How to beat the competition, no matter how small your business is

Whether you like it or not, competition is always there. There will be plenty of businesses just like yours, pitching for the same work and fighting to survive. And in today's economic climate, freelancers and small studios will be battling to stay afloat like never before.

With so much fierce competition, how do you beat them? How do you get noticed above everyone else and ensure you're winning the clients? There are many ways in which you can beat your competition. From focusing on your customer service to making the most of the search engines, there are lots of different tricks you can use to be the best. The following tips will help you stand out from the crowd.

1. Know your USP

If you don't know your Unique Selling Proposition, find it out now! What is unique about your business? How do you compare to other freelancers in your industry? What makes you so great? Why should people hire you over someone else?

Find your strengths by asking clients or family/friends what they think about you? Are you fast? Reliable? Are the services you provide high quality? Are you creative? Pick out two or three adjectives to define your USP and ensure you stand by those, communicating them across all your channels.

2. Define your brand

When you first start out, or if you're in the midst of a re-brand, make sure you present a great first impression to potential clients. Have a look at competitor websites and see how they present themselves. Consider the look and feel of their logos and web designs. Are they corporate? Fun? Approachable?

Now look at whether there are any weaknesses in their branding? Seek out the areas where you could do better. Define your own branding by considering your USP and try to convey what your company stands for – not just with your visual identity, but also with the tone and language you use in your writing.

3. Find a niche

If there's too much competition to penetrate the local market, consider finding a niche service or industry. How you find that niche is by looking at your competition to see what services they do and don't provide, and whether they target any specific sectors. Is there anything you specialise at that others don't offer? Is there a demand for it?

Also, keep an eye on the market and look for any emerging patterns or trends. For example, I run my own PR business and specialise in digital communications. Back in 2007 when I first launched, social media and blogging were still quite fresh – so I specialised in that field and benefited enormously from doing so. I won a very large contract based on my expertise, beating a national PR firm I might add! That was during an era when the larger agencies still weren't convinced that Twitter and Facebook were worthy of any attention.

4. Don't be afraid to experiment

When you're a small business, you've got the fantastic benefit of being agile. You can change things around whenever you like without too much expense or fuss. This means you can experiment and try new things to see if they help beat your competition.

For instance, you might want to test new branding. Or you may want to change your keywords on your website. Just remember, change is good and helps you to constantly improve. Just this morning, I spent some time playing around with my own website. It's built on Squarespace, so it's a template – but it doesn't matter. I love it because it allows me to continuously adapt and test things, without calling on the needs of my development team.

You might make mistakes and things might not work – but that's still a hugely valuable lesson and mistakes always guide you along the right path.

5. Never stop learning

Whenever work is quiet, don't sit there twiddling your thumbs. Get some online training videos or download some interesting PDFs and swot up on new things to widen your range of skills.

Haven't yet got to grips with Photoshop? Learn how to do it! Still not sure about SEO? There are literally thousands of learning materials out there on the subject. Feel weak in a certain area and want to boost your business? Get learning!

My point is – you should never rest on your laurels. You should always seek to improve your skills. It will set you apart from the rest. An extra tip is to carry a notebook everywhere, so when something springs up that you're not sure about, you can write it down and ensure you learn more about it later.

6. Get your prices right

An obvious way to beat your competition is to beat them on price. Find out how much others are charging and set your rates accordingly. Don't make yourself too affordable because you're not a charity and low prices can often give the impression that you're too 'cheap'. At the same time, you shouldn't be more expensive than anyone else, so find a middle ground.

However, if you're just getting started it's probably best to play it safe. You can test the water with rates on future clients once you've got the ball rolling.

7. Stay lean and mean

Sit down and go through your incomings and outgoings to find ways to cut costs and save money. That's because the leaner you are, the better. Check out our recommended affordable tools to run a lean business.

When you're 'lean and mean' you are less reliant on taking on every single job that comes your way and you can instead focus on getting higher quality work that will lead to bigger and better projects... projects that will lead to more great opportunities.

It also means that you won't struggle during those quieter times and you could even offer competitive prices, beating your competition every time. For further reading, consider our tips on saving money as a freelancer.

8. Work on your weaknesses

Be brutally honest with yourself and find out your weaknesses. Are you rubbish at deadlines? Useless on the phone? Are you promising more than you can deliver? Are you shy in meetings? Whatever you're not good at, make sure you work hard to improve yourself. Because mark my words, your competition will be sniffing out any weaknesses you might have and exploiting them.

9. Don't neglect your marketing

It's always true what they say – when the going gets tough, most people cut back on their marketing budgets. But this is the worst thing you can do. At the same time, it presents a fantastic opportunity because when others aren't advertising or investing in SEO, you could be.

It's so important to always stay in the spotlight and get in front of potential customers. Don't rest on your laurels with your own marketing and make sure you push hard every single day, even if it means you have to learn how to do it yourself.

10. Provide excellent customer service

Keep all of your clients happy by providing the very best service. It will stop people from going elsewhere and you could also benefit from word-of-mouth recommendations. Remember, you're always building a reputation, so make sure it's something everyone is positively talking about.

11. Listen to customer feedback

Sometimes, things can and do go wrong. When they do – listen to customer feedback and act accordingly to improve your offering. If a client didn't receive some printed materials in time, find ways to ensure faster deliveries in future. If they felt neglected, go above and beyond to ensure communication is improved next time. Don't beat yourself up if you make mistakes with customers. Turn a negative into a positive by learning something from the experience and move on.

12. Make friends with the enemy

Remember that saying: "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer"? Well, the same could be said for freelancers. Make friends with all of your competitors because it's better to have allies than anything else. You never know, your competition might help you out, or throw work your way. Just remember to 'trust on merit' and keep your cards close to your chest because not everyone will be morally sound.

13. Have a customer database

It is incredibly difficult – and expensive – to attract new customers and convince them to hire you. Once you've won them over, you shouldn't be seeing them as a 'one-off' thing. You should be thinking about having them for the long-term.

This means that you should keep a customer database – check out these CRM suggestions – and stay in touch with people who have worked with you in the past. This will hopefully build relationships and encourage people to hire you again. Keep the communication channels open by sending out newsletters – Mailchimp is our tool of choice. Remind people that you're still available.

14. Ditch the hard sell

If there's one gold nugget of wisdom I can share on beating the competition it's this – don't give the 'hard sell'. It's so off-putting to potential clients because no one likes pushy sales tactics.

When speaking to a potential customer for the first time be friendly, confident and helpful. Don't expect anything from it. Just be yourself and offer friendly advice. This really will set you apart from your competition because a lot of people are still being too aggressive in their approach.

15. Get people excited

There's nothing more infectious than a freelancer that's excited and passionate about their work. Be excited for your own clients and throw huge amounts of passion and creativity into everything you do.

Clients love their businesses, so imagine how they feel when an outsider comes in and shows the same enthusiasm? Beat your competition by being someone hugely positive and full of energy because believe me – you'll stand out from the crowd.