Try Loving Your Competitor’s Product

Taking friendly competition to the next level.

agilityHave you ever encountered a problem when using a product and thought to yourself, “Have the people who designed this product ever even used it themselves? How could they not have noticed this?”

It’s astonishing how frequently we encounter decision makers who have little to no experience using their own company’s products. Perhaps even more mystifying are companies that have an unwritten rule discouraging employees from using its competitors’ products.

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was said to have regarded employees who used iPhones as traitors. Is it any wonder that Microsoft has struggled to gain share in the smartphone market, when employees had so little experience with the products that led in that market?

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Everyday use of your and your competitors’ products can show where your offerings are lacking.

Everyday use of your own and your competitors’ products and services can open your eyes about where your offerings are lacking, and how and where you can create more value.

It’s important, though, to keep an open mind when you’re considering a competitor’s product. It’s extremely easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because it’s your competitor’s, it’s no good.

Instead, take a moment to recognize that natural bias, then remove it from your mind. Imagine that you are a typical consumer, and feel what it’s like to fall in love with your competitor’s product—or at least to be impartial.

Although difficult, it’s essential for you to do this if you wish to gain insights on where you can improve and how you can differentiate your products from your competitors’.

When you are using your own product or that of a competitor, ask yourself questions like:

  • What problem does this product solve for me, and what are the other ways I could have solved this problem?
  • What new problems does the product create?
  • What might I do before, and after I use this product? What other products do I use with it?
  • How could the experience be improved, or customized for different types of users?

At the same time, allow yourself to feel the frustrations inherent to using your own company’s products. What can go wrong when you use it? What were you hoping to gain from using the product that did not materialize?

By asking questions like this while experiencing your own and competitors’ products firsthand, you can gain insights that market research will never give you. You can spot opportunities to enhance your customer’s experience, and the value your product or service brings.

When Delta Air Lines wanted to improve its customer experience, the company’s top management team was asked to “fly like a customer.” This meant going through the process of using the Delta website to find flights and buy tickets online, wait through long security lines at the airport, and sit in cramped coach seats—everything Delta’s typical customers experienced.

Normally, a top airline executive’s flying experience—complete with free tickets reserved and picked up by an assistant, zipping through security lines, and sitting in first class—is nothing like a typical customer’s. So you can imagine the insights they gained.

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Employ people who are—or, at least, who think like—your users.

As a result of experiencing these pain points firsthand, Delta’s leaders creatively innovated enhancements in check-in procedures, gate assistance, onboard food and beverage service, seat comfort, overhead bin design, safety announcements, and more. Delta now leads the major network carriers in the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

In addition to gaining experience as a user of your own products, be sure to employ people who are—or, at least, who think like—your users.

If you sell to young people, listen to your interns, and place them in parts of your business that need a shot of innovation or a fresh view on the young customers’ experience.

If you sell to mechanics, employ mechanics. If you sell to doctors and nurses, be sure to include a few of those on your staff.

Mars, Inc’s pet food division, which produces the Whiskas and Pedrigree brands, allows employees to bring dogs to work, partly to give employees more chances to observe pets’ likes and dislikes. Tiffany Bierer, the division’s head of health and nutritional sciences says “I’ve tasted everything we make.” Yes—that means everything from canned cat food with “gravy” to doggie biscuits (Bierer’s personal favorite) and all the rest.

So next time you are wondering how to break out of the competitive pack, try loving your competitor’s product, and see what you discover. goldbrown2

Adapted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, from The Agility Advantage: How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World by Amanda Setili. Copyright (c) 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. Click here to learn more.

Amanda Setili is managing partner of the strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates, whose clients include Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and Walmart. She previously held positions with Global Food Exchange, McKinsey & Company, Asia Connect in Malaysia, and Kimberly-Clark.

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