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Survival of the fittest

What are the secrets to beating the competition? A panel of experts, who’ve all enjoyed great success in getting ahead, share their experiences.

The challenge of growing market share in the face of stiff competition is often described as ‘survival of the fittest’ – and for good reason.

So what are the secrets of consistently beating the competition? What does a successful strategy for winning customers look like? And what’s the best way to differentiate your product or service? Price, customer service, technology or the people you employ?

With these questions in mind, a panel of experts who’ve enjoyed great success in getting ahead of their competitors shared their experiences at a Barclays high-growth and entrepreneurs event in Edinburgh.

Disrupt to gain an advantage

A disruptive business model can be one of the best ways to achieve a market advantage. Cally Russel did just that in 2013 when he created Mallzee, now the UK’s leading multi-retailer mobile shopping app.

“Make sure you understand the customer’s problem and that there’s a market for your solution – then ask yourself if you have the skillset to provide it,” Cally says. “Then build some defensibility into your offer – ours is scale that competitors can’t match.”

Bob Keiller, CBE, Chairman of Scottish Enterprise, whose experience includes CEO of an international company in the oil and gas industry, adds: “Business is like cycling up a hill. You have to keep pedalling as fast as you can, because if you slow down, people pass you. If you stop, you fall off.”

Marie Macklin, CBE, founder of Macklin Enterprise Partnerships, which invests in and supports start-ups and entrepreneurs, agrees. “It's about always trying to be ahead of the game. Listen to the market and your customers, and don't be afraid to change your business model to adapt to changing conditions.”

Building a business around the unique culture of its people's behaviours and core values is something that can be difficult for competitors to replicate.

For example, honesty is a behaviour that clients value because it helps create trust. Telling a prospective client that your company is not the right fit for a contract – even recommending a competitor because the end result for the client will be better –  may seem counterintuitive. Yet a customer will often return to a company that gives good advice.

This is exactly what happened to a company Bob Keiller used to work for. “When further contracts came up later, the client came straight to us. We ended up winning more than £2bn of work because we'd been so up front with them."

Discover what your customers want

Competition is most obvious when companies are pitching directly against each other for the same work. Your approach might be thoroughly professional, but there’s no substitution for working hard to understand what really drives a potential client.

It’s an approach that worked for Bob when trying to clinch a contract in Chad in central Africa. “We were up against two rival companies already established in the country, while we had no presence on ground.”

“We went there on a fact-finding mission and discovered what the client really wanted was a contract that included employing local people and training them up to be technicians, supervisors and managers.”

Bob’s company pitched a plan to deliver precisely that and won the contract.

Look at the data

Data has always been used to make decisions. Today’s challenge is navigating the sheer amount of data available and harnessing what is most useful.

“In reality, data is only valuable if you can generate true, actionable insight from it,” says Cally Russell. “It’s the ‘So what?’ moment. What can I do with the information?”

Companies often begin by trying to understand their own data assets, which can be complicated and expensive. An alternative is to consider looking for information that you can license and bring into the organisation and put to use – to generate more sales leads, for example.

Find the right talent

The talent of your people is crucial to the competitiveness of your business. Recruiting from outside and promoting from within both have their merits, although the goal should be to create an environment in which all staff can learn and develop, improving the quality of the products or services you offer.

Exploring recruitment from groups outside the usual labour pools, like the over-50s or ex-military personnel, can also bring a range of different skills to your organisation and give you a competitive advantage.

Learn from the competition

Innovating and developing your own products and services will help you keep ahead of the competition, but there’s also something to be said for learning from the mistakes or successes of others.

“Always try to innovate and be one step ahead,” says John Watson, who was the Chief Commercial Officer of Edinburgh Airport until June 2017. “Preferably, you want to be a leader in the market rather than follower – but don’t be embarrassed to copy someone else’s success. I'm happy to learn from anyone – including the competition.”

Acquiring or merging with rivals is another strategy for overcoming the competition, but many acquisitions don't deliver the hoped-for marketplace advantages. Being very clear why an acquisition is not only good for the two individual companies, but also for customers, will improve your chances of getting it right.

Above all, our panel of experts agreed that a business needs an absolute focus on market trends, but also needs to keep a close eye on its rivals. After all, it’s competition that can spur a business to raise its game to the next level.

Tips for staying ahead of the competition

  1. Business is like cycling up a hill. You have to keep pedalling as fast as you can because if you slow down people pass you. If you stop, you fall off.

  2. Always try to be ahead of the game. Listen to the market and your customers, and don't be afraid to adapt your business model.

  3. Be a leader rather than a follower – but don’t be afraid to learn from someone else’s success.

  4. Data is only valuable if it can generate actionable insight. Always ask ‘what can we do with the information?’

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