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When Larger Rivals Come for Your Business, Use These 6 Tactics to Stay Ahead For smaller businesses facing off with larger rivals, your counter strategies spring from your value proposition and company culture.

By Curtis Thornhill

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Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

I love data. As a data scientist, I connect the dots. I also value relationships.

So, when we launched Apt Marketing 10 years ago, we built our company on both science and art. Client partner relationships -- people and communication -- matter a lot.

Related: Don't Study the Competition. Study Winners in Other Industries.

Recently, our core principles were put to the test when our longest-standing, anchor account opened the contract up for competitive bids and a much larger, more prominent agency got involved. We knew it wasn't personal; it was just good business. Still, at the time, to lose our largest and best client partner would have been devastating to us.

How would we respond? What was our plan? How would we take stock of ourselves and our client partner's needs? Well, actually, we did what we do daily: We combined science with art.

Here's how we thought about it, what we learned and how we won. See if it works for you, too.

For smaller businesses facing off with larger rivals, your counter strategies spring from your value proposition and company culture. Do you think of your business as the underdog, or have you set a foundation with your client partner where you're highly valued as a trusted advisor? Do your internal and external relationships and solutions go deep enough? Have you been nimble, flexible, creative, responsive and resilient enough?

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Only you and your teams have those answers. Look on competitive bidding as your chance to strengthen your relationship with your client partner as you mount a successful defense of the account. Here are six strategies to make your relationship richer:

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

As soon as you learn that a competitive bid process is in play, don't rely only on history to save your account; instead pull out all the stops. Make sure the messaging about your value to your client partner is clear and self-evident. Reiterate your merits and the unique nature of your work to decision-makers and client teams via face-to-face conversations and phone calls. Don't rely on arm's-length communications such as emails or texts -- be personal.

Offer insight.

Don't be afraid to discuss with your client partner the internal impact and potential challenges of changing to another vendor. Point out that a vendor change means the purpose-built processes and systems you've constructed and tested over time will need to be managed internally.

Put all hands on deck.

You may want to direct any additional capacity to your key account to fully ensure that your team is delivering exceptional service during the contract term and focused on winning the bid. Consider placing all non-essential engagements on the back burner for the long-term health of your business.

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Look to your advocates.

Laying the foundation for strong and lasting relationships with all of your accounts starts long before a competitive bid shows up. It begins with cultivating and building relationships. Stellar work and fantastic customer service by themselves may not save your prized account. But, add in personal extras such as sending gifts to mark major milestones and understanding who has influencing power within an organization often is a difference maker. When decision-making time comes, you'll have advocates to speak out on your behalf.

Expectations are your friend.

Secure your long-term value with your client partner by consistently exceeding expectations. If your treasured account is on the line, you'll be much more than just a known quantity; you'll also have a long track record of doing whatever it takes to solve your client partner's challenges. Because you never say no to your client partner, it will make it harder for them to say no to you.

Be a team player.

If you've already established a policy for your team to attend onsite client partner meetings, work in the same spaces and share in some of their office culture, you're now part of their business fabric. If you've chosen to be part of the team and relish being thought of as employees rather than a seen as an outside third-party consultant, you've done the right thing to support a long-term relationship. By thinking 'client partner first,' you'll have demonstrated a level of commitment that gives you a considerable competitive advantage in any account review.

Related: Want to Turn Heavy Competition Into an Advantage? Copy Your Competitors' Best Features.

Remember the intangibles.

As a small data marketing agency, our stock in trade is finding the right mix of science and art to present and execute the best solutions for our client partners' challenges. So it is with client partner care. Over time we've learned a few intangibles to measure if we're on the right track and if our mutual relationship is continually growing and evolving.

Here are four cues (or reminders if you prefer) to keep you on target:

Be authentic: As your company's leader, understand that you are the voice, look and feel of the business. To earn the trust of your staff and your client partners, it's imperative that you be yourself. Be certain that you've represented you and your company as, in fact, you are.

Be humble: Check to see if you're making your value proposition sticky. Critique not only the end product of your work and services but also how you're perceived by your client partner. While it's important to think for the long-term engagement, don't undervalue the immediate short-term fix.

Be open-minded: If your client partner relationships start strong but seems to lose steam over time, you may need a reset. Be open to change and make sure you have a path to consistently improve.

Check the heat: Recently, in an onsite session with one of our client partners, two team members separately told us that we don't say no enough. Indirectly, our "all-in" attitude made it harder for them to build an internal case to decline work they didn't think purposeful. On the other hand, we helped them to deliver well beyond expectations. Ultimately, it was a heat check for us: Are we perceived as a fully capable partner, ready to overdeliver? Or do we pick and choose our spots? The team members' feedback told us a great deal about how well we're regarded. Attitude and perception count for a lot.

How will you respond when a competitor far bigger and more prominent than your company has lined up to poach one of your most prized, time-honored accounts?

Related Video: How to Come Out on Top in a Competitive Market

Curtis Thornhill

CEO of Apt Marketing

Curtis Thornhill, CEO and founder, Apt Marketing, helps businesses to connect with customers in more efficient and meaningful ways. He believes that marketing is fundamentally about relationship building and that data is best used to help companies craft messaging that speaks directly to people.

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