You may have been there before. You’re in an online business group. You’re in the group with mostly those who are B2B consultants. Someone asks a question, is looking for a service provider recommendations or shares an opinion and it’s picked on like the seagulls snapping at the snarky crab on Finding Nemo.
You comment and someone one ups you. Then their friend chimes in. Ohhh, they’re gaining steam. Yet another chimes in, expressing advice that feels like a personal attack. You respond, or not, and one ally quietly clicks your comments LIKE button. You’ve lost this battle, this job opportunity, this online expert bickering match. You feel defeated and log off of Facebook for the rest of the afternoon.
A few years ago in a major international entrepreneurial freedom group, this was me. A girl asked about branding. I attempted to coach her on the spot, asking probing questions to see what was at the core of her inquiry. Another woman chimed in and with seething passive aggression said “the others” don’t know what they are talking about and that all she needed to do was X, Y, Z. I let her know by directly addressing her that she was rude. Her crew pounced and I made a conscious decision to disengage because they obviously needed to be right, to woo this group member and get her to buy in, and for me to die a mini death by supercoach expertise.
It happens a lot on Facebook groups specifically. LinkedIn groups are either overwrought with spam or painfully silent with one dedicated marketer pushing all of their latest blog posts to an uninterested group of people who joined but saw the Lone Wolf and abandoned any interest in participation. Other communities suffer with these same passive aggressive members or expression blatant aggression plus exclusivity or cliques, making outsiders feel unwelcome. The only way around it is not to get involved at or or come in, bow down, and let the in-crowd maintain their position of dominance within the space. Online groups, niche communities, and high school have so much in common.
Like high school, I typically navigate things pretty well without compromising my sensibilities. In the 11th grade, one girl followed me home with a boy and another girl ready to jump me. When I stopped and addressed her, rather than allowing her to pursue me for fight, she paused. I asked her what her issue was?When she responded, I assured her that she needed to check her friends who had stirred up the mess and explained that I wanted no parts in her planned fisticuffs. I explained that I’m about my education, not foolishness, and so she could go on. I wasn’t the one, the two or the three.
Unfortunately, that same girl was killed the next year for doing the same thing to someone more aggressive than she was. Granted, online aggressors won’t meet that same end, but there are some lessons in navigating the steep and competitive marketplace where we find ourselves at odds with similar services ready for a fight, with friends ready to brawl, when we are here all trying to make a living. By understanding the truth of things at the core, we can change our existence and realize that we are NOT the one to be involved in those types of exchanges. We are here for one goal and that doesn’t involve a toss up between you and seeming competitors.
I Used To Be A Hater
I didn’t always have this awareness. I wasn’t always clear that there was no need for me to get involved in the petty tug of wars with people who are just trying to run profitable businesses like I am. In fact, at one time I started to unfollow people who made me feel inferior because of their huge popularity and social proof of massive profits. They had no intention of making me feel bad, I just felt bad because I couldn’t figure out how to get to their level and have the same success as them. So I started to internalize things.
There was one woman who was fair skinned and thin and so to make myself feel better, I would say, “Oh yeah, people WOULD buy from her. She’s fair, thin and more mainstream looking. Nobody will buy from me because I am nearly 6 feet tall, plus sized and wear headwraps, big bracelet-sized earrings and Chuck Taylors.” I felt justified in that conclusion until I saw another girl, brown-skinned and heavier, and I said, “Oh, see. People buy from her because she has pretty branding and she has a cute family. That’s it. If I had a fine husband and a well-dressed baby, I would be successful too.” Then there was the white girl, the Asian girl, the gay white guy, the short heavy church lady with a Jheri curl–anybody–who I fooled myself believing all had advantages over me.
That thinking made me feel defeated with no hope of ever being where I wanted to be in my business. My competitors appeared to be winning. By making superficial differences the reason they won and why I failed, I got to sit on my laurels, feel bad about myself and not see areas where I could improve. It allowed me to sleep all day and watch Rachel Ray with no client interruptions since I had none. It was a blessing and a curse.
