washingtonpost.com
5 Ways to Outshine the Competition

Entrepreneur.com
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; 12:00 AM

Everywhere you turn, there's more competition. No matter what type of store or business you operate, there are bound to be others clamoring for your customers and your piece of the market. Plus, with consumers counting every penny and business purchasers scrutinizing expenditures like never before, winning over new customers and upselling old ones has become more challenging.

What will cause customers to buy from you rather than your competitors? The answer is to meet their needs in these five critical areas:

PriceGetting this right is the first order of business. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they're living a simpler life, spending less and being more frugal as a result of the recession, according to the latest American Pulse survey from BIGresearch. In fact, more than one-third of the survey respondents said that being able to pay their bills on time was a "luxury." In the face of this overwhelming need to fulfill shoppers' demand for affordability, it's essential to meet or beat the competition's pricing on selected front-line products and services. Then you can provide bundled services or additional products at more profitable price points.Added ValueOnline comparison shopping is the norm these days, and whether you sell online, offline or both, shoppers are looking for that little extra nudge when choosing where to make their final purchase. Free shipping, coupons and buy-one get-one sales are currently among the most popular incentives. You can also offer unique incentives, such as a special money-back guarantee or a free initial consultation, depending on your type of business, product or service. Evaluate what your unique customers need in this recession-era economy and create a special incentive that will motivate them to take action.ConvenienceGone are the days of cheap gas and moms with unlimited time to shop. Now customers want and expect convenience, which accounts in part for the tremendous surge in online shopping. If you have an e-commerce website, streamline the checkout process, particularly for returning customers. Make it easy to find in-depth information about products and to make returns, and offer customer service via e-mail and by phone for shoppers who want immediate answers. Traditional brick-and-mortar store owners should re-evaluate hours of operation, as well as checkout wait times and staffing to ensure a speedy and convenient shopping experience, especially if working mothers are your bread and butter.TrustCustomers are careful to spend their limited dollars wisely and are scrutinizing each purchase to make sure they're making a "safe" decision. They want to buy from companies they trust and believe in. Increasingly, shoppers are looking at business owners' backgrounds, the company history and even staff bios, and they want to learn what other customers have experienced. Recommendations from friends and peers--including consumer opinions posted online--are among the most trusted and can have the greatest influence on a purchase decision. So include testimonials, reviews or a message board on your website that helps customers understand why they should believe in your company and trust what you sell.ConscienceIncreasingly, consumers want to know you're a good corporate citizen. Businesses with a conscience care for their communities, others who are less fortunate and the world around them. Does your business engage in green practices? What are your charitable affiliations?Detail your activismon your website, in your company newsletter or through in-store promotions. Get involved at the local level and encourage your customers to participate, such as through food or clothing drives, or by cleaning up the local park. You'll establish a positive relationship with customers that sets you apart from your competition and motivates like-minded customers to buy from you.

Consumers are more knowledgeable and savvy than they've ever been, so it's crucial to differentiate your company. Use the tips above, and you'll be well on your way to making your company stand out in the crowd.

Kim T. Gordon is the author of four books and a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, columnist and media spokesperson. Over the past 30 years she's helped millions of small-business owners increase their success. You can learn about individual coaching and reach Kim at her websiteSmallBusinessNow.com.

© 2010 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.