Ask the Experts: How do you find the weakness in a competitor’s strength?

When building a competitive strategy, it’s important to distinguish between a weakness and a weakness in a competitor’s strength. If your strategy relies on taking advantage of your competitor’s weaknesses, it could be short lived. Once your competitor realizes you are gaining an advantage because of its weaknesses, it will focus on fixing them. It can acquire a company, license something from a third party or update its roadmap to fill the gaps.

A competitor’s strength, on the other hand, is generally not something it wants to change or “fix”:

  • The strengths of large enterprise vendors, like IBM, HP, SAP and others, are based on their breadth of offerings and lack of silos.
  • The strengths of hosting companies, like Rackspace and Amazon, lie in remote hosting and cloud-based applications.
  • Companies like Google make new products available on a regular basis to drive innovation.

The challenge for their competitors is to find the weakness in those strengths:

  • Do the larger enterprise vendors have compelling offerings for small, one-off opportunities? Have they sacrificed best-of-breed solutions for generalized, one-size-fits-all products that are customizable only through high-cost professional services?
  • Does IT want to move all applications to an off-site hosting provider? Would some applications provide better security or performance if they were available on-premises?
  • Will Google support new apps for the long term? Can you bet your business on new technologies that may not stick around?

Another well-known example of weakness in a competitor’s strength is the historic battle between Barnes and Noble and Amazon. Barnes and Noble’s strength lies in its customer experience in “brick and mortar” stores. It’s known for personalized service that includes on-site coffee and bagels and comfortable browsing areas. This is Barnes and Noble’s strength for people who want to touch and feel the books. But it is a weakness for busy professionals who don’t want the hassle of going to a store to buy a book.

Amazon identified this market and focused on making the selection and buying process easier for customers who don’t want (or have time) to visit a bookstore. Because they were concerned about the impact to their store business, Barnes and Noble took a long time to offer a web presence. Meanwhile, Amazon became the online leader.

The best way to build a compelling sales strategy for your product is to arm your sales team with talking points that acknowledge a competitor’s strengths and then counter them. That’s the beauty of finding the weakness in a competitor’s strength.

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  • John Milburn is CEO of Practical Growth Strategies LLC, where he and his team help companies to apply and implement market-driven principles. Prior to this, he was an instructor at Pragmatic Institute and has held executive and individual contributor roles in development, sales, and product management from startups to Fortune 100 companies.

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