Do You Suffer from Follower Syndrome?
Three ways to fight it and come out ahead of your competition
by Chia-Li Chien | May 06, 2013
I see it way too many times in my business. Clients who are caught in competition mode and can’t pull themselves out of it. And I want to make this clear from the very beginning—trying to catch up or keep up with competitors does not create value in your business.
It does, however, create frustration and second and third place rankings in your industry. It makes you feel as if you must always answer the challenges to your brand. And I can promise you this—if you continue to follow, you’re going to get caught in a price war—which can further erode your profits and undermine your brand identity and product quality.
The best way to overcome Follower Syndrome? Shift the way you think. Not easy, I know. But necessary. Consider the stock market. (Of course, your stockbroker knows much more about this — this is just a general rule of thumb.) When it’s down, most of us instinctively want to sell. After all, who wants to go down with a sinking ship? However, just the opposite of that instinct is usually the smartest thing to do—buy! And when the stock market is up (and trading at top dollar), don’t buy. That’s the time to sell! Which leads me to the first way to fight follower syndrome—
Tactic #1—Go Against the Herd
So back to an earlier point. Are you caught in price war, causing constant worry about keeping up in volume and a decrease in quality? You must begin to break away from these habits and find meaning in your own data, findings and results and chart your own path. Look at the herd with more critical thinking. For example, in my neighborhood, there are three fast food restaurants on three corners of a busy intersection that always have a line at the drive-through and filled parking lots. On the fourth corner, there is a vacant commercial property.
Wouldn’t it make sense to put in a fast food franchise in that building and join in where there are already winners? No! When you see a similar industry expanding fast, it’s a warning signal that the market is saturated. The booming burger business should discourage you, not encourage you to join the herd. Remember, you want to go against the herd!
Tactic #2—Put Innovation Processes in Place
Whether you are trying to imitate your competitors in price or some other way—look and feel, media buys, social marketing, etc. —you are most likely blindly following their lead. Blindly. What do you really know about the inside operations that result in the public-facing company you see? Most likely nothing to very little. To borrow from grade school lingo—don’t be a copycat. You really can’t and you really
don’t have to. You have spent years putting together a team that can make your company grow and build value. Maximize what you have in place. Optimize your own inside operations.
When I was dating my husband, his parents were successful restaurant owners. Their food was excellent and they took much pride in what came out of their kitchen and went into the dining room. They were passionate about the business. They fully understood that diners had many, many options when the time came to make a choice about where to eat, and it motivated them to ensure their cuisine and customer service was top-notch.
On their days off, my future in-laws would go to another restaurant to eat. It’s not why you think, though. They didn’t want to see how they could copycat other establishments—they wanted to see how they could be different—in their own unique, satisfactory way. If they found a dish they loved, they might innovate or create a “mash-up” from their own kitchen, resulting in a dish that reflected the tastes, presentation and quality that their customers expected from their restaurant. Not the restaurant down the street.
Again, it’s perhaps a shift in how you’ve been thinking about your competition all these years. Without an innovation process, without being intentional in how you uniquely provide your goods or services, you will tend to copy your competitors.
How can you make innovation processes work for you?
• Look at the market and internalize what is happening. Spend time with your team on a regular basis and identify ways to make industry trends unique to your company.
• Don’t focus only on your competitors. instead, look at the entire market—regionally, nationally and globally.
• Be quick. Innovation processes enable you to move quickly when it’s time to get an idea out there.
Without innovation processes, you will tend to continue to copycat, overlooking your own distinct opportunities, ideas and efficiencies that you can develop and offer to your existing customer base and use to acquire new customers. You being uniquely you will build business value beyond what you may have imagined, which means you will need to deploy Tactic #3—
Tactic #3—Re-visit Your Business Model
So you have made that break from the herd, and your innovation processes have led to new lines, expansion, new markets, etc. That’s great! Now what do you do? How can you avoid getting back into the trap of following new competition or new-to-you competitors?
While your entire business model will probably need changes, one of the first and most obvious places to start is to look again at your workforce. Perhaps continuing to manufacture or sell the way you always did will no longer work. And mostly likely, operating in the same way as your competitors won’t work either. If you determine your workforce must change to fit your revised business model, consider these ideas:
1. Be flexible. The way it’s always been done does not have to be the way you will do it.
2. Take advantage of what is available. Is your area an incubator for engineers? Educated stay-at-home mom? How can you put them to work for you?
3. Don’t be afraid of a virtual workforce. People in multiple locations can work to your advantage—literally!
4. Outsource anything that is not a core competency. Do what you do best and let others do the rest!
Above all, remain flexible, from your business model to actual operations. This flexibility is what will enable you to leverage the best resources and technology out there to get better—and continue to build business value. However, there is something else you can do when you are caught in a deadly competitive cycle. But I don’t recommend it. And that is—
About ten years ago, I came across a software company that had been in business, very successfully, about fifteen years. The company was founded at the perfect time to enter the market—the right time, the right place and the right people. At the time, they were the only major player in the forefront. This company’s proprietary technology required their product to be installed on their customer’s servers, which worked when that was new technology. However, as we all know, much has changed in software technology over the last ten years. Unfortunately, this company, despite the obvious and inevitable changes taking place throughout their entire market, did nothing.
Now, it appears they may have missed the opportunity to change entirely. They are behind on technology development, with the prospect of getting up to speed very slim due to the enormous expense to simply catch-up—not to mention get ahead of the now 3 or 4 other major players in their market. They have no one to sell to. No buyer or even investor is interested in a company that must change to survive, but has no capital to make those changes. It’s sad to see. The fact is, while trying to avoid increasing capital risk in order to make the changes they needed, the company inadvertently doubled or tripled its risk of failure.
Decide to beat Follower Syndrome and start fighting it with the tactics I’ve outlined here for you, and most likely what happened to this software company will not happen to you. And remember, doing nothing is the most risky tactic of all.
As business people and entrepreneurs, it’s our natural instinct and/or tendency to compete. After all, we fanatically follow and play sports, obsess over Words with Friends and cheer on the Biggest Loser. It’s all over our culture. We must beat our competition to win.
It’s time to shift our thinking. What if we decide we must simply be competitive to win? Notice what I said. Not beating our competition. Being competitive. Playing to win. Shifting your focus to beating the odds and being on your best game. Working toward building value in your business instead of tearing down your competitors.
What if we could shift our thinking from “what is my competition doing” to “what can I do to make my company better?”
See how that works? Starting now, shift your thinking, change your tactics and intentionally refuse to succumb to Follower Syndrome.
About Chia-Li Chien
Chia-Li Chien, CFP®, CRPC, PMP; Chia-Li “like JOLLY,” Succession Strategist of Value Growth Institute, dedicated to helping private business owners increase their company equity value. She is the award-winning author of the books Show Me The Money and Work toward Reward and a faculty of the American Management Association. Her blog and newsletter was named a Top Small Business Resource by the New York Times You’re the Boss blog. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (704) 268-9378 .