Get a Report Card

While it's nice to ask customers “how are we doing?” it’s important to track how your competitors are doing too
John Cashmore
August 15, 2008
COLUMN : Dealer Perspectives | Management

What is your competitive advantage? I have been asking that question frequently in my recent market research with building materials companies. Amazingly, the answers are generally all the same.
Here is a brief summary: Our culture, our quality, our experience and our people. The “four feel goods” account for 95 percent of all responses.
This begs the question–If everyone has the same competitive advantage, where is the competitive advantage? Think about it. Aren’t these attributes just the ante to play the game in the first place?
The next thought that pops into my head is, if that is what differentiates a company in its employees minds, then how is that company differentiated from others from its customers’ and non-customers’ points of view?
That led me to some informal market research. I went through my last issue of Window & Door and looked through the ads. What I discovered was that it was very rare for the ads to tout one of the four feel goods as a competitive advantage. Rather, they focused on new products and sometimes services.
So wait, is it the new products that are the competitive advantage or is it the four feel goods? I dare say their marketing departments know it is the product and service offerings that offer the kind of differentiation that provides a competitive advantage.
Okay, so now we have really identified how and on what basis we compete. But the question remains, is it what the market wants and what it is willing to pay for? How about pay more for?
Let’s focus on the services side of the equation. This includes such things as on-time delivery, consistently correct and complete orders, people easy to reach by phone, orders received damage free and packaged and labeled correctly and a whole lot more.
Are your services stellar? Are they recognized by your customers and non-customers as such? If you really want to know if you have a competitive advantage here, you need a report card.
How can you do that? A survey questionnaire should be developed to gather a matrix of data that enables you to see your competitive advantages and disadvantages in a variety of service areas. You need to look at both how you’re doing and how your competition is doing. You ask the respondent to score your company and your competitor’s “on-time delivery,” for example, on the same scale. You can also survey people to rank how important such attributes are, enabling you to gauge whether you are doing well in the areas that are truly important in the eyes of the market.
The best method to do this is a blind format survey—meaning the respondent is not told what company is conducting or sponsoring the survey. This helps eliminate bias for or against an entity in the respondents’ answers. You can try online, but telephone surveys work better. Most purchasers in the fenestration market will not respond to blind, unsolicited emails, if those emails get through in the first place.
Gathering this kind of feedback on a regular basis can be valuable. And while it might be nice just to ask customers “how are we doing?” it’s important to track how your competitors are doing too. Let’s say a customer survey reveals an improvement in on-time delivery. Everyone in the organization worked diligently for it and now your score has increased. Great job.
But wait. Is it possible your increase still falls short of the industry average? Or did your competition improve its on-time delivery efforts and maintain its leading reputation on that front? You don’t know without a report card that tests all the players.
Next time someone asks your competitive advantage, have the information to fully answer the question. Not for them, but for your own company’s success.

John Cashmore is president of Market Resource Associates, a supplier of market research services to the window, door and building products industries. Questions and comments from readers are welcome at