer of my competition. And that was the day I changed my tone. From then on, anytime someone asked about a competitor, I would say “they are great and I am sure you would be happy there, but here is how we are different.” I would focus, not on their deficiencies, but on the things we offered over and above them. Over time, it worked. Our sales ticked up and we grew significantly bigger than the closest competitor. Not only that, but some people who chose our competition actually referred people to us because we were “nice guys” and they thought we might be a better fit for that customer.

I was reminded of this last week when I went to a talk at MIT by George Lakoff. His talk was about framing in political campaigns and how it affects the neurological structures of perception in your brain. If you have studied brain science, you have heard the term “fire together wire together,” which basically means activating neurons together strengthens the connections between them, and increases the likelihood that they fire together again. So Lakoff’s suggestion was that when you argue about politics, never use the phrases and terms that your opponent uses, because all you do is activate those neurons in the audience, and those neurons then trigger other neurons that they were previously associated with. In other words, you actually strengthen the neurological bonds of your opponent’s ideas in most minds, the exact opposite of what you are trying to do.

This has big lessons for startups. Some people think the way to build a startup is to have an enemy to rally against, but your real enemy in a startup is non-consumption. It’s apathy. It’s the status quo. At Backupify, we never mention our competitors unless someone else brings it up. Why? Because mentioning them doesn’t strengthen our case, it just drives people to go check them out. We often ask users who have switched from competitors to us not to mention that if they review our product (although some occasionally do). In some cases, we even send customers to one of our competitors who we think may be a better fit, if the customer is not in our target customer profile.

So if you think about how to respond to your competition, particularly if everyone in the space is still a startup, here is my advice:

  • 1. Never mention them unless the customer brings them up. All you do is send them business.
  • 2. If you do mention them, just say “they have a good product, you should check them out, but here is how we are different.”
  • 3. Don’t be afraid to send business directly to your competition in some cases. In a social world, people may still send business your way even if they didn’t choose you as the right solution for their needs.
  • No one likes to be around a negative person, and if your competitors want to build a negative brand that is all about how bad you are, don’t stoop to their level. Customers will see through it, and the negativity will just send more business your way.

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