Books on strategy extol the virtues of knowing your competition or your enemy. From The Art of War to the Book of Five Rings to more contemporary volumes, the advice has now become commonplace. Know your competition. Do not underestimate them. Learn their strengths and their weaknesses. Minimize their strengths and exploit their weaknesses. It’s become fairly vanilla. And while we have nothing against Sun Tzu or Clausewitz or even the Harvard Business Review, we tend to extract lessons on strategizing from popular culture.
Consider The Usual Suspects, a clever and twisted moral fable from 1995. In it, Kevin Spacey plays Roger “Verbal” Kint, a small-time crook who is one of only two survivors of a massacre at the Port of Los Angeles and is being interrogated by U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan, played by Chazz Palminterri. The story, brilliantly and compellingly told, reminds us of some commonplace lessons in selling:
• Expect the unexpected.
• Do not overlook the obvious.
• Never underestimate the enemy.
• Be wary of your own assumptions.
Let me share a brief story about a client of ours:
A few years ago we were working with a major printing and publishing company that was competing for a significant new business opportunity. Tom has been a successful account manager for our client and has owned the customer relationship for more than five years. The customer was worth about $4 million annually to Tom’s company, which was about 30% of the total market share available. Tom’s customer wanted to centralize much of the print purchasing to achieve economies of scale and better quality control, but they were struggling to get regional offices to comply.
The regional offices preferred to use local providers for diverse reasons. They were extremely loyal to their local providers, with many of them having community and personal ties. Capturing demand from these local providers would be very tough. Moreover, Tom’s customer was reluctant to play the heavy. A winning strategy would have to provide a win-win approach.
Instead of positioning himself as their competition, Tom worked to be an ally with the local providers. He could offer regional offices the best of both worlds: Use the local provider for the jobs in which they excelled, and use Tom’s company for the jobs in which he excelled. This “alliance” approach allowed regional offices to maintain their local connections while at the same time satisfy the corporate mandate to use Tom’s company. Tom’s success was the result of identifying who his competition was and then formulating a strategy based on their strengths and weaknesses.
The American philosopher, Peter Kreeft, extols the virtues of “methodological skepticism” which essentially boils down to “everything you think you know, you may not know.”