5 ways a small business can beat its much larger competitors

You can consistently beat your largest of competitors.

When you’re a small business that’s stretched thin, can’t afford specialized resources, and everyone is wearing multiple hats, it’s easy to be intimidated by larger competitors. But if you match your strengths against their weaknesses, you can consistently beat them. Here’s how:

  1. Have Stronger Relationships. Sure, big companies have a lot of staff, but they also have to be everywhere at once. If relationships are key to your line of business, then focus on developing particularly strong ones, even if it means having fewer of them. If you try to go after any RFP that comes your way, you’ll be bidding with weaker relationships and at a disadvantage to your larger competitors. But on the other hand, if you build strong relationships you'll have an advantage over all potential competitors. Simply having a contract does not mean you have a strong relationship. And just because you haven't heard any complaints doesn't mean the customer loves you. Strong relationships require hard work and offering more added value than any alternatives. Do work harder, but also work smarter to build strong relationships.
  2. Present a More Compelling Message. This is surprisingly difficult for large companies. They have too many people involved. No one person knows enough to develop the message. The right people aren’t always involved. Most of the time, they avoid strong messages because they are too hard to get a consensus on. They water themselves down to avoid taking any risks. Even if they somehow manage to identify a message, they have too many writers to get it into the document consistently. Very few large companies can overcome these challenges. Having fewer people involved gives you the opportunity to conceive of a strong, compelling message, and do a better job of making your proposal reflect it. Having a strong message isn't just about finding the magic words. It's about differentiation, positioning, and value. You're not stuck with meaningless corporate branding. You can provide a meaningful difference, communicate it better, and be the customer's best alternative. 
  3. Follow the Right Process, Better. You would think that large, established companies would have comprehensive, established processes for winning bids. Most of them think they do. They often have dozens of them. For each pursuit, there will be many people involved who think they know the best approach. And they won't all agree. Proposal teams are formed with people who report to many different supervisors, and getting them all to do things a particular way can be a challenge. There is often a considerable amount of conflict, struggle, and politics involved. It doesn’t help that most large companies are really collections of projects and acquisitions (each one coming with a new set of processes). The result is that they have difficulty getting people to follow "the" process. You can have a better process than they do, and you can get everyone to follow it. Most companies that say they have a process really just have a way of doing things (and in reality it’s often a mess). You can have a real, fully documented, repeatable process that everyone involved supports. It can enable your team to outperform theirs. If you have the expertise in house, then dedicate the time to making it work. If you don’t have the time or expertise, PropLIBRARY’s off-the-shelf MustWin Process can give you a better and more thoroughly documented process than most large companies have, and ours comes with online training. 
  4. Develop an Information Advantage. One of the most important things you can do to improve your ability to win is to develop an information advantage for each pursuit. If you are selective about your pursuits, you can do a better job of doing your homework than a larger competitor that is spread too thin and doesn’t place the same priority on the opportunity that you do. It is similar to relationship building, above. In fact, you can measure the strength of your customer relationships by how well they deliver an information advantage. It’s not just about gathering the information, it’s about taking advantage of it. It is not unusual for someone in a company to have information and either fail to pass it on (often the business development manager has a limited role in writing the proposal), put it in a report that no one reads, put the information in the wrong format so that it’s not clear how to best use it, or just have it get lost in all the documents and files that pass by. So it is also similar to developing a compelling message. The best way to make sure it happens is to have the right flow of information, from gathering, through assessing, articulating, and writing. That also makes it similar to following the right process and doing a better job of it.
  5. Provide a better offering. Tailor your approaches based on your information advantage. Don't just claim innovation. Deliver it. Leverage your better relationships that provide an information advantage into providing solutions that better meet your customers' needs. Instead of getting specific, large companies will most often resort to proposals based on "best practices" and vague promises of resource "reach back." You, on the other hand, need to be position to get specific about what you will do, how it reflects the customer's preferences, and how the customer will benefit. 
See also:
Small Business

These five items are related to one another.  If you have stronger relationships that produce an information advantage that you turn into a more compelling message that you then turn into a better proposal by doing a better job of following a better process, you will have a significant competitive advantage.  All your large competitors have is the appearance of resources. But all those staff are on contracts, and they have just as much difficulty finding relevant staff to bid as you do. And if you've developed a stronger customer relationship, then all those project citations they have will not be as relevant as the ones that you have. If you combine it all with a better offering, you can outscore your larger competitors in every category. 

But you don’t have the resources to apply your strengths to every lead you come across. It works best when you pursue leads that have related relationships, sources of information, and bid strategies. It works best when you are strategic rather than opportunistic.

Being opportunistic seems like the easiest way to grab a lot of business quickly, but in reality it means that you match your weakness against your competitors' strengths, which always results in lower win rates. Opportunistic bidding is about trying to be lucky, when in reality you're just competing on price. Instead of trying to get lucky, small businesses need to be smart in order to win. It’s not hard to be smarter than a large dinosaur of a competitor. But it does take more discipline than being opportunistic.


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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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