Watching your competition: This has become incredibly interesting in the past few years. The industry is changing daily. Your competitors are being bought out, going out of business, or growing rapidly. Why should you care?

We, as contractors, are so into the trees that many times we can't see the forest. We don't want the same thing to happen to us as happened to makers of LP records, 8-track tapes, vacuum tubes, or horses and buggies.

It's imperative that you read outside the industry, go to industry meetings, and speak with people about their opinions. You might even save a technician from being stolen.

I know of several owners who meet regularly with their competition on boards of industry associations. Several have told me that they couldn't steal their competition's best tech and look them in the eye at an association meeting. You might say, "Well, that's business." However, we all are human first.

Get out there

So, how do you watch the competition? First, commit to spending at least 15 minutes (and preferably 30 minutes) per day reading. Subscribe to industry publications and read them. Then look atBusiness Week, Fortune,or other business publications to learn general business and consumer trends.

Make sure that you also read the local newspapers and magazines. Pay attention to the advertisements that your competition places in the local media. You may get information about pricing, how they are going to market, etc. If you get a direct-mail piece at your home, save it. This is also valuable information as to the marketing tactics of your competition.

Look at websites. Remember that websites are like big Yellow Pages ads. You can get a lot of information about what your competition is saying to prospective customers here.

Go to association meetings and trade shows. At local association meetings you'll see your competition. You'll learn from the speakers as well as the conversations at the breakfast, lunch, or dinner tables. At trade shows, talk with vendors in the booths. Ask them their opinions of what is going on in the industry - everyone has one.

Look when you drive around. Notice truck names. Notice job signs in residential neighborhoods. Be aware when you drive. You'll find out a lot simply by paying attention.

You charge how much?

Price your competition. You can get a general idea of what everyone is charging simply by picking up the telephone and asking. You'll know prices for flat rate, service agreements, etc. If someone calls your company asking for prices, please ask them whether you can schedule a service call.

Of the hundreds of contractors I've called over the years asking for pricing, I've only been asked to schedule a service call once or twice!

Salespeople and owners in some companies ask a friend to call the competition and get a quote for a replacement system or other service. Or, in cases where there has to be a competitive bid, they negotiate a "last look." All of this competitive information helps plan your sales and marketing strategy.

Instruct your dispatcher, receptionist, and customer service representatives to make a note every time a customer or potential customer complains about a competitor and give that note to you or a designated manager. Your employees get a lot of information about your competition just by being on the telephone with customers and prospective customers.

Customers have a choice. The more you know about your competition, the easier that it is to say why your company is different, better, and why they should use you.