Catching Flies with Honey

Catching Flies with Honey
by Patrice Lewis

Courtesy of Handmade Business

It seems like such an easy thing to say bad things about your competition, especially if you have a legitimate reason. In truth, however, badmouthing can come back to bite you in the butt ... big time.

Real Life Example

My husband and I have operated our woodcraft business for almost 19 years. A few years ago we began attending an enormous West Coast venue promising 70,000 people over a four-day period. This venue has exceeded all our expectations and sales have been consistently excellent over the years.

This event is unusual in that vendors are not the primary focus--other entertainment is--and as a result there are relatively few vendor booths. This is why our first year of attendance was greeted with dismay by another vendor who viewed us as competition.

The only similarity between our products is that they both hold liquids. We make hardwood drinking tankards. This other vendor makes glass items, including a line of glass mugs. But she also sells much more--statuary, dishes, paperweights, globes, all in the most astonishingly beautiful swirl of hand-blown colors. In short, this vendor's products are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

There was really no need to view us as competition. Our customer demographics are quite different. People either prefer glass or wood, but seldom both. Nonetheless, this didn't keep the glass vendor from taking every opportunity to badmouth our products.

That first year I was fortunate to have another booth separating us, but over the 12-foot distance I could frequently hear her spreading acid to customers about my "ugly" products. I don't know if she ever realized how many people she inadvertently sent my way, as curious customers came over to investigate how "ugly" our tankards were.

Mostly to yank her chain, I took the opposite tactic: I stressed to customers how lovely the glass vendor's products were, and how they must be sure to stop in her booth to see her items.

I lost count of the number of customers who, upon my recommendation, would visit the glass vendor ... only to return after a few minutes and purchase one of my tankards. "She didn't have anything nice to say about you," a few people murmured in a low voice. "I don't like buying from people like that."

After that first year, I asked the event producer to always make sure there was at least a one-booth buffer between me and the glass vendor. The fact that the producer didn't act surprised by this request spoke volumes about the glass vendor's reputation.

To her credit, the other vendor has mellowed in the last few years, and she is now cordial, if not warm. I guess she realized badmouthing your competition isn't a good sales tactic.

Denial is a River in Egypt

A similar situation occurred with a neighbor who operates a tiny but upscale motel in a small town. Prior to her arrival, the town had only one other motel--of dubious quality. The competing motel, dismayed at this upstart newcomer, kept badmouthing my neighbor's business.

Our neighbor, through professional courtesy as well as a wish to help customers, always referred clients to the competition whenever she was booked up, but the reverse never happened. In fact, on one humorous occasion a client was unable to recall the name or phone number of our neighbor's establishment, so he called the competing motel to get the information. "He not only denied knowing your contact information," the client related to our neighbor, "but he denied you even existed and insisted he was the only motel in town."

Inadvertently the competitor's attitude boosted our neighbor's business. People like staying in establishments run by nice folks. Perhaps tellingly, the competing motel started losing money and finally sold to a much nicer gentleman who is on cordial terms with our neighbor. However, the new owner has spent the last two years repairing the reputation he inherited. Two years. That's a long time to engage in damage control.

Small Circles, Big Ripples

Let's face it; the crafting circuit can be a small and intimate place. We often see the same vendors at different events. While it may seem like a smart move to talk down competing crafters in order to garner more sales for yourself, the opposite is true: unprofessional behavior will always come back to haunt you.

And invariably, badmouthing backfires among the very people you're trying to impress--your customers. People recognize mean-spiritedness in a heartbeat and, as my experience demonstrates, badmouthers often drive traffic to the very vendor they're trying to trash.

Badmouthing has larger implications as well. Event producers talk. If a vendor has a reputation for unprofessional behavior, word is likely to spread among different show producers, and that vendor may be dropped off the list of prospective booths. No one likes to deal with troublemakers.

Why Honey Works Better than Vinegar

To some inexperienced crafters, it may seem counter-intuitive to send clients to the competition, but that spirit of generosity is appreciated by customers and vendors alike.

Remember the Christmas classic movie Miracle on 34th Street? The Santa Claus hired by Macy's sent parents to the rival department store Gimbels for toys not carried by Macy's. At first the Macy's personnel were horrified, until grateful customers poured out their appreciation for the "spirit of Christmas" that Macy's displayed and promised to become loyal Macy's customers as a result.

Badmouthing your competition actually lends credibility to your competitor. If you're scared enough to attack someone, it must be because you're worried about them. In other words (the logic goes) the competition must be doing something right.

The old saying suggests you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Believe me, customers aren't stupid. They're going to recognize when you're unfairly attempting to paint the competition as terrible. Negative talk says a whole lot more about you than it does about your competition.

Online vs. In Person

The same warnings apply toward online acid. Unlike verbal comments, whatever is written online (Facebook, blogs, websites, etc.) can be picked up, copied, forwarded, and cached. Just because you're not dealing with customers in person doesn't mean you can descend into unprofessional behavior online.

Remember, half-truths and innuendo can be just as damaging as flat-out lies about a competitor. And libel is a serious offense--don't let yourself get sucked into shady behavior and risk getting sued because you're annoyed by competition.

Competition as a Tool

Like it or not, competition exists. As with all marketplace conditions, healthy competition is a useful tool on which to hone and sharpen your business skills. While my glass mug competitor and I work in different media (glass vs. wood), our business requirements are similar. If my booth is sloppy, unwelcoming, and full of acrimony, then I'll drive customers toward the competition. The existence of competition keeps me on my toes and alert to what attracts sales or what drives away customers.

In some ways, badmouthing your competition smacks of laziness. It's easier to complain about your competitor than to fix your own problems. But if you recognize what is driving customers to your competition, you're in a better position to improve your own products, presentation, or service.

One time a customer rather snarkily asked me, "Why should I buy one of your products instead of that vendor's product?" I smiled and said, "It depends on what you're looking for. If you want bright colors and the beauty of glass, by all means buy one of hers. If you want a three-year guarantee and the earthiness of wood, buy one of mine." What started out as an unpleasant and confrontational question turned into a sale--for the glass vendor.

But that's okay. I was honest and I didn't badmouth my competitor. The customer obviously preferred glass to wood--different demographics--and I wasn't offended.

When the Competition Really is Bad

Now what happens when a competitor truly IS awful? What if their products are shoddy or their habits are unethical?

If you know for a fact (not rumor) that your competition is doing something shady or wrong, then there's nothing wrong with looking after your customer's best interests or guiding them away from something or someone unscrupulous. Much depends on your methods, however. Gloating over the competitor's misdeeds is unprofessional.

Additionally, if your competitor's behavior is dishonest or potentially criminal, you have an obligation to report them to the event coordinator. Remember that in this litigious age, people are just as likely to file a lawsuit against an event as they are against a vendor. The event producer needs to know if something's wrong.

Fix the Mistakes

If you're guilty of badmouthing the competition and are driving away customers as a result, you should immediately change your habits. A genuine apology for your behavior to the maligned business can also result in tremendously improved relations with your fellow crafters. We've all made mistakes, after all, and those we think the most highly of are those big enough to admit their mistakes and atone for them.

It was Mark Twain who put the whole thing into a nutshell: "It's better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and leave no doubt."

Don't be foolish. Keep your unjust complaints to yourself. Win the loyalty of your customers by treating people (including competitors) right, not wrong. Gain a reputation for being a generous and honest person, not by being a sourpuss and a complainer.