Kyle Porter on Leadership as Service

There is no lack of companies and their CEOs that go through the motions of woke capitalism, turning it into performative theater to satisfy customers, partners, and investors. Only over time do you see which firms are sincere in their efforts at stakeholder capitalism and which ones view such positions as a way to goose profits and burnish their image.

BP was a perfect example of greenwashing until they befouled the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve known Kyle Porter, CEO of Sales Engagement Platform SalesLoft, for about nine years. I was impressed when he mothballed his first product because it wasn’t aligned with his belief in sales authenticity. It was a gutsy move. While he didn’t burn his boats (i.e., immediately remove the product from the market), he stopped selling the service and phased out the product while fulfilling current contracts.

Early on he set out five principals for his company. He has discussed them at user conferences and posts them on SalesLoft’s company page:

So when Kyle announced that SalesLoft was internalizing the cost of its carbon footprint by paying for carbon offsets, I asked him about it. He framed the discussion as part of a broader social mission:

From the beginning, this has been a mission-led business. I didn’t found a company because I wanted to make money in sales, I founded a company because I knew that a business would be the greatest vehicle that I could create to make an impact on the world. And that starts with our customers and changing their lives. It extends to our employees and providing them with a place where they can learn more, grow more, do more, find fulfillment, and serve others. And that extends to our ecosystem and the places that we serve.

If I’ve got influence and capabilities, why not yield those to make the world a better place at the same time…

Einstein said the purpose of life is to serve. I believe that a leader’s role is to serve, and I believe that I’ve been entrusted with a unique story, with capabilities, with resources, with a great business. And it’s my job to be a steward of that and use it to make the world a better place.

So when you look out, you see that we emit 35 billion metric tons of carbon, and SalesLoft is emitting carbon, as well, through our server ecosystem, through our travel, through our office space HVAC. We have an opportunity to take it seriously, and we have an opportunity to have a net-zero impact on the world, then we’re going to take that.

Fortunately, we were able to find a great partner [Green Places] who helps us offset our carbon footprint, and commits us to operating in an energy efficient way.

We stand for something. We act on it. It’s one of the many things that we want to do as a business.”

SalesLoft CEO Kyle Porter (Interview: Michael Levy 8/20/21)

Now, I’m hoping that Green Places keeps Kyle’s feet to the fire on his promise to be carbon neutral. Simply paying for offsets should only be the first step in meeting environmental objectives. The real progress happens when a company works with its employees, vendors, and partners to reduce their carbon emissions. I have no doubt that Kyle is sincere, but even those with the best of intentions need to be advised on next steps and best practices. Just as SalesLoft provides Guided Selling and Next Best Actions to sales professionals, advisory services such as Green Places need to provide Guided Leadership and Next Best Actions to C-level execs.

The SalesTech space is fortunate to have some mensches at the helm (Kyle Porter, Henry Shuck at ZoomInfo, Manny Medina at Outreach, Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn [retired]). Sales has often been a highly competitive, self-serving profession (“coffee is for closers”). Having executives with a stakeholder perspective that preach and implement authenticity, privacy, diversity, collaboration, career development, and environmentalism positions their companies against the stereotypes of the sales profession and helps advance the profession.

Ethics and the Art of the Sale

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.


Clark Stanley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sales Tools

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.

LinkedIn Restates Its Members-First Principles

LinkedIn Logo

In a blog titled, “Maintaining the Trust of our Members,” LinkedIn recommitted itself to a members-first approach.  The Microsoft subsidiary frames its decision-making with the question, “Is this the right thing to do for our members?”