Then I realized that there were people looking at me and thinking similar things. I was winning to them. I had successes they never had, worked in the past with clients that they wanted, and had a brand story that they envied. It felt icky when I started to hear what people felt about me. “She has no business getting those opportunities. She just got that because she knows someone from the inside.” People were completely discounting my hard work and making my success about something transient and not about the sleepless YEARS I had when establishing myself as a freelance marketing and creative professional.
It didn’t feel good and I had to start seeing what was really at the core of my negative feelings toward people who had done nothing to me, didn’t know me, and if we were acquaintances, people who had only been kind to me. I was tripping! The truth is some things about what I was doing were just not what the people I was targeting wanted.
Additionally, it started to be clear that some of those I envied struggled in areas that I did well in. Yet the others who looked at me funny saw that I struggled in areas they did well in. Then there were some that just were dope across the board and they just did good and how they served worked undeniably well for them. Still, I had a business that I needed to fix and seeing things from a different perspective changed things for me.
How To Stand Out From Your Competitors
There is a little secret to all of this: There is no competition. Sure there are multiple people our target customers can choose from but each service provider has their thing and they market, price, and deliver it differently. Rather than becoming consumed in how people who offer similar services win, start to focus on how you can market, price and deliver your unique thing in a way that adds value to your buyers.
Each business should have a unique value proposition. They are typically around speed, exclusivity, experience, price, availability and location. In a specific space, there may be a handful of businesses offering very similar services–Home Depot and Lowes, Uber and Lyft, Nike and Reebok, Google and Bing–but they “compete” on those unique value propositions. This creates options for buyers and opportunities to choose the experience they want based on the things that are most important to them.
With solopreneurs, the UVP’s are usually around the same things. Maybe you are the only photographer in a five mile radius. Maybe you are the only app developer that offers a paid premium upgrade to unlock more useful features. Maybe you are the only salon owner that is open on Sunday’s. Maybe you are the only graphic designer that uses minimalist design to convey a brands message. There may be others that offer the same service, but your particular mash up of perks will serve a particular type of person in the most effective way.
That very particular person is going to be your target market and you have likely turned blue in the face with the amount of talk there is on the subject. But if you take a look at the clients that you have worked with that were most appreciative of your work, paid the most, were pleasant to work with, paid on time, respected your process and got the best outcomes during their work with you. THOSE are the people that you need to continue to target. Early on you may not know this, but by keeping a running list of client attributes, you can go back and start to pick out who your good people are and what they look like so you can identify and start building relationships with people like them.
For example, I marketed my marketing and creative services to “black women” because that seemed cool since I was a black woman. In looking further at who my greatest experiences were with, they were with boomers who had been in business for decades but who didn’t have the time or the know-how to manage content development, branding, web design and optimization, online advertising and media relations. Did you hear all of that? Many of my “competitors” knew one or a few of these components incredibly well, but would have to pass on the other parts of the work to other people. Like an agency, however, I knew all of these elements and was able to provide a full-service marketing solution in one stop–something that my older, seasoned and often inflexible clients didn’t want to try to figure out or manage by working with several people and personalities.
Your competitor has their target market, the people that benefit the most when working with them. Those usually are NOT the same as your people. I’d written about choosing coaches and the value in working with them and there are coaches that help people who have been in business less than two years, because they only have five years experience. Then there are coaches who have specialized in an industry for 20 years and can coach someone who has been in business 10 years and need help navigating the unique issues that a decade old business deals with. On the surface one could think that they are both business coaches, but on a molecular level, those businesses and the people they help are as different as the fingerprints on our respective hands.
Your competitors are only your contemporaries, peers who happen to coexist in this world at the same time offering products, services, and an experience that could appear to be the same, but that are an incredibly individual. It is going to be a better investment of your energy to work on product development, finding a product-market fit, and working on your user or customer experience than to expend energy and mindspace comparing yourselves to others, bickering with them over differences of opinions and approaches, or a fight for the same clients.
