Learn from the best- Your competition

published in the Nashville Business Journal

Technology is pushing our world forward at an accelerated pace. Things are changing rapidly. So to stay out ahead of the curve in the business environment, leaders must be open and committed to learning constantly — often through the competition.

In my days in retailing I obsessed about this. I didn’t want to become the dinosaur. So I developed a passion for learning all I could about the best of the best in our industry. Additionally, I began to investigate other industries. This appetite for uncovering new opportunities that could positively impact our company became a touchstone of my time at Tractor Supply.

Continuous education is an essential component of business success. It doesn’t matter how you get there. Find your own way to a path of lifelong learning: It could impact your career in more ways than you realize. Here’s how to get started.

Study online. Learn from your most successful competitors. Start by visiting their websites and researching other information online. If your admired competitor is a public company, there is almost no limit to the data you can gather on the internet. As you study and identify topics of interest, focus your efforts on organizations that appear to have the most innovative products, processes and people.

Make contact. If you know someone at a competing organization, try to arrange an occasional coffee or lunch. It’s amazing what you can glean through casual conversation. You might even learn some interesting facts by asking about the company culture. And if you don’t know someone try cold calling the logical contact to start networking. Cold calling takes a bit of initiative, but it’s surprising how often these situations work out well for both parties.

Talk to customers. To learn more about the products from some of your most well-regarded competitors, find ways to identify and talk with their customers. Then be prepared to ask insightful questions about those products, including quality, effectiveness and value. You can even investigate future products not yet on the market by connecting with salespeople and viewing sales presentations.

Take a tour. In many industries on-site visits can be enlightening. Call ahead and ask the competition about a tour. Many companies are proud to show off their businesses. In some cases, for example at restaurants, hotels and retail locations, you can simply drop in and ask for a tour. In my career I found that most retailers are eager to show off their stores, both showrooms and backrooms.

Network regularly. Attend professional events, trade shows and any other gathering where you could meet and learn from other professionals. Find the right people to talk with and then casually ask the right questions. And just keep going. Once and a while you will hit on a nugget of information that will be of significant personal and/or professional benefit.

Read more books. This can take time but often yields tremendous knowledge. Choose business books that will be of most benefit to what you do on daily, and ask others for recommendations. Biographies about leaders in your industry can offer some refreshing inspiration, too. If you are in a rapidly changing field new books are released frequently, so keep a running book list on your phone.

Business is moving at warp speed. In this environment, the winners will be the ones who stay ahead of the curve by learning and innovating faster than the competition. The pioneering ideas at our company came from studying the industry, networking among competitors and visiting every place we thought could help us learn more.

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