Don’t Disparage Your Competitors

I much prefer looking at competition as a set of parries and thrusts. Competitors are to be respected. Disparaging competitors only serves to undermine your case and is indicative of fear.
I much prefer looking at competition as a set of parries and thrusts. Competitors are to be respected. Disparaging competitors only serves to undermine your case and is indicative of fear.

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.

Are We Really Selling Quarter-Inch Holes?

Black & Decker Cordless Drill (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Black & Decker Cordless Drill (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sales and marketing often forget to focus on the unique value proposition they offer their customers.  They focus on product features instead of customer benefits.  There is an oft-repeated saying in marketing which captures this logic perfectly:

“People don’t buy quarter inch drills, they buy quarter inch holes.”

The electric drill was first developed by Black and Decker and patented in 1917 as a tool for their own production facility.  Interestingly, the firm only recognized the value of the tool for consumers when employees began taking it home.  Ironically, the tool often used to discuss the value of thinking broadly about use cases and customer needs was originally designed for a limited purpose, the Black and Decker plant, became an indispensable DIY consumer and industrial product.

A product/technology focus emphasizes the features of the drill and not the benefits of quickly making holes of specific sizes as needed, where needed.  Marketers need to translate many product features to a distinct set of customer benefits and roll them into a unique value proposition that differentiates their product in the mind of potential customers.

Understanding the needs of the customers is also important for the product and engineering teams.  Otherwise, they will view both the competition and the market too narrowly.  If you are selling quarter inch drills, you view your competitors as quarter inch drill manufacturers.  If you view your product as on demand tools for boring holes and attaching objects, you recognize a broader set of competitive and complementary products including bores, glues, solder, welding supplies, nails, screws, bolts, etc.  You would also recognize that electromechanical torque can be applied to screws, bolts, and nuts, expanding your product line into adjacent markets.

Focusing on product features is also a bad practice for sales reps.  As with marketing, emphasizing features prevents them from communicating the unique value proposition of your products and services.  If your sales reps are too often complaining about losing on price or the need to constantly discount off list price, then either your prices are too high or your sales reps are engaged in too much feature-speak and failing to communicate customer benefits and value.  Of course, these reasons are not mutually exclusive.  You could have two root causes to your pricing difficulties – your prices may be too high and your sales reps may be failing to communicate value.

Another problem with focusing on features is it treats your product as little more than a commodity.  A differentiated service is less subject to price erosion and heavy discounting.  This is one reason I tell my clients in the sales intelligence space not to compete on database size.  While there are benefits to larger databases, users aren’t usually purchasing big databases [feature], they are purchasing sales insights [value proposition] that make them more effective at building prospecting lists [benefit 1], qualifying leads [benefit 2], managing accounts [benefit 3], reducing CRM data entry [benefit 4], improving analytics [5], and selling deeper into organizations [benefit 6].  Thus, it isn’t the size of the company and executive files, but the breadth of data insights that help reps more efficiently and effectively sell.

So as you hold your 2018 sales kickoffs, make sure to communicate your new product’s value proposition to your salesforce.  Likewise, evangelize your company’s vision during new hire training, product road mapping sessions, and all hands meetings.  In the end, customers are interested in your value and how you benefit them, not RPM or database size.