An interview clip featuring an interview with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer giving his impressions on the Apple iPhone announcement has been generating a lot of buzz over the weekend. Many people who viewed the clip felt that Ballmer was "laughing at" Apple's latest product announcement. It was not really what he said (although there were some arguably misleading statements), but the way he responded (with a laugh) that to some came across as dismissive and disrespectful of a competitor (and in some cases a partner). Some felt the laughter, misleading comments, and dismissive tone were a case of "whistling in the dark." Other's felt it was a sign of either over confidence or fear. Of course, others felt his comments were fair and balanced and that the iPhone is indeed too expensive, etc. (Steve Ballmer comments on the iPhone in video below).
Should you say "nice things" about competitors?
I didn't find Steve Ballmer's response particularly egregious, though he did work hard to avoid talking about the company from Cupertino. I think his smile/laugh and other nonverbals were a sign of some discomfort with the question. Frankly, Ballmer reacted pretty much like I expected him to. I've become quite used to his talks about "capable products," and Microsoft's "agenda for driving synergy and unique innovations," etc. Nonetheless, I would have been flat-out blown away and quite impressed indeed if he had been complimentary of Apple instead of answering the question about the iPhone with a laugh about the price followed quickly by a commercial for Microsoft strategy. But it is the reaction to Ballmer's comments that I find so fascinating. It is the big response to Steve Ballmer's little comments got me thinking: Should you say "nice things" about competitors?
Good bloggers are like good presenters
I have said before that good presenting has many things in common with good blogging. The bloggers and corporate blogs, for example, that we trust are the ones that are not afraid to be "linky" and in fact often link to their competition or similar blogs, etc. Good bloggers operate from an "abundance mentality" rather than a "scarcity mentality." They are more concerned with being linky than being sticky. Readers trust a blog that happily points them to other cool and useful sites. Likewise, people respect someone who has enough confidence in themselves that they are not afraid to introduce you to others who are perhaps even more talented than themselves. Former Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble included this idea in his Corporate Blogging Manifesto:
"Link to your competitors and say nice things about them. Remember, you're part of an industry and if the entire industry gets bigger, you'll probably win more than your fair share of business and you'll get bigger too. Be better than your competitors -- people remember that. I remember sending lots of customers over to the camera shop that competed with me and many of those folks came back to me and said 'I'd rather buy it from you, can you get me that?'"
— Robert Scoble
By putting a human face on the company, Robert did much to make Microsoft seem "less evil" in his three years with the company. Although he was a Microsoft employee and used and even loved many of its products, he also criticized the company and often praised its rivals. To many this made him more trustworthy that Bill, Steve B. or the Microsoft PR machine.
What about presentations?
How about in a presentation situation? If, for example, you admire a similar product from the competition, should you not say so if asked? If not, why not? If you flat out dismiss the competitor's product no one really believes you anyway as they realize you have a very obvious conflict of interest. However, if you can compliment the competition and be completely respectful of them, doesn't that give you more credibility when you later go on to say why your product/service absolutely kicks butt? Isn't it our job to explain how our product/service (or research results, etc.) is different and great on its own merits? I am not saying you should go out of your way to glorify the accomplishments of your competitor, but if the issue comes up in a live presentation, I personally have much more respect for the presenter who speaks in a tone that is respectful of the competitor.
Tom Peters: Loving your enemy is good business
Tom Peters had a great post in December about this very same issue. Tom's point? It's simply good business to embrace the competition and to help others in your field succeed:
"I think that when one badmouths one's competitors or tries to limit their activities, the 'word gets around.' And one develops a reputation as prickly and egocentric—and, well, as a selfish jerk."
— Tom Peters
Management guru Tom Asaker took a little different take on this. Asaker said that the truly successful ones are too busy focusing on their own customers and products to even care much about the competition including "bad mouthing" them:
"The word competition literally means, 'seeking together,' and 'choosing to run in the same race.' Great people and great brands don't care about their competitors. They don't define themselves by competitive movements. They are simply not on the same track (mentally)."
— Tom Asacker
Japanese culture and humility
Many of the ideals of the way of the Samurai or Bushido (way of the warrior) are still very much a part of Japanese culture today. Yes, there are egotistical business people in Japan just as anywhere else, but it is generally considered very bad form to speak disparagingly about your competition or rivals. Good advice for presenting in Japan — and I think it applies globally — is not to speak ill of your competitor in a public forum. Perhaps you could get away with this if you are already well known and trusted, but if you are new and still in "the trust me phase," verbally disrespecting your rivals is a red flag for those evaluating your potential as a partner.
A dose of humility goes a long way
Only the ignoble (and foolish) man would disrespect an opponent, let alone publicly disrespect one's rival or competitor. If one bad mouths a competitor in Japan they shame not only themselves but the group to which they belong. One who speaks poorly of others is not to be trusted. Speaking ill of a competitor, especially a smaller one who may not (yet) be at your level, shows a lack of humility. A wise man (or woman) knows that "ten thousand things become my teacher." We can learn from anyone or anything if our eyes are not clouded by pride, arrogance, or fear. Once we think we have arrived, the old saying goes, we have already begun our descent to failure. Humility keeps us aware and grounded in the real world. Tenets of humility include respect, politeness, compassion, self-discipline, etc. When one remembers that there is no end to mastery — that one can and must be better the next day and the day after that (and the day after that) — then it is foolish indeed to ever look down one's nose to anyone, especially our rivals. Ultimately, the real rival is within us anyway.
Update: Yes, this goes for Apple too
My aim in pointing to the Steve Ballmer video was not to get into a whole Apple vs. MS thing, nor was my point really to criticize Ballmer (as if he were somehow the only CEO to dismiss the competition). My main point was to suggest rather that it is far better if we, in a similar situation, respond differently.
And yes, Steve Jobs (and other Apple execs) have recently taken some pretty good verbal jabs at Microsoft (e.g., ’06 Developers Conference). Those jabs play well to many in the Mac community, but I personally would rather they not make fun of Vista, Zune , etc. publicly. You could say that it is OK for them because they after all are the "David" to Microsoft's "Goliath." Apple is just a very odd company (mostly in a good way) and its products have a way of making users evangelical supporters. I mean what other tech company has attractive young women singing love songs for their products and putting them on YouTube? Nonetheless, I think keeping to the high road is always a good rule of thumb. The problem with Apple is that they may respect Microsoft's business expertise but do not respect Microsoft's ability to make insanely great products (see this older video for example). Maybe Jobs can simply remember what all our mother's told us: If you don't have anything nice to say about someone, say nothing at all. That's one I have to remember too.