Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Does Your Competition Scare You That Much?

A friend of mine was invited to a business event, along with several of his co-workers, that featured an interesting topic and speaker. He is active in the business community and regularly networks in and around his industry. The event was one he had never been to before, and he was excited about attending.

He noticed that one of the sponsors of the lunch was a competitor, but this was an event that cost $30 to attend, so he did not see it as an issue...as they were not paying for his meal (It is common for companies to sponsor all types of business events, and that sponsorship traditionally does not create exclusivity when attendees pay their own way. It is different when the sponsors are covering the costs and attendance is free).

Additionally the CEO of his company had received the same invitation, as well as another co-worker...thus he assumed it was an open corporate event.

While the invite said "Invitation Only", he was invited, as the invite came to his email box with a cheery message of "You're Invited" in a large bold font.

The day before the luncheon he received a phone call from the marketing manager of one of the other sponsors. She left him a voicemail informing him that she had seen his name on the RSVP list, but that the event was "by invitation only". She was very nice, but clearly told him that he could not just sign up without being invited.

Well.... he was invited. He still had the original email, and it had come from the same company that was calling to "uninvite" him. He was confused.

Turns out that the three sponsoring companies had not scrubbed their lists properly to delete all the other sponsor's competitors. Several folks at my friends company had gotten legitimate invitations.... but their competitor was adamant that they must be "uninvited". In fact, he was told that they "specifically do not want you there!". OUCH. Fortunately he was the only one at his office who had been available to attend that day, or they would have had to have called the CEO to make the same un-invitation.

How awkward for everyone involved. Nobody looks good in this story, except my friend, who is very good natured and laughed about the whole thing. He felt sorry for the young woman who called him, as her company had invited him and now had to tell him "no go". She was very nice, and he understood that the problem rested with his insecure competitor.

I had a similar situation happen at the company where I work back in August. Several of our competitors were invited to a private reception by one of the co-sponsors of a private event. The reality is that we would not have intentionally invited them to attend our private party (duh, why would we do that!), but once they had been included in the email blast, we would NEVER have called them to say there were not welcome (or worse, made our co-sponsor make such a call). Our response was to say "Oh well - let them attend, as they were invited" (and next time we will tighten up the screening of the invite lists!). And this was not an event where the attendees paid their own way, we were covering the costs of all food and drinks!

The reality is that every company would enjoy having private time with prospects and referral sources far away from our competition. However, the business world is not always perfect, and when things like this slip through the cracks, you have to go with the flow and be welcoming rather than rude. One person at a lunch with seventy people would probably barely be noticed anyway. One should never pretend to yourself that your competition is not out there.... They are... and they are already friendly with your clients, prospects and referral sources. You have to have faith in your own abilities or you are in the wrong business to begin with.

I learned this lesson from a senior partner in a large law firm in 2001. I worked as the Director of Marketing and Business Development for his largest competitor, but we were friends. While in Dallas attending an industry conference he had pre-planned a large private dinner for several of his clients and other VIP's. At the end of the conference sponsored cocktail hour, most the crowd I was talking with were headed off to the dinner, when the partner invited me to come along. I laughed (thinking he was kidding)...but his response was that his offer was legit.

He said "look, you are friends with almost everyone who will be at dinner. I am never scared of my competition being around, because they know you already. If having you at dinner is a threat to my business, then I am not good enough at what I do for a living". WOW. I have never forgotten that night. I had a great time, and gained a new level of respect for this lawyer, who has continued to find success in his career.

While I am not recommending inviting your competitors to all your private corporate events, uninviting them with such aggressiveness when a co-sponsor has already invited them speaks volumes.

Are you that scared of your competitors? Yikes. Maybe then you should be.

Being rude is never cool.

Have A Great Day.



Anonymous said...

This story is not uncommon. My firm sponsors many events and I also see co-sponsors who are hateful of their competition.

I work in a mid-sized city and everyone knows each other, so this type of things gets talked about and gossiped about. Nobody wins.

Your point about being "rude" is a good one. What they failed to realize is that the co-sponsor who had to make the call are internally (and probably externally) talking about this awkward situation and ill-will that this company caused on them!

Ted Nitka said...

Thom- well said. If paranoia rules the day, and we are unable to co-exist in our own confidences, how can we build relationships that endure?

Anonymous said...

Ha. I know you and you do not like having your competitors around either... so don't act so smug.

That being said, your friend who got uninvited in that manner was shafted. It was rude and does speak volumes about the other person's personal issues. You are correct that once the invite was made by the other co-sponsor, they should have just let him attend.

Anonymous said...

Good post Thom. Way too many people think from scarcity.