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Your biggest competitor - and how to defeat him

Who is your biggest competitor? Whatever you might think, it's not the company down the road. Consumer apathy is your biggest challenge. What you're really competing against is the consumer's preference to do nothing. Too often you don't lose out to someone else, you lose out to people leaving it for another year or leaving it completely. It's not enough to prove that your conservatory or windows are cheaper, have more bells and whistles than the next company's, or that your installers are better trained and offer a more efficient service. You have to sell windows and conservatories themselves.

Many installation companies get most of their business through recommendations and referrals, so the homeowner they speak to is seriously thinking about buying. In the current market, you need to do more than this. People are not moving and not improving, they're just sitting tight. With the window market down, and showing few signs of recovery, if you wait until homeowners decide to buy you're in an already shrinking pool. But the consumer purse is never zipped up completely. If a homeowner decides she can't afford new windows, she's still likely to go out the next day and buy a new skirt or book a holiday.

We have to get it into consumers' heads that now is a good time to be spending on conservatories and windows, for example, to help them sell their house in a shrinking property market. You have to build up desire so that consumers want what you've got. Planning adverts, direct mail, even brochures well in advance can help move the purchasing decision up the list of priorities and push homeowners to action. All aspects of your marketing should work together - including selling techniques.

Focusing on what people do and why they do it rather than 'selling your product' can help. Remembering that home improvement decisions are generally joint ones is also important. All the people in a decision-making unit have to choose to buy home improvements over a holiday or a car. Typically, one of this unit is female, and she may have a more than equal say. Profiency Group, a conference organiser found in recent research that 80% of purchases are either made by or directly influenced by women. But many marketing messages are aimed at and created by men. And many salesmen (and they usually are men) seem to speak solely to the man if there's a couple in the home. As Profiency Group puts it: 'Women are not a niche market, nor are they a new market. They are the market.'

That doesn't mean you have to have to paint your showroom pink or even focus on the woman alone though. Any whiff of condescension and you'll only alienate women, and exclude men. Simply ensuring that your marketing is pitched at men and women, and ensuring your salespeople are 'gender-neutral' should be enough. The Ipod mini campaign is a great example. With images of men and women dancing to their favourite tunes, it focuses on enhancing lifestyles rather than endless technical details or close-ups of the gadget itself.

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