Don’t Fail Like This

Calling out your competitor in a social media post will almost always backfire. Don’t try it. You can’t pull it off. Trust me. More importantly, don’t accuse them of being an unfair competitor by pointing out that they use a perfectly normal and intelligent marketing technique. You have better things to do with your time. Rant to follow…

I wish this was the first time this subject has come up, but alas – it isn’t. A frustrated business owner has posted on a popular social media site that some of his competitors were being unfair because they used his generically named website in their Google Adwords criteria. I don’t want to embarrass anyone, so let me frame this in a way I hope we can all understand. Many years ago it was clever to choose a web domain that would automatically come up in a Google search. For instance, mytoiletisclogged.com is actually owned by someone who is probably hoping that 1999 comes back and someone buys the domain from them. Imagine if this was the name of my plumbing company’s website. Should I be concerned that a competing plumber bought that as a search criteria in their Google Ad Words campaign? Given that Google searches are regionalized (and also altered by your personal search history), why wouldn’t a company that buys ad words purchase your name as one of their criteria? Hey, you should buy your name too. But, that is not the real problem – only a symptom.

first-world-problemsThe Interwebs is the wild, wild west and I hope it stays that way. It is Free Enterprise at its finest and if we can protect net neutrality, will remain so. What I am concerned about today is 1. Folks that still don’t get how the web works, and 2. Business owners that are so focused on the competition that they neglect to fix their failing businesses. Take for example the business owner that once called me because his generically named company (let’s call it “Home Plumbing Inc”) was struggling with commoditized competition. “A guy with a stenciled name on a beat up pickup truck is using my business name!” Really? The independent guy that does home plumbing wrote that on his truck? The nerve! I was once even asked to be an expert witness in a case where a small business owner (with a generic company name) was upset that a larger competitor (with an actual Brand Name) used generic words on their website – these words *gasp* matched the smaller company’s name. Yellow Pages, meet the Internet and its trusty sidekick All the Words in the World.

Issue #1 will fix it self in one generation. Baby Boomers are on their way out and with them, antiquated ideas about marketing, advertising, and competition. Generation X is at least more Internet-savvy if not actually all that clever. They have a great work ethic (by Boomer standards) and can get things done, but Gen-X is small. Gen-Y is already taking over. One day their idealism will likely haunt them, but right now we need access and insight into the largest generation ever because they are already deciding how business will be conducted twenty years from now.

Issue #2 is about stagnation.

Businesses – especially in technology sectors – have to evolve all the time. AV folks are particularly good at getting stuck in a time warp. All the more ironic because we are the supposedly “cutting edge” technology people. To me the worst kind of business owner is the one that is willing to blame competitors for everything from unfair pricing to being unworthy of their reputation (aren’t all reputations earned?). All the while, the owner is making poor choices of their own (especially in light of what the competition is doing!).

One of my favorite quotes is lyric credited to Neal Peart, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” (Free Will, by Rush). It reminds me that my  business model is perpetually flawed. I know that and therefore work on improving it almost everyday. In fact, I have completely redesigned my company three times in the past eight years. It’s still flawed, but for a short time it will be less so. I wish more folks looked at their companies this way rather than fretting about things they cannot change.

You are only hurting yourself.

Many business owners hang on to beliefs that actually hurt their business prospects. These assumptions were probably true and relevant once, but that world passed by quickly. For instance, there was a time when having a Yellow Pages listing and advertisement was a necessary and standard practice. Seems obvious now, but as recently a three years ago I still found folks paying for an “enhanced” listing. Here are a few of my favorite “Owner-isms” that I wish would also fade away: <danger: sarcasm ahead>

“We don’t want any names or email addresses on our website. I don’t want my competitors trying to steal my employees.” – Nor apparently do you want customers to know that humans work for you. The risk of looking like a small-time, poser is worse in my opinion than someone discovering who your loyal employees are. Hmm, I wonder if I could find your employees on perhaps…Linkedin?

“Putting email addresses on a website leads to SPAM. We were getting too much SPAM so we took the names off our site.” – Um, SPAM filters? Mine is free and works pretty darn well. Email is a utility like a telephone. Do you get robo-calls too? Maybe you should hide your phone number from the public? Junk mail? Hide your physical address!

“How do I stop employees from playing on Facebook while at work? That’s not what I pay them for!” – Yes, let’s stop this right away. But first we need to address the real problem of employees checking business email and thinking about work after hours.  Can’t have that. No, no, no.

“We need to do a better job of separating the sales and operations teams. How do I get salespersons to hand off the project sooner?”  – Agreed. I think we need to tell the customer that once they confirm an order they can’t talk to the same person any more. What other ways can we punish the customer for doing business with us?

“There is no way my competitor is making any money. I have seen what he is charging people. He is hurting the INDUSTRY!” – I know, right? And it’s true this time. You know because you ‘ran the numbers.’ There is no possible way that another business knows something you don’t.

“We don’t put Case Studies on our website because I don’t want my competitor to know who my customers are.” – The secret of your success is safely hidden. Not even prospective customers can find it.

“I don’t tell employees how the business is doing because then they will just want more money.” – Yes, and because that information might provide context for your mood swings and random changes in direction.

“My competitor is using a picture on their website of a job I KNOW they did not do. What should I do about it?” – Oh no! How many people have seen it? The poor dears! Subjected to something in the Internet that is not completely true.

If you don’t grasp why the above beliefs are hurting small companies, you are not alone. Change is hard often because the direction is counter-intuitive. Trust me on this: If your supposed competitor does something you don’t like or understand, then identify which of your long-held beliefs are being challenged. Maybe something changed along the way and you missed it. Or, ask a Gen-Y. They seem to understand these new-fangled ideas.

Tom Stimson, MBA, CTS, is president of Stimson Group LLC, a Dallas-based management consulting firm specializing in strategy, process improvement, and market research for the Audiovisual Industry. Tom is a Past-President of InfoComm International and a current member of InfoComm’s Adjunct Faculty. 

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