Along with a members-first policy, LinkedIn employs four principles to frame decisions:

  • Members maintain clarity, consistency, and control over their data. This goal is manifested in a broad set of privacy settings, observing the stated wishes of each member, and protecting their data.  Microsoft employs a global GDPR standard and does not transfer member data to other companies.  For example, LinkedIn Sales Navigator limits data access to member-data view-only access, which displays profiles within CRMs and other partner applications but does not transfer data to those platforms.
  • LinkedIn will remain a safe, trusted, and professional platform.  The firm removes content which violates their Professional Community Policies and removes fake profiles, jobs, and companies.
  • LinkedIn is committed to removing unfair bias from its platform so that individuals with equal talent have equal access to opportunity.  “To achieve this goal, we are committed to building a product with no unfair bias that provides opportunity to all of our members.  There is a lot of work still to do, but we are focused on working across our company, with our members and customers, and across the industry to close the network gap.”
  • As a global platform, they are committed to respecting the laws that apply to them and “contributing to the dialogue” about legal frameworks.

LinkedIn Advertising is subject to an initial review.  LinkedIn vets ads to ensure they are non-discriminatory:

“Even if legal in the applicable jurisdiction, LinkedIn does not allow ads that advocate, promote, or contain discriminatory hiring practices or denial of education, housing, or economic opportunity based on age, gender, religion, ethnicity, race, or sexual preference.  Ads that promote the denial or restriction of fair and equal access to education, housing, or credit or career opportunities are prohibited.”

Blake Lawit, LinkedIn General Counsel

The statement of principles comes at a time when other social media firms are struggling to develop rules and policies around political advertising. LinkedIn does not carry political advertising and also restricts adult content, illegal, health, gaming, weapons, multi-level marketing, alcohol, tobacco, and financial (payday loans, cryptocurrency) products.  

LinkedIn continues to grow its customer base with 660 million members across 200 countries and 30 million companies.  The top countries are the United States (165M members), India (62M), China (48M), Brazil (40M), and the UK (27M).

LinkedIn maintains offices in nine US cities and 24 international locations. The platform supports 24 languages.

Salesforce Restricts E-commerce Gun Sales

Salesforce updated its acceptable-use policy to ban gun retailers who use Salesforce to market, manage, or fulfill semi-automatic weapons orders. The ban also covers parts like “multi-burst trigger devices” and large magazines.  The policy goes into effect for current customers at renewal.

According to Salesforce, only a small number of current customers are impacted.  The firm declined to name retailers, but Camping World, which spends over $1 million per year on Salesforce technology, is likely to be impacted.  The Washington Post estimated Camping World’s migration costs to be over $2 million.

Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation called the policy “corporate-policy virtue signaling.”

“It is a very chilling effect when a company as large as Salesforce puts out a policy like this,” said Oliva. “A policy like this is not surprising from a company based in that part of the country.”

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff called for banning the AR-15 last year following the Parkland shooting and donated $1 million to March for Our Lives.  The firm and Benioff have a history of taking political stands including support for a US GDPR (data privacy), corporate taxes in San Francisco to support the homeless, and LGBTQ rights.

Shopify, which provides e-commerce software to 800,000 sites, implemented a similar anti-automatic weapon sales policy last year.

While many firms operate with a profit maximizing philosophy espoused by economist Milton Friedman, Salesforce is managed with a stakeholder’s philosophy that weighs other stakeholders besides shareholders. These parties include employees, partners, customers, the environment, and society in general. CEO Marc Benioff created the 1-1-1 pledge 18 years ago which donates 1% of corporate technology, people, and resources.

While Oliva derides Salesforce’s new policy as “virtue signaling,” such policies, when transparently stated, may be profit maximizing. A firm that is viewed as ethical and socially progressive may attract more customers, partners, investors, and employees than it repels. Simple profit maximization requires that firms take an amoral stand which can result in scandals or embarrassing business practices which undermine brand value and company credibility.


If you’d like to comment on this blog, I have setup a forum on Quora for discussing Salesforce’s policy.

