We all need to spend time working out exactly what makes us different from our competitors. If you aren't clear on this, you can't expect your customers to be clear. In a world filled with ever increasing competition, those businesses that are better able to connect and engage with their customers are the ones that win and one of the first steps in the process is snooping on your competitors.

Now whilst I am actively encouraging you to do some homework on your competition, I want to make something very clear - don't become obsessed with what they are doing. Figure out what makes you different, but don't hang on every word they publish or every sale they have. I get to see a surprising number of burnt and bitter business owners whose obsession with their competitors borders on the unhealthy.

My suggestion here is much brighter, more open and simply a smarter way to do business. So how do we find out what makes us different to our competitors? I suggest the following:

1. First of all get clear about who your competitors actually are.

This might sound a bit strange, but making a list of who you actually compete with is not the place where most people start. We need to look a little deeper than the obvious. Let's say your run an Indian restaurant, are your competitors other Indian restaurants? Yep, they sure are. But so are other restaurants in your general area as well as other forms of evening entertainment.

2. Check out your competitors websites

This means really check them out, don't just look at the home page. Go a little deeper, read the copy, check the links, see what the main messages are and find out what kind of testimonials they have on the site (if they have them).

3. Go to your competitors places of business

I have always maintained excellent relationships with any direct competitors I have had over a number of businesses and industries. To me visiting their business is important to really get a clear understanding of what they do differently.

4. Talk to your suppliers

Odds on your suppliers probably supply the opposition up the road. Don't pry too hard, but by all means ask a trusted supplier how they would describe the difference between your business and theirs. It's always interesting when you get an outside perspective.

5. Talk to your customers

As hard as it may be to believe, I am sure some of your customers have been to the business up the road. Ask them about it. Don't make them feel awkward, but simply say that you want to know how to describe the differences between your businesses and their advice would be really valuable.

6. Do a Google search

This is always interesting because an online search like this will take you to feedback sites where people make comments, like Trip Advisor for hotels and restaurants. I don't really like taking one comment and making it gospel, however a number of comments saying the same thing tends to highlight both the good and bad aspects of a business.

7. Call some of their customers.

If they list a few of their customers on their site, why not give them a call and ask them about their experiences? Don't assume that because a clients name is on a site they are happy clients. Why not? Because most people won't bother checking.

What kind of information are we trying to find? To put it simply, we want to find out what our competitors do better than us, what we do better than them and what gives us the edge. Once we have this information we want to be able to use it when we develop our own sales pitches, in our promotional material, on our websites and with our staff training.

Now this isn't meant to be used in a negative way. We all know that putting down a competitor is not on. But lets go back to the Indian restaurant example. If your research shows that you open an hour earlier, your range of food is more appealing or some other significant point of difference, these are all key messages to be worked into your marketing and communication messaging. Then you let your customers figure out the rest.

Alternatively, you might find out that you need to lift your game. You might find that your competitors are actually much better than what you thought, and rather than dismissing them, you might want to stop and have a long, hard look at what you are doing.

You might be surprised by the information you get back from this survey, but regardless of what you find out, I am sure it will be valuable. Too many businesses try to sell their own products or services without any idea of what their competitors are offering, so how can they possibly give their competitive advantages to prospective customers?

What they give are perceived competitive advantages, which are generally not even close to reality. I often ask business owners "what makes you better than the rest" - very few can answer this question. Be one of the few that can and you will increase sales every day of the week.

Published on: Mar 2, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.