Although you may both be going after the same customer base, it’s not necessarily wise to treat competing companies as the enemy
When was the last time you sat down with your biggest competitor and had a friendly conversation over coffee? Possibly never.
Generally speaking, pumpers and plumbers are distrusting of one another. We judge each other's work, think we know best and use every mistake we find as evidence of incompetence.
This topic isn’t anything new. Read this excerpt I found in an old trade journal:
“We must continue to educate the public and demand their respect, for we cannot expect to receive any more than we ask. Trust each other, if we wish to be trusted by the public — cultivate self confidence.”
That trade journal is dated March 15, 1920.
What our speakeasy-era master plumber is trying to say is that before we can ask for the public to respect our profession, we have to respect one another first. When we slam the competition as incompetent, we tell the customer that pumpers and plumbers are crooks and liars.
We try to set ourselves apart by talking down about others, and this might work in the short term. It can breed immediate camaraderie with your customer, but then what? What if the next plumber down the line does it to you? Then, to that customer, you are no better than the rest. Before you know it, we are all bad guys. It becomes a bizarro version of “paying it forward.”
So what would happen if we demystified and humanized the competition? What if we built true respect for our competitor organizations?
Rumors gone wild
When we don’t know our competition, they become this wild beast with three heads. You hear things at the supply house, complaints from disgruntled customers, and other terrible rumors that are probably half-truths.
These are exactly the things that sow discord and degrade our respect for one another.
However, if you get to know your competition, even on a superficial level, you begin to understand that we are all out there doing the best that we can. Sure, you won’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but at least you understand where they are coming from.
These differences are actually great for a thriving and healthy competitive landscape. Competition isn’t bad. It keeps us all on our game and keeps us honest.
The better you know your competition, the better you can differentiate. It’s great to know the strengths and weaknesses of your competition because it allows you to define your unique value proposition to your customers. This also tends to make customer conversations about your competition more positive.
You might say something along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, we know those guys. They do great work. We do XYZ differently from them, and many of our customers appreciate that.”
That’s much better than, “Oh, yeah. Those guys. I’ve heard some things …”
We aren't Silicon Valley
There are differences between companies that should be celebrated. But what makes your company stand out from another isn’t going to be some deeply held trade secret. It most likely isn’t patentable material or destined to disrupt the septic pumping industrial complex.
For the most part we all do the same work, follow the same code, and work under the same municipality rules. I’m not saying you should open your books to your competitors. There can certainly be some things held close to your chest. But that shouldn’t preclude you from having a conversation about what’s working and not working.
If you work for yourself or are in a foreman position, it is especially dangerous to work in a bubble. You might be the best pumper in your area, but you don’t have all the answers. There is no shame in borrowing ideas from your brethren. If you are stuck on inventory management, ask other contractors how they handle it. That’s a large confusing mess that we all deal with on a daily basis.
And some issues are bigger than any one company or person can solve. Workforce development and regulatory concerns are great examples. These are the things keeping many plumbing contractors up at night, and they create common ground for us all.
What you can't talk about
A worthy disclaimer to this whole idea of competitive chats is that you can’t discuss pricing. At least, you can’t discuss it in a specific way that could be construed as price fixing. Outside of the merits of comparing flat rate with time and materials pricing, specific numbers should probably be kept to yourself.
If the idea of sitting down with your competition sounded scary or crazy before now, hopefully you are willing to take a second look. It is likely that your competitors are as passionate and committed as you are. They’re probably doing the best that they can, just like you.
If they aren’t willing to sit down with you, well, at least you tried. Extending the olive branch and trying to understand how your businesses fit together to provide adequate service coverage can make you both stronger. Who knows, maybe you can even start referring business to one another.
You’ll never know until you try.
About the author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.