Suggesting to a competitor you do business together may sound illogical and yet there can be good – and profitable – reasons for doing so...
The idea of picking up the phone to a competitor company and suggesting you do business together probably goes against every fibre of your business instincts. However, with a bit of thought, some forward planning and, most importantly, some ground rules, it could turn out to be one of the most profitable things you ever do.
There are only so many hours in the day and, even in these times of high-speed technology and omnipresent communication tools, we cannot get everything we want done in the time we have available. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our effectiveness, increase client satisfaction and fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Very few of us, however, think of the competition as a suitable route towards helping us achieve all three.
Nevertheless, when you have issues and need assistance, who better to help out than someone who does what you do, knows what you know and has the same qualifications and successful business to prove it? You do not have to hand over your client list to benefit from a closer look at your competitors’ businesses – and here are a number of suggestions about how you might do so.
You might consider the endless round of breakfast meetings, conferences and not so intimate dinners offered by networks, business advisers, providers, fund groups and other specialists a low priority for the busy adviser and that clients should always come first. Indeed, some advisers consider these events so commonplace that, to an extent, they do not always receive the respect their logistical and organisational achievements deserve.
Yet, as one adviser once pointed out to me, these events are a mine of useful information. Here are 50, 100, maybe 200 advisers all meeting in a single place, all with problems and issues and ideas – and every one of them wanting to chat, mingle and generally put the world to rights.
However you might feel, the chance to network with so many of one’s peers is still rare – so to be offered it for free is an opportunity that has to be taken. Of course, time is short but, once a month, try to accept at least one interesting invitation and then make sure you get there.
Plan it like you would any other business meeting. Refuse or defer other requests for that time in your diary, take your business cards, a folder for handouts and a notepad and pen for those ideas. Arrive early and use all the coffee time you have to ask as many questions of as many different people as you can.
Just like you, other advisers love to chat, they love to help and someone in that room is almost certainly experiencing a similar same problem to you. You never know what new idea, or potential solution, you might uncover.
As you will know from your own work with small businesses, some owners can fall into the trap of thinking their potential pie is only a certain size. They can be very protective of their clients and do not easily trust other people, sometimes seeing offers of advice and co-operation only as a potential threat.
However, in the world of financial advice, there is no need to be so protective. Despite the imminent arrival of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR), there is still a whole array of people out there who are not currently seeing an adviser but would benefit from their help. As the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all the boats” so, if you can create a coherent campaign together involving all your peers, you could build a more positive environment for everyone.
Indeed, if there was ever a subject worth getting together on, it has to be RDR. The financial advice world is changing and those changes need explaining in a way that reinforces the professionalism of all advisers. Rather than fight everyone to put a message out in your own name, consider banding together and send a single, larger message out in all your names. Particularly given the matter of fees, clarity of message is very important to ensure the whole public understands what it means.
As most business consultants will tell you, there is likely to be a common thread running through your best clients. It might be what they do, what they earn, where they live or the particular advice they need from you. Whatever that common thread is, however, it will help you understand the niche in which you work best – and are most appreciated.
Once you know what your niche is, you can then start to compare this to those you consider your competitors. In fact, once you take a closer look, you will probably find many businesses are not your competition at all. They will also have a niche – and the odds are it will be a completely different one to yours, which means two things.
First, you now understand how you are different from your competition and can reflect that differentiation in your messages and approach. Second, with the knowledge of what constitutes real competition, you can start to seek out business opportunities with those whose skills are complementary.
If someone suggested you work with a solicitor, there would be few questions – you understand how clients could benefit from the new and wider range of services such an arrangement could offer. For the same reasons, you can also work with another adviser. If their skills complement yours and their client base is different from yours, then joining forces – or at least, using each other to refer clients with particular needs – can offer a new and wider range of services with no greater threat to your business than an accountant.
Your clients, however, will greatly appreciate the move and, despite being offered the services of a new person from a new company, will appreciate you are prepared to offer them the best of everything and actually become more loyal as a result.
Of course, getting your competition to work for you is not just about working with them. Assuming you know what your niche is – as a result of an examination of your best clients and your own skills – you should then be watching competitors in similar and complementary niches to make sure you are not missing anything.
A good start will be their website, which will show you both what they are saying to clients and the way they are saying it. It will also give you an idea of what they consider important and what developments they are backing or dismissing. Once you have had a look, you can decide whether that has highlighted anything that needs to be addressed within your own business.
A website can also be a good source of information about partnerships other advisers are making and suppliers they may be working with. If you need a supplier, then competitors can be a source of reference – at the very least, it can help you decide against someone, just in case the Chinese walls are not high enough.
Finally, seeing their website and office premises will also give you an idea of how they treat their clients. This will tell you a lot about what you are up against in terms of the professionalism and service offering that your clients’ friends or colleagues may be experiencing elsewhere.