By Sallie W. Boyles
Who is your competition?
No matter what you do, including volunteering for a nonprofit organization, you probably encounter many different competitors.
From growing up in my parents’ retail store, I learned early on that people chose where they wanted to shop, which was why providing desired products and services plus treating people kindly and fairly were essential for attracting and keeping customers. My hands-on education also delivered insights about promoting our advantages in comparison to what others offered.
The Store Across the Street
During the decades in which my parents owned and operated their business, their main competition for much of that time was across the street, on the opposite side of the town square. Instead of expressing frustration over the other retailer’s location, my mom and dad would say, “Competition brings business.”
They explained how a variety of downtown businesses drew shoppers to the area. When running multiple errands, people further wanted options. Knowing another store was across the street (if they didn’t find what they were seeking at the first stop) would deter locals from driving to the city for a broader selection. My parents, in turn, acted upon their words by doing as much business as possible neighboring establishments.
Taking “what goes around comes around” to heart, my parents also espoused and enforced the following rule:
Never speak negatively about the competition.
The decree applied to all competitors, but the proprietor of the store across the street was the first and prime example for me.
My parents held him in the highest regard. Referring to him as “Mr.” X (using his actual last name), they identified him as a “gentleman” who ran an honest business. Recalling the time my mom introduced us, I picture him wearing a dark suit. I was terribly shy, but his formal attire, stance, and tone of voice compelled me to leave a favorable impression. Standing up straight, I said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
Such courteous behavior was not a onetime act. My sisters and I knew to guard our tongues if any mention of Mr. X or his business came up. If our parents had ever heard (or learned of) either of my sisters or me so much as hinting we had a better store, if we had somehow expressed that people should buy from us rather than from him, the punishment would have been harsh. We were to be humble and polite.
Their rule was easy for us to follow. We didn’t enjoy bragging, and we had no reason to trash Mr. X.
I was 12 years old when an incident allowed me to appreciate fully the value of speaking positively about the store across the street.
As a large group of girls formed in the schoolyard for recess, an acquaintance in my grade (she was neither a friend nor a classmate) became the center of attention. It was her birthday, and she was showing off a gift from her parents. In making a big deal about it coming from Mr. X’s store, the girl locked eyes with me, although I was standing a few feet away. Her gaze made me uncomfortable, but I smiled and wished her a happy birthday.
That did not appease her. Surrounded by other girls, including her pals, she clearly wanted me to have a close-up view of her gift. Meeting her challenge, I stepped forward and said, “It’s really pretty.” Yes, I meant it. Reading uncertainty in her expression, I added, “It really is.” She seemed perplexed, not pleased.
Our interaction ended there, so I have no means of knowing if my positive words merely annoyed her or left her with something to ponder. It didn’t matter. If I had not been complimentary, if I had exhibited any behavior that she or others could have interpreted as critical or rude, I would have stirred up bad feelings and possibly prompted a verbal exchange. That would have reflected negatively on my family and me, not on Mr. X.
By complimenting the gift purchased from the store across the street, I gave a compliment to my parents and their business.
Speaking of the Competition
- Focus on your assets rather than make every pitch about why you are better than they are.
- Do not trash them.
- If you don’t have kind words for them, say nothing.
- If they trash you, stick to positive messaging and avoid engaging them.
- Acknowledge their qualities and even praise them when it’s appropriate.
Most importantly, carefully consider what you want to accomplish with your words before opening your mouth. Every little thing you say about them will speak volumes about you.
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady
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