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8 ways to gain a competitive advantage

Are you in danger of becoming a “me too” with no real competitive advantage?

It is true that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to create a business that has key point of difference. Something that gives you a competitive advantage over the competition. There are a number of reasons for this. High quality and great service are becoming commodities and in many ways just expected. Copying ideas and technologies can now happen almost overnight! Customers are becoming bored with hyped up messaging and choose their own media diet. So can we still achieve a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace as a small business?

We can but we have to think faster, act sooner and compete in new ways.

You know when the universe just keeps repeating the same messages about something. This is what happened to me this week while on holiday. For some reason I started thinking a lot about branding and why it seems to have cascaded down from the big brands to now this personal branding of small businesses. I think I have worked out the reason why.

There have traditionally been only a few ways that businesses have chosen to differentiate their offering to the marketplace. These are: operational excellence (or as I like to say great processes),  product leadership (cutting edge products) and customer intimacy (customer driven business). Businesses have somewhat lost the opportunities in these sectors. I think the clear winners of businesses, no matter what their size, is to find a new definition around innovation of customer value and use new ways of communicating this value to their key customer segments and spend more time LISTENING.

1.Collaboration: Whether we like it or not customers are in the box seat

They have so much choice. They choose to visit your website, view your ad or open your email and they can click delete or change the channel in an nano second! As a small business, we are uniquely placed to collaborate with our customers. We can do this using social media tools like Facebook and forums, blogs and tweets. We can also just engage with them more.  I think you can go further than this to collaborate with your customers. Innovations are best when they come from the customers because they are telling you (in many cases) a better way to do something! Invite customers to be part of your planning. Better still give them lots and lots of chances to provide collaborations.  Creating a collaborative culture in your small business with your employees contributing freely and being invited to do so can really help too! Companies like Threadless.com , GoGet Car and Ted have built their entire business model out of collaboration. How can you collaborate with your customers today?

2.Understanding and insight: When was the last time you asked your customers for their opinion?

When did you engage in a conversation with your supplier about how you could work together better? This could be as simple as a phone call or online survey. If done with sensitivity to their needs and not in an annoying 5 page survey it can be something that provides great insight for your small business to change something that was loosing you business or create something that will give you a competitive edge. Listening to customers is one of the strategies that will give you a competitive edge. I often tell of the time when I was working with Peter Mason from Ducon a construction company and we put up a customer and employee whiteboard in the middle of the office to encourage feedback between onsite and in-office teams about happy and sad customers. These small insights can make a world of difference.

3.Sharing your story: Stand for something and make it count!

So many companies still just don’t get it! People buy of those they know, like and trust. How can they get to know you if all you have on your website is the same old company spiel? Spill your inner personal stuff. How and why you do what you do? What makes you tick? Your personality? Your Story. What gets you out of bed in the morning. What are the personalities like in your business? What you will be like to work with? What values you hold dear. Where are you going as a business? What is your vision and where I the customer fit? Your  potential customers are making decisions about whether to contact you every day. Give them the whole story so they can make a decision based on what and who you really are. I love the companies that give me more of themselves. Freshbooks is my fav at the moment. Remember, you don’t have to try and make your story inspiring it just has to be real! Best tip read Tell to Win by Peter Guber which tells the importance of storytelling in business.

4.Fun and Easy: How likable are you anyway?

I used to think it was what I delivered that was most important. They I could create a great marketing plan that would produce the results for the desired project. Don’t get me wrong my skill as a marketer  is important but is only one aspect. They journey, the process and the prospect of working together has got to be enjoyable for me and the client. Marketing is not a one off activity, but an integral part of the business model. However,  even if you are a dentist that only sees your customer once a year for a check-up, that encounter will be remembered more for how it made you feel in the chair, than the work that was done.  Who cringes when they have to go see their accountant? Wouldn’t it be good if they made the whole experience more fun. Injected some whiteboards, smarties and had a sense of humour! I believe all services have an opportunity to create a customer experience that is enjoyable and in my case I want it to be fun because marketing really is fun.

6.Customer Centric: Step in their shoes every day

One of the most fundamental changes I ever made was to step out the customer touch points in my business and consciously think about them consciously. This awareness of how they feel at each stage of my process made me change how I do things. For a start no more 40 page marketing plans. Everything that I do, I ask myself ” how would I feel about that?” Being customer centric rather than product or service centric as a small business critical. We are best placed to do it but it does take a mind shift. You need to view the world differently. It takes practice. Look at your website, shopfront, business card, flyers, staff and services from your customers view point. Now should you change something? The answer is always yes.

7.Fail quickly but create a ideas based culture

Ready Aim Fire. What a bore. Fire, Fire, Fire. What are you doing? Ready, Fire, Aim. Okay I prefer this because I believe it is in the doing that we learn. I also encourage my team to do the same. No one will ever get fired for trying something new. It is how we learn. If you can create a culture where you and your team are prepared to try ideas and experiment you are likely to hit a few crackers! I am always trying new things. I guess it is just part of my nature. Little Bets is a book based on this idea of trying and testing little ideas and do it quickly so you can quickly get closer to a winning idea. Love the concept and screams innovation.

8.Love your Employees – would you want to work for you?

Employees are the soul of your small business. I say soul because your customers can feel instantly if they have walked into a great or poor environment. You can’t fake it. If your employees are happy you are half way their to creating a great brand. This buzz and mood is so important to you standing out from every other business. What does it feel like? How can you improve it? Simple ideas are often the best. Bean bags and a an ipad in the coffee room, a punching bag, some nice flowers planted in the garden outside your office. You have to take responsibility for setting the tone and then allow your employees to add their own flavor to it.

These eight principles are the way I run my businesses. They are simple and yet very effective is setting me apart from other marketers. How can you take these strategies and improve your competitive advantage today? I would love to know. Drop me a line.

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Danielle MacInnis

Danielle MacInnis

Danielle is the business owner and founder of MacInnis Marketing, BrainJam, BeautyBizMarketing and The Simple Marketing System. A highly sought after strategic marketer, Danielle thinks like a customer. Since young she has shown deep empathy for others and uses this customer insight to help small businesses create practical marketing strategies that work.

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