How best to gain competitive advantage?

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competitive advantage
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There are many different views on how best to gain competitive advantage. So which one is right? John Burfitt reports

When it comes to following good business wisdom when running your own practice, it’s understandable that some owners get confused by the range of conflicting messages.

One of the more popular business adages to emerge in recent times is ‘stay in your own lane’. In other words, know what it is you do well, understand the point of difference of your business and stay focused on the positives that make your service stand out.

Many business strategists, however, insist that to stay ahead of the game and succeed, you need to closely follow what your competition is doing and out-manoeuvre them every step of the way.

“This is why many people get so distracted in their approach and get pulled in 20 different directions in the way they operate,” workplace expert Michelle Gibbings, author of the book Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work, says. 

Gibbings believes a successful approach should be an adoption of both methodologies—staying in your own lane and at the same time, following what your competition is up to. “But this needs to be kept in balance, be targeted and strategic,” she says.

“You have to know what you’re good at and the value and uniqueness of what your practice offers. At the same time, you do need to look around because if you never bother to look to the left or right, then you are going to miss out on where the profession is heading.”

Whether starting out in a new enterprise or giving an existing business an operational makeover, being 100 per cent clear on your original business plan and your mission statement—why you started the business in the first place—is imperative, says Melbourne business consultant Louise Davis. 

This, she explains, needs to be the basis of the ‘staying in your own lane’ philosophy—clarity about what it is that makes your business stand out. 

“Think back to when you first started your own business—who is your target audience and what is your offer of service to your clients,” she says. 

“That should be at the core of the way you do business. If you’re trying to keep up with everything your competitors are rolling out, be it a special offer or some new deal, then you are probably losing focus on your own business, and that could be causing a number of issues with how you are functioning.”

It’s a point echoed by Arash Arabi, the author of The Wise Enterprise, who says a successful approach to business should never be a case of either-or apropos the different philosophies.

“Successful businesses need to do both,” he says. “Of course, a business needs to focus on their own game and how they provide top quality services and customer experience. A great business leader is someone whose focus is doing the right thing for their own business but in order to get better at their own game, also studies what their competitors are offering and learns from them. 

“It’s how you respond to what else is going on that can make the difference in the long run—and responding is very different to reacting.”

He cites the scenario of when a competitor begins offering cheaper fees at their practice. “I have been in this situation myself, and so I offered a price-match guarantee. While it did increase my sales, it damaged the prestige of my brand,” he says. 

“The right thing to do is to not act in a hurry, but to watch with close interest and then strategise. How you respond may have nothing to do with the fees you charge, but everything to do with how you can improve the quality of your service. You might update your waiting room, start offering complimentary coffee or maybe initiate next-day follow-up calls. Those are the things that add to the standard of your service and the way you engage with your clients. They’re also the qualities people remember.”

Michelle Gibbings agrees that knee jerk reactions to what the competition is doing can be unnecessary and, ultimately, a waste of time and dollars. “Questions to consider include are you adapting your business for the sake of it or because you really need to? Have you weighed up the benefits to assess what is the real value you are adding by making this change?” she asks. 

Determining if making changes to match what other practices are offering are necessary can be as simple as asking your regular clients for feedback. “Monitor what is going on and then do a survey of your key client base and ask them about your current standards of service,” she says. 

“There’s ways to test what is happening within the market to determine if you really need to make changes. If your clients tell you they’re happy with things as they are, and you are happy with the business’ profitability, then why would you change that? You could also be saving your business a lot of dollars by not messing around with your business model.”

Dr Matthew Muir, the director of Sydney’s All Natural Vet Care practice, explains his practice schedules biannual business strategy revision sessions to analyse what is and is not working within the practice. This is also when they measure their services against local competitors.

“An awareness of the competitors, both veterinary and other disruptors, is necessary for sound SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis,” he says. “It’s also important to examine relevant marketing strategies and how to over-deliver on client expectations. 

“I look to the Veterinary Services Marketing Reports for top-level guidance, but also find inspiration from looking at what others are doing through their website design, social media presence and reading online reviews, which can be both entertaining and validating that we are, as a profession, all in this together.”

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