Happy Mother’s Day. I wrote this blog about six years ago, but it is no longer available online, so I thought I’d republish it here with a few minor updates.
My mother was a highly successful sales rep in two different capital goods industries for several decades. She regularly noted how important her reputation was in building her pipeline across her territory. From her perspective, acting unethically was severe short-term thinking. You were better off telling a customer that they should go to a competitor for a specific product if you can’t meet their needs than to shoehorn in a solution that only damages your reputation and that of your firm. While fibbing (using my mom’s polite term when she caught us in a lie) might close a few more deals early on, once you have been found to be slippery with the truth you are unlikely to close more sales at that account.
My mother worked her territory for over a decade and didn’t win any significant business at some prospects for the first few years. At the outset, her company had little market presence in the region. But she hung in there and sold a few beachhead deals that solved niche problems. It was with this long-term approach that she slowly built trust with her new customers. They then brought her in when new RFPs were being written – she had earned their trust.
Because she sold capital goods to only three segments (Hospitals, Nursing Homes, and Universities), she approached the market with an Account Based Marketing (ABM) perspective. Each account represented a series of opportunities over the next five to ten years. She treated each account with respect and built her relationships well ahead of RFPs. She intuitively understood Lifetime Value (LTV).
It is only with a reputation for integrity that you can expect to be called when an exec moves to another company.
It is only with integrity that you will be asked to advise on an RFP.
And it is only with integrity that customers will be willing to take referral calls for you or recommend you to their colleagues.
Being shady eventually backfires. Who is going to call you back when you have failed to deliver on your promises? It can be a scorched earth approach that is contrary to today’s ABM focus. With ABM, there are a limited number of top accounts within your territory which are to be nurtured and grown. Playing fast and loose with the truth, delivering shoddy products and services, or failing to live up to your promises will undermine your reputation at key accounts and erode your brand value.
It can even backfire quickly. One time, my mother responded to a state RFP with aggressive pricing she knew her competitor was unlikely to match. She attended the bid award meeting and was shocked to find she was underbid. As state bidding is open, she reviewed the competitor’s bid and found they had substituted refurbished equipment for new even though the RFP barred used equipment. She contested the bid on the grounds that the firm had failed to comply with RFP requirements and was later awarded the multi-year contract. Not only did her competitor lose the contract in question, but it undermined its reputation at the state purchasing department.
Ethical Competitive Strategy
When training sales reps, I also emphasize staying “above the fray”. Besmirching a competitor’s product also sullies your reputation. It shows a lack of class and a sense of desperation. It is much better to position the value of your offering and focus on areas of differentiation than it is to throw mud. You should lay landmines for competitors, not besmirch their reputation.
A landmine is simply an emphasis upon those features and benefits where your product or service offering excels. The goal is to frame the discussion around the dimensions in which your product provides superior value to the end user. Keep in mind that value is dependent upon the customer in question, so you need to factor in job function, industry, company size, etc. Also, be careful to select areas in which your firm excels overall, not dimensions in which you are superior to competitor X that is vying for the deal but inferior to competitor Y. Otherwise, you may later find out you lost the deal to Y.
Likewise, you should expect your competitors to be laying landmines for your sales reps. They need to understand where these mines are laid and how to diffuse them.
One tool I recommend is the quick parry. This is a quick response to the question, “how are you better / different than company X?” A quick parry is only three or four sentences and usually begins by saying something positive about the competitor before transitioning with a BUT or HOWEVER. The positive item can be a recognition of some dimension in which they are the acknowledged leader or a dimension that is of limited importance to the customer in question. Thus, if you are selling to an SMB, you might emphasize the breadth of their solution for enterprise customers vs. the ease of use, quick implementation, and pricing models you offer for smaller firms. Such a tool differentiates your service from the competitor without throwing mud.
While modern sales tools don’t make sales reps more or less ethical, digital tools allows them to focus on relationship building instead of cold calling and administrative tasks. When I’ve shown my mother the current generation of sales tools, she becomes jealous of today’s sales reps. Think about
- How much closer she would have been to her customers had she been able to review profiles for each company; seen detailed lists of contacts with titles, emails, and phone numbers; and received daily email alerts with account and prospect sales triggers.
- How much less time she would have spent filling out monthly pipeline reports (three-part carbon forms) had account intelligence been integrated into a CRM.
- How easily she could have reached out to clients via email or social media by quickly leveraging a trigger.
- How much faster she would have learned that a key contact moved to another company and planned her strategy accordingly.
- How she would have benefited by viewing her accounts and prospects displayed on a map to assist with road trip planning.
- How she could have mapped out the demand unit, identified gaps, and tracked engagement with revenue and sales intelligence tools.
What about the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) strategy? I tend to dislike it unless it addresses a true pain or fear of the buyer. When I worked at MCI back in the ‘90s, one of AT&T’s strategies was to emphasize their reputation and solidity. We used to refer to it as the “Nobody ever gets fired for recommending AT&T strategy”. It addressed the inherent risk aversion of recommending an upstart over the industry behemoth. Such a strategy often works best for incumbents as it allows them to focus on their strengths (e.g. experience, stability, breadth of solution, zero transition costs). Upstarts using FUD need to make sure that they don’t come across as mocking the larger firm instead of emphasizing their strengths as an upstart (e.g. innovation, flexibility, focus).
When training your sales reps, make sure they fully understand your value proposition and those of your competitors. Reps should only be discussing competitors when directly asked about them. Landmines and quick parries emphasize your value proposition and differential value while avoiding the pitfalls of mudslinging. My mother understood these truths four decades ago.
Happy Mother’s Day. I also posted a blog about her sales career in 2016.