A few years ago I attended a business class at the local Adult Education campus, and one of the guest speakers asked us a very provocative question: How do you beat the competition?

The class offered, “lower prices,” “faster delivery,” “better quality,” “greater selection” and “friendlier service.” The lecturer then said, “Yes, those are all good answers, but not the one I am looking for. The way to beat the competition is to change the rules — and then don’t tell them what the new rules are.”

At first this could sound like a superficial answer, but it’s not. I used that idea ever since in the guerrilla marketing that we did for my company. Here’s one way.

Periodically we would do an anonymous survey of our competition (and we assumed they did the same thing to us). We’d send out a request for a quote and then compare their response to what ours would be for the same work. Of course, we compared their prices with ours. We also compared several other things. We wanted to know how their promised delivery compared to ours. We compared how their response time to a request for a quote compared to ours. And there is one other aspect we compared that I’ll talk about later.

The last time we conducted a survey, this is what we found. Some prices were lower than ours. That’s fine with us because we did not want to have the lowest prices in town (that’s the worst way to compete). Most of the delivery quotes — how soon a customer gets the finished product after the order is placed — were about equal to ours.

Then we got to response time — how soon they got back to us with a quote. The fastest response was about 10 days after we sent our request. So we changed the rules and didn’t tell them what the new rules were. We responded to 90 percent of all requests within four hours; 100 percent within 24 hours.

Why is this important? It’s a human trait. When we want something — whether it’s a new car or a new house or even a haircut — we want it now, not two weeks from now. With our four-hour response time, we frequently received a request for a quote, quoted the customer, got the order, produced the product and shipped it — before our competition had even responded with a quote. Talk about changing the rules!

Now for one of the last things that we compared between our competition and ourselves. When we sent out the request for quote, we included a small mistake of some kind — a misspelled word, a broken line, something. When the competition responded, we looked to see if they brought that to our attention. The competition rarely did; we always did. We are sure our customers appreciated that and it made us just a little bit more connected to them.

Change the rules, and don’t tell them what the new rules are.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at pburri@west.net.