There is a group of people out there that potentially represent one of your biggest sources of income. They rank right up there with your current prospects and your existing customers. But most of you reading this never, ever connect with them. Who are they?

They are your competitors. 

Recently, I was out to lunch with a colleague and he asked me how I deal with competition. My response? “Other writers and speakers are my best friends. We cheer each other on.” He immediately replied, “OK, Mr. Bestselling Customer Service Author, what if one of them was a speaker on exactly your topic?”

Without hesitation, I replied, “As a matter of fact, I do know someone like that. She is awesome. We sometimes team-teach workshops together. I would recommend her anytime.” As he proceeded to choke on his burrito, I shared a more important statistic: some of my biggest gigs have been referred to me by competitors. And I, in turn, refer lots of business to them.

Here is why your competitors are such an important part of being competitive:

You can’t be everywhere. There is only one of me and I haven’t perfected cloning myself yet. So, what happens when someone asks me to speak on a date that I am already booked? I send that business to other people I know and like. So do others.

You can’t do everything. When someone asks me to speak on a different subject – even if I could easily do it – I am much more likely to suggest someone who is already fantastic at it. In the process, I usually earn something infinitely more valuable than the gig: my credibility.

Likeability is social capital. If someone asks a competitor about you, would you rather they (a) talk about what a great guy or gal you are, or (b) describe what a snitbucket you are? Multiply that across everyone’s social connections and decide what that ultimately does for your business.

It goes both ways. I don’t really plan it this way, but a lot of the competitors I help eventually send business my way too. It’s funny how that works.

This strategy doesn’t just work for solopreneurs like me. Recently, after I gave a speech for the green industry, the owner of a large landscaping firm told me that he and his colleagues often help new competitors get started, giving them marketing tips and sharing their own experiences. This strategy obviously hasn’t hurt him: he and his 60 employees are far and away the largest firm in his area.

And then there is my buddy Lynn Serafinn, who has probably helped launch more number 1 mind-body-spirit bestsellers than anyone in history. She generously shares many of her secrets for marketing and social media for free, and I don’t see her getting any less busy. In her own new book The 7 Graces of Marketing, she refers to competition as an “obsolete paradigm” that is making us ill.

Finally, some of you may be wondering if fraternizing with the enemy is going to hurt your business. Perhaps, if you are working on plans for the next space shuttle or what not, but if you are a speaker, a grant writer, a bakery owner, a business consultant, or do what 95% of the rest of us do, I wouldn’t worry. No one can ever successfully be you by copying you. And even when I worked in a hotly competitive software industry with lots of trade secrets, graceful competitors usually fared much better in the long term than nasty ones.

We love to view our businesses through the lens of sports metaphors: winning, outscoring the competition, and crushing the opposition. I have a totally different view; instead of “crushing” people who will then hate you and fight you, build a network that embraces your competition. You will probably find that the world is big enough for all of you to help each other succeed.

So what do you think? Is collaboration the new competition? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.