I wanted to call attention to an excellent article written by Dave Kahle in Industrial Supply which aligns fully with my philosophy on B2B competitive strategy and sales training. For nearly two decades I have emphasized the value of staying above the fray with a focus on a company’s unique value proposition and strengths. While the easiest route is to disparage a competitor, it generally conveys fear and a lack of confidence in your own offering. This tends to undermine trust in your company and its people.
“Disparaging the competition – speaking badly about the company or the individual salespeople, using little innuendos and side comments – all of this says more about us to our customers than it does about the competitors to whom we are referring. It reveals us as small-minded, petty, smug and far more interested in ourselves than we are in our customers.”
- Dave Kahle, Author and Sales Trainer
Instead I have advocated only discussing competitors when directly questioned about them. In that case, I have recommended a fast pivot where the rep recognizes a strength and then quickly segues back to their offering. The strength should be real and non-trivial, but not applicable to your customer. For example, if selling to an SMB, saying that the competitor offers highly customizable solutions for enterprises, but your offering is designed for small businesses with a straightforward user experience. Such an approach is honest, differentiates yourself from the competitor, and avoids mudslinging.
Kahle offers several alternative, but equally valuable strategies for staying above the fray. Instead of speaking directly about a specific company, generalize the competition. Generalization “provides you a means of pointing out your distinctiveness without being negative about your specific competitors.”
Kahle also suggests posing statements in question form to help frame the prospect’s thinking;
Don’t say, “Y Company is a small local company that doesn’t have the systems or technology to support you in the long run.” Instead, say, “One of the questions you should ask of every vendor is this, ‘What technology and systems do you have in place to assure that you will be able to support us for the long run?’”
Another strategy is a feature list between companies, but I am not particularly fond of this approach for tech firms as the table needs to be assiduously maintained and it shifts the focus from value to features. Furthermore, such lists aren’t tailored to the needs of individual prospects and prospects are likely to view such collateral as biased. When I used to put together such tools, I avoided simple checklists and instead focused on workflow stages and framed the discussion as features and benefits in the context of each stage. Each comparison was dated and I told sales reps that I would perform a just-in-time review of the tool if it was more than several months old.
“While we can’t change the competition, we certainly are responsible for our attitudes and behaviors toward the competition,” wrote Kahle. “What we say and how we act about the competition can have a daily bearing on our bottom lines. An appropriate attitude and set of practices for dealing with the competition should be an essential part of every salesperson’s repertoire.”
It is easy to disdain the competition and crow about your product or service, but competitors should be respected. They also have well qualified sales reps and some feature advantages. “From the 10,000-foot-high perspective, if your competitors were as flawed as you think they are, they wouldn’t be in business, and your customers wouldn’t be buying from them,” said Kahle. “So, bury those attitudes of superiority, and cast off that disdain for the competition. If your customers didn’t think they presented a viable option, they wouldn’t be buying from them.”
Kahle suggests that if a company is truly focused on its customers’ needs, then competitive offers are irrelevant. “Your mindset, from the beginning, is not a bit focused on the competition, but rather is 100 percent targeted to completely understanding the customer’s requirements. The conversation is not about how you compare to the competition, but rather how you meet the customer’s needs.”
DoD photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars, U.S. Air Force. Public Domain.