ACOUPLE OF WEEKS AGO I talked about expanding the way you look at employee satisfactionCar washIt turns out that similar concepts can be applied to your relationship with your customers and competition.

You can really get wrapped up in worrying about your competition.  You sell hamburgers, I sell hamburgers, there’s five other places down the street who sell hamburgers.  There’s only a limited number of people who want to BUY hamburgers on any particular day, so your mission is to steal those customers away from the competition.

I propose that this is the wrong way to look at it.

Back when Coca-Cola was much younger, they were in the business of selling cola drinks.  At some point they became so incredibly successful that they were battling tooth and nail against Pepsi for a limited market.  It would be hard to grow much larger, lest the government step in to limit their growth toward being a monopoly.

They asked a key question:  What is the deeper problem the customer is trying to solve?

The fact is that their customers didn’t always want cola drinks, but they did need to address their thirst on a daily basis.  So the company expanded rapidly into other kinds of soft drinks.  When they became dominant at that, they expanded into drinks of all kinds, including bottled water.

Sure, you’re not a multi-billion-dollar company in danger of becoming a monopoly.  But this shows us a path out of the dog-eat-dog, win-lose competitive mindset.

Suppose you run a car wash, and are starting to worry that there’s too much competition in this area.  Taking customers away from competitors is hard:  You run a campaign that almost gives your washes away for free, and as soon as it ends, those people disappear in search of the next deal in the coupon book.

What is the customer’s problem?  The customer wants to keep their car clean.  Duh.

What’s deeper than that?  The customer wants to feel proud and accomplished when driving down the street.

Now, does that open up any new possibilities for you?  How about if you don’t just have $3 air fresheners, but you offer a $100 pinstriping appliqué?

I’m not in the business, so that’s probably a dumb idea.  But it’s an example of expanding your potential market beyond just being a car wash place.  Even if you do the pinstriping in conjunction with the auto parts shop down the road, you’re now standing out from the competition in a significant way.  You’re expanding the market for what you sell, in this case through additional atypical products.

If this idea becomes wildly successful, in another five years you could become the ONLY place in town which handles washes, detailing, and customization services.  It’s such a great business that you’re now giving the washes away for free because, hey, they never made that much money anyway.

There’s plenty of other ways to avoid the competition trap.  So when you’re feeling hemmed in to a limited market, it’s probably time to expand your view!