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Should You Diss the Competition?

In a competitive market, we're often confronted with direct questions about the competition, "You say your product's so great, well, what about XYZ?"

It can happen at a conference, in a press interview, at an investor conference, at a customer meeting, on CNBC, in a blog, or on a social networking site. The question is, what do you do? How do you handle it?

If you put the competition down too harshly, you may sound like an overconfident, hypercompetitive jerk and risk turning customers off. If you "take the high road" or tread too lightly, you miss an opportunity to discuss specific competitive benefits or come off like a lightweight.

It's a tough question for CEOs, CFOs, marketing and sales executives, spokespeople, or just about any manager who communicates with the outside world.
Well, there is a not-too-challenging way to walk that fine line down the middle, but lots of executives don't care to learn it. Take Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, for example. Today, a CNET blogger took aim at the famously verbose and direct Steve Ballmer, quoting from a number of public appearances.

Below each one, I've taken a stab at what I think is a better way for a market leader (and a CEO, for that matter) to express product superiority without appearing quite so pompous and, well, superior:

In reference to Google's two operating systems, Chrome and Android:

Ballmer: "[I don't] know if Google can't make up their mind or what the problem is over there...The last time I checked, you don't need two client operating systems."

My stab: "It's not entirely clear to me what Google's operating system strategy is, but they're not the first competitor to come after us."

Google again:
Ballmer: "I don't really understand (Google's) strategy. Maybe somebody else does. If I went to my shareholder meeting, my analyst meeting, and said, 'hey, we've just launched a new product that has no revenue model!'...I'm not sure that my investors would take that very well."

My stab: Same as above. The whole "no revenue model" thing is meaningless to customers.

Apple's Mac:
Ballmer: "Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment--same piece of hardware--paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be."

My stab: "PCs provide the same level of functionality and performance, are compatible with more applications, and cost on average $500 less than a Mac. You can't beat that in this tough economic environment."

Get the difference? Stay tuned for a follow up post on how to rise above the competition without sounding like, well, like Steve Ballmer.
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