Cocksure and arrogant

Staying the course by working quietly and steadily with our customers was the best course of action compared to our competitor’s cocky approach.

Man in fur coat smoking a cigar

Through the years we have intersected with a large number of competitors, both direct and indirect. Many of the interactions were at a discrete distance with our competing messages put out into the market in a variety of impersonal formats – websites, press releases, brochures and other promotional materials, etc. Other encounters were much more personal – at trade shows and in competitive sales situations where all parties could directly observe and monitor what others were saying and doing. For some team members, competitors made their blood boil. For others, competition was just part of the game, someone against whom a comparison could be made to help a prospect make a choice. But one thing was always true, competitors never engendered indifference.

Loud and brash competitor

The CEO at one competitor in particular was an interesting person to study and try to understand. His company entered the market in which we were the leader (by revenue and market share) and had a well-established product. The new competitor’s entry was loud and brash with claims that only he and his company understood what people needed to solve a particular problem, and they would now provide it. The company made a big to-do about what it offered to specific target users with ads and a wide range of promotional materials. While all of this was going on, we stayed quietly on the sidelines, neither disputing the other’s claims nor responding in any way, totally defying what many expected us to do.

This passive reaction further emboldened the competitor. Its claims became louder and more strident. The company spent a great deal of money getting the message out to the market. Big trade show booths were the norm, and its ads appeared everywhere. Staff were added at a significant rate.

Quietly doing our own thing

While the competitor was literally blowing its brains out spending money on the target market, we were quietly doing our own thing in an entirely different market segment. We had looked at the same market that the competitor was targeting and had concluded that although it looked large and promising, it was not ready to adopt our type of product at this time. And perhaps, more to the point, the product that we had (and that the competitor was offering) was best suited to another market segment – the one that we had been quietly addressing in a very low-key, determined way for several years.

Some on our team thought that we should take the competitor on directly and refute its pompous and sometimes outrageous claims. Others thought that we should spend some money in the same market segment making sure that our product attributes were better understood. But most of us were content to go quietly but resolutely about our business, working with our preferred target customers to become solidly entrenched.

Careful efforts rewarded

It was a great learning experience for all of us. We saw our careful efforts rewarded by our customers’ steady faith in the value of our products by continuing strong orders. Our actions matched our words, and we consistently delivered on our promises. We stayed the course, on task and on message, when it was tempting to engage with a vocal competitor. Deep knowledge of prospects’ needs and uses revealed market opportunities that to others remained unappealing. We gained confidence as a company and a team taking on global markets. We learned to listen to objections in the selling process, take them to heart and address them with confidence and hard work.

Our competitor ended up being a source of inspiration for what not to do. We had a chance to see his and his company’s behavior over a sustained period of time and measure it against the results that it produced. We also were able to measure his actions against our own and conclude on the value and appropriateness of both courses of action.

We learned a lot about patience and restraint and being calm when it was tempting to lash out and defend. We grew in confidence and delivered results that were clearly superior to not just this one competitor but all who followed his company’s loud pronouncements and visible strategies. It turns out that our humble, hardworking approach was up to the task.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.