You can’t outspend them on marketing. You can’t match their awareness. But bigger does not mean better and we’ve been learning how to beat some well established brands. In this post, we’re going to share 5 tactics we’ve learned, so you can learn how to take on your larger competitors and win.
Along with a couple where we’ve made mistakes and learnt from them!
Don’t get me wrong – it’s no walk in the park. If you’ve built a business from scratch you’ll know that silver bullets are elusive and there’s no substitute for hard work.
And we’re not just winning when it’s a head-to-head purchasing decision. We’re also starting to find that some customers leave the competitors and come and join us.
Because although they’re bigger it turns out their weaknesses match our strengths.
Here’s what we’re finding success with…
1. Outstanding Customer Service
Customers of large companies can feel helpless.
So this is probably our (and your) biggest opportunity.
Large companies force you to communicate the way they want rather than the way you want. And when you do get through it’s often a frustrating process to get your question answered or your issue resolved.
We on the other hand can help customers on their terms, be sensitive to their needs & preferences and we can do it very quickly.
Because we choose to make customer service top priority. Bar nothing.
So getting a customer’s question answered or problem solved is more important than whatever else we’re doing right now. Unless they tell us it’s not urgent. Even then we’ll probably still do it quickly.
Our competitors may have deep pockets, but not many of them get public feedback like this:
“Excellent product coupled with fantastic customer service. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
“Fantastic software, easy to use and great support.”
“Not only were the service levels great but everyone involved went beyond what one would expect from a supplier. CustomerSure really offer a Gold standard in customer care.”
“I have never had customer service as speedy, efficient and proactive as the service at CustomerSure. I cannot sing their praises enough. So helpful and friendly.”
“Customer support has been excellent – often proactively solving issues before I have been able to report them. Definitely a company that is so confident in their product that they use it themselves to improve their own service. Good one guys.”
It’s humbling when people reward us with their business, let alone comments like this. But we know if we keep it up it gives us an edge over the competition. Our customers recommend us, and about 15% have more than one subscription with us.
The contrast with the feedback for a big company we compete with stands out to people who are researching the market thoroughly:
(All scores out of 10, and correct at time of publishing.)
(Though now I’ve made the point please forget the comparison because benchmarking customer satisfaction scores isn’t a good use of time).
We’re determined never to become complacent on service because we’ve seen how powerful it is for us.
So we respond to our customers at the weekend. We respond in the evenings. Once I took a call on the beach. As founder I’m happy for customers to have my personal mobile number because I’m confident in what we do, and I know from past experience they’ll only use it if absolutely necessary. And actually – if the problem’s that bad I want to know about it so I don’t lose them.
There are enough of us on the team to give good coverage around the clock to our customers around the globe even though we formally only offer office hours support.
Thanks to decisions we made on literally Day 1 of developing our product, (2nd August 2010!), our software is simple, robust and clearly documented. That conscious investment is paying dividends now because instead of fighting fires the whole time, we can spend our time supporting and helping customers individually with whatever help they need.
I cannot recommend this approach highly enough. If you’re worried that it will cost you more, or your work life balance will suffer please get in touch and I’ll reassure you. Be bold and give it a go!
2. Specialist Product
Why do we have a growing number of customers joining us from SurveyMonkey?
After all, that’s the first company people often think of when it comes to customer feedback. They have enviable ‘top of mind awareness’.
And for general purpose surveys it’s a decent product. I’ve used it before and I’d use it again.
But our product’s not for general purpose surveys. We’ve decided to try and be brilliant at one thing, rather than ok at lots of things.
In fact I often recommend people not to choose us when I found out what they’re trying to achieve.
Rather than being a general purpose survey tool we’ve worked very hard to ensure our product helps our customers do one thing extremely well:
Find out whether customers are happy and fix things immediately if there’s a problem.
And we’ve excluded lots of the things that SurveyMonkey (and other general purpose survey tools) do well.
So for our satisfaction surveys you can’t have multiple pages, you can’t have conditional logic, you can’t have too many questions, you can’t have complicated questions, and you can’t have lots of other things that market researchers think are essential…
…But which customers hate in a feedback form.
I received a survey after staying in a budget hotel last week. How many pages of questions would be too many for you?
There were 51 pages of questions. I couldn’t believe it so I took screen shots.
Here’s the kind of survey you design with our product. One page – and a short page at that. We call them ‘feedback forms’, because surveys are getting such a bad name from this kind of misuse.
The idea is to give your customer an extra channel for communicating what’s important to them. Not to set them an exam.
The horrifying thing is that someone in that big hotel company thinks it is OK to send 51 pages of questions to every customer. That’s what can happen if you don’t use the right tool for the job, or don’t have people with experience.
It doesn’t stop there. Well, actually, most general purpose tools do stop there. They stop short of two things you need to grow a business by on delivering great service:
- tools to follow up on the feedback efficiently;
- the ability to automatically display feedback as reviews.
Your customers don’t want you just to collect feedback, they want you to act on it. Otherwise they feel they’ve been ignored, and go to your competitors next time.
But general survey tools are designed for research and analysis by one person. Not for action and follow-up by a team.
And if you get outstanding feedback from your customers? It’s a waste for it just to lie in someone’s inbox.
Our customers tell us they win more sales by publishing their feedback as reviews, and proving their service is superior to their competitors.
It is hard to be a specialist. Saying ‘no’ to an enquiry is always tough when you’re trying to grow and every customer counts. Especially in the heat of the moment when you’re on a sales call.
But time and again we’ve looked back and been glad we did. It keeps our product focused on doing that one job it’s tailor-made for, and it preserves the one thing that our customers tell us time and again they love – it’s simple.
