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  • Writer's pictureDiane Pierson

Build a Product to Beat a Competitor? Talk Yourself Out of It

Product managers can fall so in love with building a better product to beat competition that they avoid or even ignore warnings that they won't succeed.

Build a Better Product, Beat a Competitor. Right?

A few years ago, I was teaching a team of legal software product managers. They were frustrated at the slow market uptake of their latest product. They'd been so optimistic: they built a great product that filled every gap that frustrated the market about the competitor's offering. Why wasn't this provably superior product flying off the virtual shelves? We took a detour from our training to discuss what they were hearing from the market:

One reason was habit. Lawyers had been using the competitor's product for years. It wasn't perfect, but using it was second nature.

Another was training. It would cost a fortune to put everyone through training to use the new software. Lawyers that track their case time in six-minute increments tend to be very resistant to anything that pulls them away from billable work.

Then there was cost. Transitioning historic data from the old to the new system, making sure it was talking to other, related systems correctly, would take a lot of work - and their IT departments were already stretched to the limit.

Build a Better Product, Beat a Competitor. Right? Not a Typo . . .

The reaction from the product team was interesting. "We knew all that when we built the thing" said one of them, "but the product is SO much better! Why wouldn't they switch anyway?"

build a product to beat a competitor innovate on purpose product management

Has this ever happened to you? Product managers see a weakness in a competitor's product, and naturally build or modify their own product to steal market share. Too often though, we don't take time to look at why customers might not switch, even if the alternative is much better.

Before You Build the Better Product, Ask the Market:

Before you build a better product to beat a competitor, ask the market a few questions beyond the feature gaps you've already documented:

  • How important is it to users to get these upgrades? How about to buyers?

  • What are the consequences of living with the status quo?

  • What are the roadblocks to transitioning from the competitor's product to ours? Are these roadblocks less or more significant than the challenges of continuing to use the inferior product?

  • What do you think [Competitor X] would offer you to stay with them? How compelling would that offer be?

  • How long is your contract with [Competitor X]? What other products do you buy from them? Do you get a bundle discount?

It may be frustrating, but the market won't always switch to the better product, even when they agree that it's better. So ask the all the right questions in the market to innovate on purpose.

About the Author

Diane Pierson is the Founder and Principal Market Strategist of Innovate on Purpose, a consultancy enabling successful product innovation for tech companies through strategic focus and powerful go-to-market strategies. Diane is also a visiting instructor at Pragmatic Institute. Contact Diane at


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