Whenever consumer spending is slowing down, you need to defend your market position and maintain your competitive edge. Tom Whitney shows you how to stay ahead of your rivals
- Know the competition. Find out who your competitors are, what they are offering and what their unique selling point (USP) is. This will identify the areas you need to compete in, as well as giving you a platform for differentiating yourself.
- Know your customers. Customer expectations can change dramatically when economic conditions are unstable. Find out what matters to your customers now - is it lower price, more flexible service, the latest products? Revise your sales and marketing strategy accordingly.
- Differentiate. It's essential to give your customers good reasons to come to you rather than a rival. Your USP should tap into what customers want and it should be clear and obvious - no-one should have to ask what makes you different.
- Step up your marketing. Make more effort to tell people who you are, what you sell and why they should buy from you. It doesn't have to be expensive; marketing can range from posters in your window and leaflet drops through to advertising campaigns in local media.
- Update your image. Simple steps such as painting the front of your premises can make your business look more modern and inviting. But look also at business cards, stationery, your website, branded packaging, clothing and so on. Does your image reflect your USP?
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- Look after your existing customers. They will be your competitors' target market. Provide better customer service by being more responsive to their needs and expectations. If feasible, consider offering low-cost extras such as improved credit terms, discounts or loyalty schemes - remember, it's cheaper and easier to keep customers than to find new ones.
- Target new markets. Selling into a greater number of markets can increase your customer base and spread your risk. Consider whether you can sell online or overseas, for example. Are there groups you've never targeted before who might be interested in your offer? Don't waste time marketing to people who won't be interested, however.
- Expand your offer. What related products or services might your customers be interested in? You might even consider diversifying into another area - many cafes have successfully offered Internet access, for example.
- Be the best employer. Skilled, motivated staff underpin vibrant, growing businesses. But attracting them means more than paying a competitive wage - people are often more impressed by a good working atmosphere and benefits such as flexible working and structured career development.
- Look to the future. Businesses that plan for growth are more successful than those that are happy to stay still. Keep up with developments in your sector, follow consumer trends, invest in new technology and - crucially - have a clear idea of where you want to be in one, three and five years' time.