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Competition Beware

Follow these seven tips to leave your competitors in the dust.

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Entrepreneurs nationwide are feeling the squeeze of encroaching . With the explosion came an enormous proliferation of new small businesses in every market niche. Now, we can buy anything and everything for our homes or businesses either offline, online or via direct mail 24/7. And while this is great for consumers, I can't think of a single client of ours for whom competitively isn't a top priority.

As a owner, your greatest achievement lies in trumping the competition in order to expand . So here are seven ways to give your company a leg up:

1. Know your enemy. In the ancient words of Chinese general Sun Tzu, you must "know your enemy as you know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat." Today, we may look upon our competitors in a friendlier light, but it's essential to understand all we can about them. If you don't already have copies of your competitors' and brochures-and can't recite from rote their key selling points and messages-how can you hope to successfully position against them?

2. Market your specialty. Once you know everything you can about your chief competitors, you can identify what your company offers its customers or clients that's unique or special. Take a long, hard look at your current offering. If necessary, alter your product or service itself, bundle in additional features or find a way to deliver the same core product or service in a way that uniquely meets the needs of your prospects. Then, build your around this central theme.

3. Tackle new audiences. If you've reached the maximum market share in a particular niche, why not try a new one? You may be able to add line extensions (variations of your product) that will stimulate sales from a whole new set of customers. Or you can launch a new media campaign targeting ethnic audiences, who may embrace your product or service with a minimum amount of alteration.

4. Offer more value. Some product and service providers traditionally compete based on discount , but for many other types of businesses, cutting prices is often detrimental. If you offer a service, for example, and charge the same rates as your chief competitors, cutting your prices may make you look suspiciously cheap and inspire customers to wonder what's "wrong" with your company or the services it provides. A better idea is to offer something of additional value that your customers will find tempting.

5. Add a sales channel. Are you presently selling via one channel alone, such as exclusively through a brick-and-mortar store or by catalog only? Adding another channel, such as online sales, gives your customers more choices and allows them to shop more often and at their convenience. It's likely that most of your competitors offer sales through multiple channels. What's more, studies show that customers who shop via more than one channel spend more (often as much as three times more) than customers who shop through one alone.

6. Tune into your customers. To remain highly competitive, you must understand what your customers want. Unfortunately, your customers' needs and preferences can change on a dime, so you should have systems in place to regularly solicit their feedback. As a business owner, you're in the enviable position of being closer to your customers than some of your big-business competitors. You may know many of your customers or clients by name and have the advantage of being able to contact them periodically to check in. In addition, be sure to initiate regular surveys as well as solicit ongoing feedback via your website.

7. Ask for the business. Complacency is the enemy of small-business success. If you're not continually asking your best prospects and customers for their business, you can be sure your competitors are. Set up and monitor an ongoing marketing program that reaches out to your past customers and new prospects year-round. The key to success is to have a consistent marketing message and select a mix of media and tactics that "touch" prospects and customers with sufficient frequency. This will help you drive your message home and stand out from your toughest competitors.

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