The technology shift from analog to digital, which began more than forty years ago, provided sign makers with many new business opportunities. Innovations in computerized plotter-cutting and digital print technology initiated mass-produced graphics and reduced production costs.
These technological advances also lowered the barriers to entry and opened the flood gates to a torrent of new competitors, such as commercial offset printers.
The question for sign builders is how do you survive when your market becomes overcrowded with competitors?
Acknowledge Competitive Threats.
The first bit of advice is never to ignore potential threats. As famed basketball coach Pat Riley warned, the choke results when you either overestimate your abilities or underestimate your competitor’s abilities. Riley’s maxim applies both to sports and to business. The point is—if you ignore your competition, you could lose your business before you know it.
Although technology has leveled the playing field, your edge can be your customer relationships. Your product knowledge of raw materials, such as using the right vinyl films to meet the customer’s expectations, will help in understanding and satisfying unmet customer’s needs.
To this end, you and your sales people need to build detailed customer profiles. The more you know about your business base, the stronger your customer relationships become and the more difficult it is for competitors to drive a wedge between you and your clients.
Protect Your Customer Base.
As important as it is to sell new business, you need to devote much of your sales and marketing efforts to protecting your existing customer base. The lifetime value of your current customers is many times greater than the initial sale.
The best way to protect your base is to provide outstanding customer service. To this end, you may initiate a program of calling each customer every four to six weeks. The purpose of these calls is to:
- Strengthen relationships with key customer personnel;
- Detect any changes within the customer’s business;
- Probe for new opportunities; and
- Identify threats to the account.
Just as you should compile customer profiles, you should construct dossiers on the competition. Your file should list the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors. These dossiers should also detail their production capabilities and shortcomings; experience in implementing graphics programs; weaknesses in their financial standing; and their pricing strategy.
In conducting research on your competitors, your best sources for information are your salespeople, your vendors, your network of business associates and your customers. These sources can help you identify new competitors and rate how your shop stacks up against the competition.
These sources can also help you detect trends in your market. What’s more, the information that you gather through your sources will help you recognize areas in your business that need improvement. It will also help you realize what is truly important to your customers and prospects.
Another great source of business intelligence is to hire your competitors’ employees, such as salespeople, managers and key production personnel. Former employees know the strengths and weaknesses of their former employer. A top-notch salesperson should know where the proverbial bodies are buried and should have built relationships that they can bring to your shop. Moreover, a good hire will know the competitor’s financial standing, business strategy and the new markets they are targeting.
One of the quickest ways to research a competitor is to review the content on their web site, their blog, and their social media platforms. The information available online will give you an overview of their products and services and, in many cases, will provide you with a review of their equipment. Pictures and descriptions of their programs may also reveal new opportunities. Reading online reviews may expose a competitor’s weaknesses.
In setting your company apart from theirs, the presentation of your program should focus on your company strengths, rather than disparaging the competition. If a competitor is struggling financially, you can subtly allude to their weakness. A mere mention that your business has the history and financial resources to stand behind your programs in the unlikely event of a failure, may call into question another company’s wherewithal to correct problems.
Another indirect technique to call attention to another’s weaknesses is to “damn with faint praise.” In commenting on a competitor’s work, you might remark, “It’s amazing that that company is willing to tackle major fleet programs using a printer designed to produce short-term posters.” This can plant the seeds of doubt in the mind of the prospect.
Always treat your competitors with respect. You never want to start a pissing contest. Friendly competition is certainly preferable to creating a hated enemy.
Crafting Your Message.
With an understanding of the competition, you should emphasize what makes your shop unique. See my article on unique selling proposition. In dealing with rival companies, your experience, knowledge, range of offering and unique product solutions could be your competitive edge.
Once you have identified your product differentials, you need to build your messaging around your company’s uniqueness. Crafting a storyline on what your can do for your customers and prospects can allude to what your competitors are incapable of providing.
This is a messaging strategy that you need to employ in all of your business communications, including website content, blog articles, social media postings and sales stories. By consistently broadcasting your narrative in these various channels, your audience is more likely to notice, read and remember your message. Remember that repetition reinforces your narrative.
In a face-to-face sales interview, ask probing questions in an effort to discover any dissatisfaction with the incumbent supplier, as well as any unmet customer needs.
In creating unique solutions to satisfy those needs, you will position your company as a creative graphics provider as opposed to a shop that cranks out uninspired cookie-cutter designs.
Positioning Your Business.
Instead of positioning your shop as the low-cost graphics provider, what should differentiate your shop is outstanding customer service, creativity, and high-quality workmanship.
Offering unique solutions to your customer’s needs helps differentiate your company and allows you to maintain your gross profit margin. On the other hand, simply quoting on the same graphics package as your competitor relegates you to competing on price.
Neither you nor your competitor wins when you treat product offerings as commodities and cut each other’s pricing.
To stand out from your competitors, emphasize what you do better than the other guy. Your value-added benefit could be an offering of a full range of services in design, manufacturing and installation.
Your content marketing strategy can support your expertise in graphics production. Sharing your industry knowledge on social media, blog postings, e-newsletters and direct marketing communications help build confidence in your shop among your target audience.
Most shops do not have the resources to provide every product and service in the field of signage and large format corporate graphics. In fact, it’s usually unwise to attempt to be all things to all people.
Instead do what you do best. Nevertheless you may want to satisfy a wider range of your customers’ needs for signs and graphics.
In order to offer services beyond your capabilities, consider forming alliances with other shops.
Hit ’Em Where They Ain’t.
In his campaign in New Guinea in WWII, General Douglas MacArthur employed a strategy of attacking where the enemy was weakest, instead of initiating a frontal assault against their strongholds. In his words, he would “hit,’em where they ain’t.”
That’s a good business strategy too!
Avoid markets in which competitors are strongest and attack where competition is weakest. If a particular field, such as fleet graphics is overcrowded, look for opportunities is other market segments, such as floor graphics, in-plant safety signage or tradeshow signage and graphics.
In looking for new opportunities, you may need to look no further than your existing account base. If you are selling a customer fleet graphics, are you missing opportunities to sell other applications?
Never Give Up.
Businesses fail for any number of reasons—poor planning, failure to recognize and react to competitive threats, deficient management of finances, insufficient response to changes in technology or the economy, poor execution of business plans, and failure to measure your performance and adjust your business tactics as needed.
In the face of adversity, many entrepreneurs lose faith in their own abilities. Some people, despite their creative talents, experience and knowledge, just give up and close their shops. They give up on their dreams of being their own boss for the security of a steady paycheck.
In dealing with overwhelming competition, what sets winners apart from losers is often just determination.
Early in Tyson Fury’s epic third fight with Deonty Wilder, he was knocked down twice. Fury commented that everyone gets knocked down in life.
What sets the champion apart from his competitors is the determination to get up off of the mat and continue the fight. Fury persevered and knocked out his opponent in the eleventh round, successfully defending his heavyweight boxing title.
With this in mind, remember the words of Calvin Coolidge:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”