How to fight your competition and winNovember 22, 2015 | Markus Schwarzer

Keen to overtake your competition?
Keen to overtake your competition?

“The competition is killing me!”

Raise your hand if you said or heard this before? You’re struggling to generate sufficient income, minimise ever increasing costs – and you look across the road – your competitor is just doing fine.

It’s depressing and demoralising and you keep asking yourself: “Why am I doing all this hard work and don’t seem to get any traction?”

According to the leading business magazine Fortune to be ‘outcompeted’ is one of the top reasons that businesses fail. Nothing new there I guess.

You can’t control what the competition is doing

I heard this cry (the competition is killing me) many times during my career in finance and business development.

The competition is killing you – this may be the case or only your perception as in most cases you don’t know how well or badly the competition is doing – usually you don’t have insight into their internal workings to see if they are profitable.
There are a number of options available to improve your own competitive position.

Gain an unfair advantage
You could argue: Who cares what they do as long as I fully understand what I do, do it well and deliver what my customer wants – and indeed you can’t control what your competitors do – however you can control what you do and check: Are my internal business activities/processes as good as they could be?
Well, there is no silver bullet but there is a simple business tool you could use to gain a real unfair advantage over your competition.

Here is the thing: A thorough understanding of your business or operation requires insight of the different stages through which a product or service, and its interlinked activities, pass on from production/creation to consumption or end use.

Setting up the 5-step-process

The below process flow shows the 5-step process to review your internal activities:

How to use the 5-step-process

1 Activity analysis
List the internal business activities you undertake to deliver your product or service to your customer – list your key activities.

Example – education service: connect with student, inform student, enlist student, enroll student, welcome student, orient student and so.

Example – restaurant: order raw foods, deliver raw foods, receive raw foods, store raw foods, retrieve raw foods, prepare raw foods, cook food and so on.

Start in broad steps and ideally use process mapping – this will give everyone a good overview and the ability to contribute.
A good start is also to schedule a brainstorming session with your team and then start the mapping process. Below is the education service mapped:
Education chain
 2 Activity review

Next review each of your activities and identify roadblocks & linkages to other activities in your activity chain. Potential roadblocks are everywhere.

Example – restaurant, e.g. ordering the right quantity at the right for meal plan, order fresh foods every day or twice a week, if so what the storage facility like, are the food prepared in the right order or too late/too early and lose their freshness and so on.

Staying with the education services example:
Education chain2
There is indeed a roadblock or obstacle: connecting and enlisting students is difficult especially when dealing with international students like language, different time zones, different way of doing things – there could major roadblocks just connecting and informing students.

Potential solution might be: have website information in multiple languages that prevents students turning away due to lack of understanding. Additionally education services could have contact staff versed in multiple languages.

3 Data linking

After that, link hard data (volumes, units, stock sheets, order forms) to your activities – use any data to start off with. Some data is better than no data at all.

Attach the data to the corresponding process step in the chain.

Example – education service: No. of people/students visiting website, how many of those connect with us, how many students do we enroll and we have data (incl feedback from students) on our enrollment system, how many students turn up on the first second, third etc. days.

Example –  restaurant: Data relating to order volumes, deliveries, stock held, repeat orders, different kind of raw foods – does this match what is needed later on for preparation and cooking?

4 Cost linking

Then it’s on to cost linking – linking each activity to your activity costs. This is often the most difficult part due to lack of accessibility to costs or inability to break down cost lumps into chunks that relate to activities. One option is to ask your accountant for assistance or ideally break it down yourself, e.g. take your monthly costs for supplies, payroll, storage, delivery etc. or in the case of education services: online services costs, payroll costs, lease of your building etc.

Put into cost pools and use estimates to allocate to the activities. You can always re-check later on. But do check as you want to make the wrong decisions due to the lack of cost allocations to the right activity.

Use a matrix to summarise:
Education table1

Next, break it down by student (e.g. 500 students
Education table 2
Cost per student by activity is a good indicator to identify where the real costs are spent and it show sits relative position all the other activity costs. To connect students via website or social media costs
$20 per student and to enrol each students costs a whopping $50. Already food for thought!

5 Evaluation

Now lean back (not too far) and start to review the activity list/chain, review the quantative data and your cost data. Does it make sense? Any surprises?

Have a break after steps 1 to 4 to give yourself and your team time to think and reflect.

Review with others
Another option is it to present your activity chain to another person (outside your business) and explain it (your accountant, business mentor or partner). Note the feedback: is it easy to follow?  Does it fairly reflect your internal business activities? Are the cost allocations reasonable (and add up to the total cost of business)?

Understanding own activities and costs
Understanding your own activities and related costs is like a prerequisite BEFORE thinking about your competition – once you adjusted your internal activities/costs to max efficiency, chances are you become automatically more competitive and a real threat to your completion.

Be Honest with yourself
The key is to rid yourself of the mystery why your business is not performing as well as your competition and apply the above 5-step-process with an unbiased view.

I have yet to see a business that has not any opportunities to improve their performance with the customer in mind.

Speaking of customer: as an additional validation: check if all the activities and cost you identified ALL serve the customer (in our equation example the students) – if they are not, eliminate them or turn them into value add activities, e.g. enrolment staff also conducts the orientation.

The application of the 5-step-process is one way to get on top of your own business activities and ultimately on your competition. There are obviously a number of other components of running a successful business such as cash flow management, debt servicing, personnel management and effective marketing.

However, the 5-step-process provides you with a sound starting point to highlight bottlenecks, obstacles and most of all plenty of opportunities as you keep reviewing your activities and related costs.

Interest sparked? Check out these online solutions:
Get the edge on your competition before they do!

Feedback & Comment
Let me know if you find this process useful and please comment.

Additional resources
You’ll find a case study here:
or contact me at


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