From the September 2002 issue of Startups

(YoungBiz.com) - So here you are, running your dream business. You've got the hottest new product. It mows the lawn, washes dishes and even does homework. People are going crazy for this contraption.

So why aren't you raking in the cash? Because your competitor is selling that same contraption four blocks away.

What's going on? You had a great business plan, you've marketed the product well, and your sales have been more than respectable.

Maybe the answer isn't right under your nose, but down the street. Take a look at what your competitors are doing. Are they offering the product at a better price? Offering better service? Chances are, they've been in your store to check things out already and you don't even know it.

Just Who Is the Competition?
First things first. If you want to beat the competition, you've got to know who your competition is. Scout out other businesses similar to yours. Visit their stores or offices. Buy their products. Examine every detail about what they do, then find ways to improve upon their policies, products and service. If they make the most delicious giant pretzels this side of the Mississippi, make yours taste just as good, but lower the fat, add more flavors, make them more widely available.

Though there isn't one magic answer, there are plenty of ways to make your business stand out from the rest, beginning with your...

Product: If your product or service is new and unique, you might attract lots of attention right from the start--so you'd better have your product/service at its peak condition. It won't be long before new variations will be popping up all over. You have to make sure yours is the best. If, on the other hand, you're selling something already readily available to the public, you need to find a way to get people to come to you for what they need.

Price: The quickest and easiest way to stand out is by offering lower prices than those of your competition. Be aware, however, that this could seriously hurt your profit margin and potentially cripple your business. Also keep in mind that the competition could just as easily lower their prices to match, or even beat, yours.

Quality: Let's say you have a fabulous idea for comfortable pantyhose that no woman should be without. You know that the biggest problem with pantyhose is that they run very easily. So your focus should be on high-quality pantyhose that are less likely to run than others.

Customers want a product that they know will last. Spend time developing something that will be around for a while--not something cheap and flimsy that you can sell at a low cost. Consumers will pay more and keep coming back for a superior-quality product.

Service: If your products and prices are nearly identical to your competitors', make your service unbeatable. Give every customer your very best service. For more tips on how to do this, check out At Your Service.

Geography: A simple way to stand out is to offer your goods and services in places where they aren't yet available. There may be 20 grocery delivery services in a major city that deliver within a 30-mile radius, but what about the people who live 45 miles away? Your business could specialize in deliveries outside of the city. In addition, if you sell a product, make sure you can take orders by phone, fax, e-mail or through your Web site--don't limit your business to the people who can physically walk in.

Experience/Reputation: Don't be afraid to toot your own horn! If you've been making birdhouses since you were age 5, and now you're 15, tout your 10 years' experience. Customers would rather buy a birdhouse from someone who knows what they're doing.

New to your business? Make people aware of how great you are at what you do, and ask your satisfied customers to refer potential clients to you. See if you can get a local celebrity to try your product. If they like it, ask them to say a few words about it, and use their endorsement whenever possible.

Other ways to stand out:

  • Give your office or building a makeover. If you don't have control over the structure or color, add balloons, a sign or a statue out front. Customers will be more likely to notice your business, and you never know--maybe they will see it on their way to a competitor's office or store.
  • Match competitors' coupons if it fits into your budget.
  • Offer home or office delivery for items people normally have to pick up themselves.
  • Offer a money-back guarantee. This tells your customers you are confident they will love what you have to offer.
  • Ask potential customers to fill out surveys or participate in focus groups so you can tailor your product or service to exactly what people are looking for. In return, offer a onetime discount or free product.
  • Last but not least, remember that changes and improvements are an ongoing part of any successful business. Don't be afraid to try something new, and always keep an open mind. You can't rise to the top by staying in one place!
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