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This childish culture of dirty tricks in our business world

Apr 04, 2010 Strategy, Sunday Nation

The recent spate of competition in Kenya’s telecom sector has been characterised by something ugly: vandalism. Now that fibre-optic connectivity is commonplace, what easier way to disable your competitor than to hire a few goons to cut their cables? That leaves them in disarray for days, while we gain ground. Or do we?

Telecommunications is just the latest arena for our culture of dirty tricks in business. The fact is this low practice has been going on for some time, across sectors.

Dirty tactics are routinely deployed in Kenyan business. Don’t like the attention your rivals’ advertising is getting? Deface their billboards. Your key foe racing ahead of you in market share? Pay some officials to block their critical import consignment at the port. Your adversaries making too much profit? Get special investigatory teams to descend on them on the basis of ill-founded rumours.

Don’t know how to develop talent internally? No problem, just go out and poach some from your competitors. Customers seem to bond too much with an adversary’s brand? Not an issue, just spread rumours about their impending demise, fictitious health concerns with their products, etc. Impressed by the branding someone is doing for a product? Just bring in grey imports and benefit from the other person’s product promotion without spending a cent.

This idiotic culture is doing us no favours. Those who practice it think they are being shrewd and cunning. They imagine they are ahead of the game. They think this is the way to build leading enterprises.

Actually the dirty-tricks habit is the precise opposite. It is a loser’s game, the petty little preoccupation of hapless also-rans.

If you are one of those who think dirty tricks are par for the course in business, you are merely revealing your own inadequacies. Consider what it does to your own head for a start. Rather than spend time building your own skills and competencies, you are perpetually focused on what others are up to. You spend all your time watching every move made by others, and forget what makes businesses truly successful: a single-minded focus on developing good products that place unique propositions before customers.

You can spend all your time undermining your competitors if you like, but it comes at a great cost. The cost is the time you could have spent raising your own game, polishing your own skills, developing your own competencies. Bringing others down is for people who lack the imagination to build their own excellence.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, faced possible annihilation when industry giant Barnes & Noble entered online book retailing with its own e-commerce site in 1997. Amazon was a dwarf at the time, and its demise was widely predicted. But Bezos saw things differently. He asked his people to forget all about competitors, and instead focus on customers. What do our customers want from us? What do they like about us, and what makes us different? How can we get better and better?

The answers to those questions – a better, easier website, more personalisation, cheaper prices, quicker delivery – took Amazon on a growth trajectory that has barely slowed for more than ten years. It is now bigger than B&N in market capitalisation and profits. All because it worried about playing its own game, not ruining someone else’s.

This obsession with bringing others down has national consequences too. When we are all too busy smearing and besmirching each other, choking off each others’ supply and distribution chains, vandalising and slandering everyone in our neighbourhood, we are ruining entire industries. It is our national competitiveness that is wrecked by these activities. Instead of making superior products and intelligent positioning the source of our competitive advantage, we are relying on negativity.

Guess who benefits? All those businesses in South Africa and Mauritius and India who are genuinely trying to build global competence. We, with our schoolboy dirty tricks are left fighting each other in the sandbox.

If you are starting out in business, I urge you to end this fixation with the achievements of others. Spend your time and resources on the essential questions of business: who are my customers, and how can I add unique value to their lives? How do I position myself to be different so that others can’t match what I do? How do I inspire my staff to be on a continuous improvement curve? How do I build emotional relationships with my customers that transcend economics?

The problem we have is that few of us are serious about building businesses; we are just serious about making money. When a business is just a shell for self-enrichment, then anything goes. We don’t have to invest in long-term success; we just have to create the conditions for short-term gain. If that includes the disabling of a competitor for a while, well and good.

We need to get out of this street-hawker and pickpocket mentality and start to look two or three generations ahead.

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