In business there are many customers to be won, especially for companies like mine that work with small businesses. With over 20 million small businesses now, and more emerging all the time, that's great news. However, where there are customers, there always will be competition.

When it comes to competition -- and leadership in general -- women often take a different approach than men. As women, we tend to opt for building relationships -- whether with it is with colleagues, partners, customers -- even the competition. Yes, we sometimes find it necessary -- and beneficial -- to make friends with the enemy.

I have had some great experiences making friends with the competition. In fact, these days I think it's strange when a competitor doesn't want to grab a coffee or a glass of wine. You don't need to divulge company secrets and estimated earnings during these brief outings, but it's always good to get a beat on what's happening in your particular industry. And who better to get this from than from a like-minded business? Who knows, a casual conversation with the competition might help the both of you learn something that benefits your respective businesses, and the industry in which you both work.

In general, I believe it's good practice to be friendly toward competitors, and it's not because it's important to be thought of as "nice" or to avoid conflict. It's simply good business. In fact, my experience befriending the competition has helped grow my business.

I'm not saying that I don't feel competitive with other companies in our space; I fully admit that everyone has at least one healthy competitor, and we've ours, too. Keeping tabs on "the other guy" and trying to out-perform someone else helps keep us alive and striving for more. But there's nothing wrong with sharing a war story or two to open the lines of communication. You may find one day that you need a competitor for one reason or another, and picking up the phone could get you the answers you need.

To illustrate my point, here are some real-life scenarios where befriending the competition has helped my business:

  • One of your employees conducts business in an inappropriate manner -- For years I have been building a very good relationship with the CEO of a competitive company. We have shared cocktails at industry events and always make a point to reach out and say "Hi" to each other. Wouldn't you know that one of my overzealous new employees approached this CEO at a tradeshow and insulted his company's marketing practices? Thank goodness I received a call from this CEO alerting me to this not-so-professional tactic. He knew me well and knew that I wouldn't stand for this type of behavior. I was grateful for the call, my renegade employee was spoken to, and I received a lesson on the necessity of filtering to all employees our best practices for business conduct when you represent the company. If I we hadn't been friendly, I might not have ever known about the behavior -- and couldn't have taken steps to rectify it.
  • You need to collectively drive people to an area -- We attend industry events where our competition may be right next to us, giving a one-stop-shopping opportunity for prospective customers. Our prospects/customers may not think to come to our area at all if they couldn't kill two birds with one stone, as they say. This also works well for driving retail traffic. I'm sure there are clothing store owners whose stores reside next to each other who share a glass of wine after work!
  • Your competitor might want to buy your company -- A friendly business will make it to the top of the shopping list before an "unknown" one. I know we've been approached, in some cases, for being a "known" entity and someone an acquirer would want to work with in the future.

As in any good relationship, what goes around comes around. My theory on friendliness extends to ways in which we can help our competitors as well, as in the case of an ex-customer who had trouble paying us. I gave the heads up to the competitor who landed the same customer next and advised, "Make sure you get paid!"

Will befriending the competition work in every industry? Probably not, but it might work in yours. And if it does, you might find you have the opportunity to grow your business in more ways than you've ever thought.