The client that prefers me was attracted to my particular way of being and how I delivered value to them. Sometimes people move from service provider to service provider and they will make comparisons, but whereas that may be a reflection on your service, many times it’s because the person valued another person’s UVP better than yours. It’s the client, not you, who is responsible for the switch. Barring them providing feedback on how you can improve your service so that they can continue to work with you, their assessment can be merely tied to a product-market mismatch.
For all of these reasons, copying branding, messaging and pricing just to match your contemporaries can be an awful business strategy that leads you to an early business grave. With the average rate of business failure annually, you don’t need that kind of help. If my agency solution is priced and marketed the same as the specialist who charges a fraction of my price because she provides a fraction of the service I offer, my business would become unsustainable and I would have to close down. On the other hand, if she looks at my price and thinks, “Oh, she charges more and she’s in marketing so we do the same thing. Let me charge the same.” she fails to understand that with higher dollar amounts, many are expecting a premium service that she might be unprepared to execute. It’s not that a specialist can’t charge premium prices–many times they can based on their specialization–but to do so with no real strategy would be another way to make sure things are mix matched and incongruent.
Beyond those basic business principles, there is a human nature element that must be considered. Like discussions of target markets, pricing, value and branding, the magic of relatability and trust shines through and through. The know, like and trust factor, as it is often referred is what makes for preferences in service providers and customer loyalty. Even a person with a magnificent product or service can turn people off with terrible personalities.
There are some people that simply don’t care for me or my way of doing things and then others who are magnetically drawn to me. Many clients have told me that as an older person, they had met a lot of tech savvy marketing consultants that made them feel dumb. However, I was patient and explained things in layman’s terms, making them feel empowered. For this reason, I’ve had repeat calls from people I’d met and worked with years ago, despite having many other service providers ready and willing to work for them.
How To Deal With Negative People
The woman in the freedom group who asked a question actually did resonate with the aggressive supercoach. What the woman wanted was an easy way out. The supercoach gave her that. My love for being thorough and effective wasn’t the woman’s MO. I should have never engaged supercoach. She was rude, but she had more at stake than I did–a client that she really may have been more equipped to serve. She was willing to fight to the death about it, but understanding that like with my high school bully, this fight wasn’t for me, I was able to disconnect and do other things.
We all have our why for doing this business and for many of us, it is not the be all end all. In some cases, it is and the stakes are high, especially in times of low cash flow, in cases where a business owner has a family they must provide for, and in instances where there are no other income or employment opportunities. When the stakes are incredibly high and there are no other outlets, priorities and diversions, sometimes the pressure and stress rubs off and you have a bad experience.
Keeping an understanding of stakes can help you brush off weird experiences with contemporaries. Although, some act like aliens from planet Cray-Cray, they are people with similar needs and vulnerabilities. How they deal with them isn’t your problem, but I’ve found it especially helpful to allow people their space to act out and then I either respond diplomatically or only reply with facts and specific requests that will help me get exactly what I need rather than trying to win an argument. Many times there is nothing I desperately need so the stakes aren’t high for me and I can walk away, allowing the person the freedom of acting out all by themselves (or with their clique, because…cliques).
How To Deliver A Superior Customer Experience
At the end of the day, being an entrepreneur is tough work and it’s a lot of trial, error, risk and loss. Adding the layer of worrying about other people only makes things unnecessarily worse. This is where “stay in your lane” makes sense. Work to become more confident in the outcomes that you provide by doing good work and asking for feedback from clients that you love because they will frame advice around loyalty to you and not an agenda to save money or some other excuse. I like to do closeout surveys and ask for testimonials because these open up the opportunity for them to tell you things they may have felt all along. With this, you can make necessary changes that will help you serve them and all future clients better.
Focus on making your clients happy and building a sustainable practice–not on contemporaries, unless they are so exceptional that you hire them to help you. Like Slick Rick says on La Di Da Di, “There is no competition.”