Competition Used to Scare Me

In October of last year, JEB reached our tenth year of operating since my wife and I started this agency. You make it that far and you start to reflect on some things. Add to that turning 40, and well, you start to look back on some of the things you did in your younger years, and the company’s younger years, and laugh a little at some of embarrassing things, cringe a lot at some of the more significant mistakes and recount some lessons learned along the way. One of those lessons I learned over the last ten years has played the most significant role in our growth, the service we deliver to our clients, how we treat our employees and running the business in general – that is how we viewed our competition. In the end, all it did was make me angry. Well, at least for a little while. Then that changed. Many of our competitors in our peer group are long time friends. We grew up in this space together, leaned on each other for support and education at times, and celebrated with each other when we were promoted or had a significantly great month. Many times we even worked together at the same company or other agencies. So it’s always been a very close group. But that never stopped me from getting my feathers ruffled and riled up when we all started agencies and someone contacted a client of mine or a new entrant into the space started marketing to my clients. Oh how I stewed over this. “How could XXX dare to contact my client, doesn’t he/she know this is how I feed my kids. What a jerk!” I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought stuff like that. Maybe some still do. It resulted in protectionism and took my focus off of what was important – the service I was providing to my clients and the performance of the program. So I stewed. I worried. I lashed out. I printed sales outreach emails from my competitors and showed them to my employees – “see what they are trying to do to us. The nerve of XXXX”. In the end, all it did was make me angry. Well, at least for a little while. Then that changed.

I wish I had a defining moment, or pivot point that tells you the story of how the attitude of “I can’t believe they would try to steal my client” turned to “that’s fine, if we aren’t doing a job better than everyone else and providing our clients with more than they expect, hell they should leave”. But I don’t. Maybe it was through years of conversations, guidance and education I received from one of the most important mentors I’ve ever had, Cathy McCall. Maybe it was the drive and support I received from my father. Maybe it was the shift to continuous improvement in every single thing we did that led to the confidence we now have. I’m not sure. What’s important is this shift took place. That shift should take place in your business too.

You see, competition is truly a great thing. In fact, lack of it leads to your company, service and products becoming stale and the service you give getting worse, not better. Competition drives you to become better at every aspect of what you do. It scares you, and that’s a good thing! It drives you to become amazing like nothing else can. Sometimes the best lessons, wait, almost always, the best lesson you learn in business (life?) happens when you lose your biggest client to a competitor. It hurts. You seethe. You may even throw something (I can not confirm or deny if I actually threw that water bottle in the spring of 2010). Then hopefully something else happens. I used to call it an autopsy, now we call it a retrospective (thanks sis). You look at what was done and try to figure out how you could have saved this client, and discover how you can in the future. It hurts to lose a client for any reason. We feel bad for a very short period of time, then we look to learn, improve and become better. We look back and ask several questions like:

  • What the hell happened?
  • Why did they leave – why did they say they left and why do we think they left?
  • When did we see it first?
  • Why didn’t we see it earlier?
  • Where was the point of failure?

We dissect our performance for that client. We look at each report, each interaction and then we ask some even tougher questions:

  • How did I fail this client?
  • What could I have done, personally, to better service them?
  • What am I never going to do again to jeopardize a client relationship?
  • What am I going to ensure I do now with my other clients to better serve them?

Then we look at our competitors. How did they win this client (not steal, they can’t steal a client. I can’t steal a client and no one can steal a client from us. Win one from us, yes, at times)? What are they doing for their clients, their affiliate partners that we simply are not. Basically we want to learn something through this experience. What can we do better in the future that they are doing now.

It hurts to lose a client for any reason. We live to serve at JEB, and when a client decides to leave for any reason, it sucks. But when they leave for a different affiliate management agency, it stings even more. I can’t lie to you. We strive to be the standard bearer in affiliate management, and when we fall short, we feel bad for a very short period of time, then we look to learn, improve and become better. Competition drives you to become better at every aspect of what you do. That has made all the difference.

We not only look at our immediate competitors, but we look at marketing and advertising agencies, large and small, all around the world to benchmark ourselves against and to learn from. We actively do this each and every month. We share our processes, procedures, systems, deliverables with trusted super smart people to critique. Always trying to improve.

Then we create systems and processes based on what we learned. We have well over 500 of them now. This definitely took time, but now that it is done, we are able to move fast and deliver amazing service. Don’t be afraid of your competition, embrace it! So don’t be afraid of your competition, whether that is another agency, another affiliate, a co-worker or a competing organization. Embrace it! Here are some tips to become better at whatever you are doing through competition (it will also help you sleep at night in the long run):

  • Identify your competitors and try to learn how they do their work.
  • Identify 5 non competing but similar types of organization to follow.
  • Get a coach and at least one mentor. I recommend at least one person who has a personal investment in you and a personal relationship with you and at least one you pay. There is a huge difference and you really need both.
  • Review everything that you do. Do this so often it becomes part of you and your org’s DNA.
  • Ask your customers how you are doing and what you could be doing better. This part is scary – “what if they tell me I am awful?” – Then listen, change and improve
  • Don’t fret about those sales emails. This is business baby. Clients should receive the best, and if it’s not you, figure out why and change. Then you’ll receive angry emails from your competition about their former client who you are now working with. Send them this blog post 🙂

I hope this helps. I’d love to hear your thoughts, please share in the comments.

Competition can be scary, but I always go back to this scripture when I’m fearful: 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Now go do great things with power, love and self discipline!

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