How to get ready for the ambush... Six levels of competitive readiness E. Michael Shays CMC When you build your better mousetrap, some of those beating a path to your door will figure out a way to build your mousetrap at lower cost. You will very soon find you have competition. To succeed today you need more than the right product or service. As soon as the market catches on, someone else will find a way to provide a similar product or service. To stay a step ahead of this competition you must already have a plan to move your product or service up a hierarchy of competitive levels. Once you have provided the need at one level, you have to be prepared to provide the need at the next level. This is product readiness for the competitive ambush ahead. 1. The right features We can assume you now have a product or service with the right features. This is the base level. The product or service satisfies the basic functional expectations of those in your market. In addition, you provide an acceptable level of delivery, customer support, and warranty. If you are the only provider of your product you might get by for a time with minimal customer service. However, few companies, even those which are regulated, have that luxury. 2. The right price If you are successful at the basic level you will soon have competition. The second level of competitive readiness is best price. All features of the product being the same, the consumer will most often buy the one that costs less. Getting your costs down is critical. When products or services are usually purchased on the basis of price, customers treat them like commodities. Becoming viewed as a commodity producer is the great fear of all businesses from manufacturers to public accounting firms. They need to differentiate their products but if their products and services are the same, and their prices match, what can they do? 3. The right quality They can provide a higher quality than the competition. Features and cost being equal, the consumer or industrial buyer goes for the higher quality. When your costs match your competition, your quality must be better. 4. The right care When the quality of your product matches that of your competition, the consumer will then focus on the company and the people in it that are more satisfying to deal with. You may provide generic services and support, but that is only to be expected. Generic support is not a satisfier, but fail to live up to customer expectation and your level of support is a dissatisfier. You must raise the level of customer care with augmented features customers did not think of or thought of but did not expect. Care for the customer is your most powerful strategic weapon. 5. New features The problem with providing unexpected enhancements to product, service or support is that soon others copy you. What was once unexpected becomes expected, and you will soon need to scale to the next level, developing potential new features in the product and customer care. 7. Time to market The potential product brings us back to the beginning of this cycle: the right product features. To link the end of this cycle with a new beginning, there is yet one more level to plan for: time to market. Getting your new potential product to market ahead of your competition will help you maintain product leadership and retain ¬customer loyalty. Being competitively ready requires you to understand all levels in the competitive hierarchy and to be prepared to reach each at the right time. * * * E. MICHAEL SHAYS CMC (email@example.com) is President of EMS Network, International, an association of senior management consultants helping clients faced with conflict, transition, stagnation, and management dilemmas.