It makes the decision for buyers very clear cut, and we’re enjoying those small victories against the big guys each time it pays off.
3. Deep Expertise
Starting to think about customer feedback or online reviews can feel feel like a big step. As we’ve seen, copying what other companies do can be a big mistake (unless you think your customers would be OK with 51 pages of questions)!
So when people start thinking about it, they really appreciate the chance to talk it through with us and get tips that save time, dispel myths, and see examples of other companies who’ve taken the plunge. It helps them get better results from the start, rather than having to learn from their own mistakes.
That’s the kind of deep experience we’re equipped to offer but which larger competitors can’t, or don’t offer.
One of the main lessons for us is that rather than keeping our website short and to the point, and focused on high volume and quick conversion, our customers appreciate us sharing our experience. Because we know people buy from us on their third or fourth visit rather than their first, we try and help them through their decision making process.
The growth in our blog traffic shows that we’re starting to hit the spot. (You can see where we took our foot off the gas a bit in the Spring of 2014).
If you’re up against a large competitor, but can offer better quality advice, you’re at an advantage.
They’re either under cost pressure, so they try and keep customer contacts to a minimum, or they want to sell ‘consultancy’ services, rather than give them away for free.
To be honest, the more we talk to customers, the more we learn and the more expert we become so it’s kind of a virtuous circle.
Practically, here’s what we do to win on expertise:
- We know it’s important to our customers so we make ourselves easy to contact.
- On our blog we write about the problems we know our customers and potential customers are wrestling with.
- We give our time freely for seminars, webinars and when anyone calls and asks us for help. We don’t look for a direct payback because it’s part of establishing our reputation as experts.
- If our product isn’t right, we still try and help. We don’t start the pricing meter or end the call quickly. As a result of the trust and respect we establish, we’ll often get the customer in the end (our record is two and a half years from the initial contact). Once they’re with us, we find they stay with us so it’s worth the up-front effort.
Zendesk seems to be the go-to company for customer service systems.
There are lots of others, but that’s the one I hear people mention most often.
With so much awareness, why do people look at other customer service systems like ours?
Well, the people who choose us say it’s because they want something simple. They don’t like all the settings, they find it cumbersome to use.
Our software wouldn’t be right for all the large corporates who need that complexity. But we’re not trying to please those corporates. We’re trying to please merchants who need something quick and simple that helps them give great service to their customers, then gets out of the way.
So how are we winning against them with the simplicity tactic?
- Partly it’s the same discipline as offering a specialist product rather than one that’s general purpose. It’s about having the confidence to say (politely) “no, we don’t offer that” and being prepared to lose the sale if somebody insists they need it.
- We’ve worked hard to understand what’s important to customers. They don’t have a huge IT department, and they’re all under pressure to do countless other things in their day jobs. So making it dead simple to achieve their goal means we win their vote.
- It’s also about the discipline of doing the work to remove features that people don’t use. In software, it’s easy to add features. Rarely do software companies make the effort to find out which ones aren’t being used and remove them.
- Simplicity’s not just about the product. It’s also about whether you’re easy to do business with. Are your terms simple and low risk, or are they onerous and full of conditions? Are you easy to contact? Is your pricing clear and simple or are there hidden costs? Do you use simple everyday language on your website that people understand?
We once perpetrated an epic fail with our website.
Ouch. Maybe not so simple that time.
We haven’t cracked all this yet. Sometimes you get so close to what you’re doing that it’s impossible to see yourself as others see you.
To help, we’re currently working with a fabulous marketer and copywriter, with an equally fabulous name.
Henneke Duistermaat at Enchanting Marketing not only has a must-read email course on business blogging, she also possesses great skill in expressing things simply and clearly and we’ve been bowled over by the drafts she’s sent through so far.
Simplicity is definitely a work-in-progress for us, but the value our customers place on it means it’s always worthwhile. How can you simplify what your business offers?
Our partnership with Xero is helping us to punch above our (marketing) weight.
It’s a bit like having a big brother looking out for us.
We don’t expect them to do our job for us – we know that their focus will always be on selling their own software. And rightly so, their responsibility is to their investors not ours.
But the people at Xero happen to be quite a special bunch because they understand that doing what’s in the best interests of their customers is always in their own best interests too.
And that includes helping their customers find the right range of products to make their businesses more successful, even if it includes products they don’t sell themselves.
This healthy attitude has led them to build a store of add-on apps that help their customers, but for which they take no share of the revenue.
They also invite partners to contribute material to the Xero ‘small business guides’, to share knowledge on their expert subjects, and to exhibit at their conferences and events.
All these resources help Xero’s customers, and as you can see in the referral chart, they help us as partners to reach a much wider audience, but at no direct financial gain to Xero. (The share may look small but the quality of leads is high).
Their customers are happy. And all their partners are happy. And that goodwill leads to an awful lot of fans for them. I’m sure it’s not the only factor responsible for their phenomenal growth rate. But it certainly hasn’t hurt.
Not every partnership will yield these kinds of benefits.
We have other partners where either the timing or the circumstances mean it’s not right for one side or the other. And that’s OK.
In this case I think the key ingredients are company culture, attitude to customers, and a degree of empathy on both sides.
So be on the look-out for opportunities where it might work for you and start to invest in the relationship.
There may be a huge mis-match in size but you can invest in relationships with the individuals in the company and just be friends to start with…
It is possible for there to be common ground and for partnerships to work between very small companies and very big companies – even if it just starts with a shared love of cake.
Do you have other tips? Or questions? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.