Co-op-etition: The art of cooperating with your competition in a niche market

Published on November 1, 2013

Brian shows the features of Aquascape’s Pond Lights to a local pond builder.
Brian shows the features of Aquascape’s Pond Lights to a local pond builder.

OK, so what exactly is “co-op-etition”? (And don’t run off to check your dictionary, because you won’t find it in there.) I would define it as having a healthy working relationship with your competition.

Coming from both the automotive and auto body industry, I can tell you that working with your competition in most industries is unheard of. And let’s face it: almost any business, in any industry, has more than enough competition. Just try to put gas in your car, swing through a drive-thru or even decide on a cell phone provider and you’ll see that we have choices. Competition is everywhere.

So how do we not only survive in a very competitive niche industry, like koi ponds and water features, but thrive? How do we possibly even expand and grow our business?

As I mentioned before, I came from the automotive industry which is well known for having too many people that lack integrity, character and good business sense. Too many shops speak negatively about other shops and tear them down in order to make a sale. The more you can convince your customer how evil your competitor is, the better it makes you look, right? Sadly, too many people believe that philosophy.

Thankfully, I have not seen that in “ponding.” In fact, that’s what I love so much about this industry: the people. I have met so many helpful, kind and friendly people in this business — people that are passionate about what they do, whether it be building, sales or service. These people are usually willing to give advice and take time, giving you educated opinions that tend to be profitable.

### Good philosophy ###
One good philosophy to build your business is to “under-promise and over-deliver.” For example, if you tell a customer that you estimate the price of an item will be $100 and should be delivered in four days, how happy are they when it shows up in 3 days and only costs $80? If you under-promise, you won’t get into trouble. If you over- deliver, you will reap the benefit of a happy customer who will remember the service you provided.

It goes the same for suppliers and vendors as well. Upon Columbia Water Gardens’ inception, Bill at Mystic Koi & Water Gardens in Upland, Calif., spent many hours of his time advising and coun- seling. This competitor also volunteered to train one of the new company’s employees. Some would say that is not good busi- ness, but I am here to disagree with that! I have personally witnessed the benefits of working with your competition, nuturing a healthy business relationship and open communication with them. If you or your competition has information that helps the industry, your customer, or you, how can that be bad? Wouldn’t it be great if you had connections when you were out of a product that your customer desperately needed? Here at Columbia Water Gardens, we are able to call up a competitor and have them fill the order in a timely manner. We have done this with Koi Enterprise, Pond Digger, New England Koi, Aquatic Ecosystems, Pondliner and many others.
When I have done a good job with my customer and not only provided a product or service at a fair price, but exceeded his expectations, my hope is that I would end up with a customer for life. I want more than a “satisfied” customer; I strive to have a loyal customer. These are customers who will fight for you and try to give you their business at any opportunity they can. Customers that appreciate and see the value of my service for more than just price.

An example: when I am comparing pond pumps, the more I show value, the less we talk price. We live this mantra out loud in our retail store. When we expanded and moved last year, our customers banded together, put our store in their pickups and trailers and moved us across town.

I have even had prior customers call me and ask for a product that they found somewhere else online for a little less than what we have advertised, and want to see if I am able to “price match” for them because they “would rather give the business to me.” I love to hear that. That is a loyal customer, and I make the sale.
Other times, if I send one of my loyal customers to my competition to get an item that I don’t have in stock, it accomplishes a number of things. One, the customer gets taken care of (and that’s what we are all in business for). Two, if I have a loyal customer, they are still “Columbia Water Gardens’ customer.” They may have bought an item from somewhere else, but they still come back to us time and time again. (And don’t forget that our competition made money thanks to our referral). Lastly, the customer sees us as people who care more about taking care of them personally than we do about just making a sale.

### Healthy “co-op-etition” ###
If more businesses modeled healthy “co-op-etition,” I believe we could all benefit. I would sure rather see my friend down the road get the sale than some huge Internet company that is only providing a low cost. And let’s not forget that when a customer buys from one of those huge Internet giants and has a problem, who does she call? You guessed it: us! (Or perhaps our competition.) We are not a computer or a drop-shipper … indeed, we are so much more. My boss (and very close personal friend) and I have even given out our personal cell phone numbers to customers. Does Amazon or eBay do that? I don’t think so!

### Return investment ###
Speaking of competition, if our competition is cooperating with me in return, they will send me business as well. I have seen that happen on more than one occasion. I make the sale and they keep their customer. Everybody wins. If we can effectively communicate with our competition and discuss market trends, pricing, indus- try concerns and what works and what doesn’t, we both benefit. If our competition tried something and it did not work, let’s discuss it! What went wrong? Is it as simple as price? Or, if we can we bounce ideas off each other, maybe both of us can offer the same or similar service and figure out a way that we can both benefit. We all know that two minds are better than one.

Pond built by Columbia Water Gardens.
Pond built by Columbia Water Gardens.

When my boss told me this morning that he was planning to write an article about “co-op-etition,” we started talking about all the different aspects of how it works and how it can benefit all parties involved. I was excited to discuss this topic and share what I have personally seen. The more we spoke, the more clear it became that I should be the one to write this article! Who better to write about this than someone who is relatively new to the industry, has seen it work first-hand, and went from just being “happy to have a job” to someone who loves what he does for a living?

The pond industry may seem a little “fishy” at times, but let’s not be “koi”… our business is much better when we can all work together, have some fun, make some money and create loyal friends — and satisfied customers — along the way.

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