“Kill the Competition” Is Not a Rallying Cry

During a recent product launch meeting at a high-profile SaaS company, the senior leadership team (attempted) to motivate their team using the all too familiar “kill the competition” rallying cry.

“We’re going to obliterate them!”
            “We’re going to make those guys worry about their mortgages.”

The team was pumped. Mouths frothed. Fists were raised. They were poised to attack.

Yet, in the ensuing months, the team failed to meet their goals. They didn’t win much new business at all, in fact, they faced some major customer churn.

Focusing on beating the competition (rather than winning customers) is a common strategic error that often goes unnoticed in the heat of the moment. Yet over time, this mistake stymies growth, stifles innovation, and ultimately, erodes the success that leaders are trying to create.

An organization must stand for something; it can’t just be against someone else. When leaders focus on killing the competition, instead of adding value to customers, some challenging consequences emerge:

  • Short-term thinking: Picture two salespeople calling on the same customer. One spends most of his customer face-time poking holes in the competition. He drops subtle and not-so-subtle language about how his company is better. He wants to beat the other salesperson and win the deal. His competitor spends her time asking the customer questions about their business. She focuses on their objectives. When she presents her solution, she talks about the impact she can have on the customer’s business. Who do you think the customer wants to do business with? The salesperson focused on the competition, or the salesperson focused on them (the customer)? Which deal will be more sticky- the deal based on marginal pricing and specs differences? Or the deal with strategic objectives at the core?
  • Stalled Innovation: When an organization develops a self-focus (as they do in a kill-the-competition culture) a very important person becomes notably absent from internal conversations: the customer. Without the customer at the center, innovation amounts to nothing more than keeping up with the small features competitors are offering; incremental gains are lost the following quarter. A breakthrough is almost never a possibility. When an organization loses sight of their customer, they miss the big and small opportunities to evolve.
  • A lack of emotional resilience: When your sole focus is on beating someone else, and you start losing, a downward spiral is inevitable. Work starts to feel like an uphill battle, where you’re pushing against another force, rather than moving with the energy of an exciting goal. We all have an inherent desire to make a positive impact. Taking abstract ‘market share’ from anonymous other people (your competition) is not inspiring. Every business, even the most successful organizations, will have peaks and valleys. Without a Noble Purpose, the valleys become crippling.

This troubling ‘kill the competition’ narrative emerges in the micro, with individual salespeople and small teams. It also happens in the macro, with the entire organization shifting its focus away from customers and obsessing over internal metrics and market share.

In an uncertain economy, competition can become fierce. With quickly developing technology, the race picks up speed. The organizations that “win” will be the ones that rise above the head-to-head, recognizing the ultimate end game is customer impact.