Salesforce: Trust is the Key Value for Tech Companies

Salesforce: Trust is the Key Value for Tech Companies

Speaking to Jim Cramer on Mad Money, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff argued that for technology companies, the key value is no longer the great idea, but trust:

In technology over the last two decades, the most important thing has been the idea. That is, the best idea wins.   That has been what gets you funded, that’s how you grow your company, that’s been your highest value: the best idea wins. No longer true.

The current highest value is trust, and if trust is not your highest value, if the most important thing to you and your company is not trust, you need to look again, and that’s what’s happening with these companies today.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff

Benioff observed that a lack of trust is eroding Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook.  “Their executives are walking out, employees are walking out,and that happens with a lot of companies in tech right now. We’ve had a lot of walkouts this quarter.  And the reason why is because it’s kind of amessage to the executives: it’s time to transform.”

“Every company has to hold themselves to a new level of trust, and if your brand is not about trust, you’re going to have customer issues, and you can see that in that brand,” observed Benioff.

And trust has long been part of Salesforce’s value proposition.  The firm emphasizes it’s 1:1:1 philanthropy program (Donating 1% of technology, people, and resources) which has been adopted as a model by other companies.  Salesforce also promotes local nonprofits at Salesforce events, emphasizes Trailhead and meetups for skills advancement, embraced a San Francisco tech company tax to address homelessness, called for a US GDPR to protect privacy, raised womens’ wages to address a pay equity gap following a self-audit, and spoke out against anti-gay legislation.  Under a short-term profit-maximization model, these activities make little sense, but under a longer-term stakeholder’s approach, they make perfect sense.

Trust is based on a stakeholders approach to corporate governance.  It recognizes that Milton Friedman’s stance against social responsibility (“there is one and only one social responsibility of business to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays in the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud.”) is wrong.  A stakeholders approach recognizes that employees, customers, partners, investors, and the general public all place value on companies that take a long-term view of their role in society.  Simple profit maximization is a short-term approach which fails to recognize that you can’t attract the best employees or close multi-million dollar deals if you are not trusted.

And you can see this in the stock price growth of Facebook and Salesforce over the past five years.  Facebook’s stock price outpaced Salesforce for the past five years, but once Facebook lost trust, its stock price declined.

Salesforce and Facebook both had strong stock price growth over the past five years, but Facebook retreated this year after it lost trust amongst stakeholders.
Salesforce and Facebook both had strong stock price growth over the past five years, but Facebook retreated this year after it lost trust amongst stakeholders.

Benioff Dreamforce Keynote

Salesforce CEO Mark BenioffSalesforce CEO Mark Benioff has long taken a stakeholders’ approach to his business, understanding that technology firms can do both good and evil.  Unlike many of the social media companies which are now beginning to understand the dangers of taking a laissez-faire approach to how others use their technology, Benioff has ensured that his enterprise cloud company takes an affirmative action towards social justice, equality, and the ethical application of his firm’s technology.

Eighteen years ago, he started the 1:1:1 campaign (1% of product, time, and resources) to nonprofits and philanthropic purposes.  At Dreamforce and World Tour events, the firm regularly promotes local nonprofits and holds sessions for them.  The firm has also taken stands against discriminatory legislation and adjusted salaries to ensure gender pay equity.  Benioff is calling for “inclusive capitalism” which benefits all members of society and recently created an Office of Ethical and Humane Use of their technology.

Here is what Benioff had to say at this year’s Dreamforce (abridged):

What is really important to us? what is the most important thing what are our values? What are we going to stand for? What do we really want?…

We’re watching…for companies who are not listening to their key stakeholders, not listening to their customers, not listening to their employees, not listening to the kids…Then we watch the executives walk out. The employees walk out.  The customers walk out as a vote of no-confidence against their values and as a community we stand here and we say we are going to commit to a higher level.  We are going to a higher level together to express our values.  We know what the most important thing is to us and in this community and we’ve said it for years and we’ll say it again:  Our culture is built on trust – The fundamental trust that we have with you; the fundamental trust that we have with our key stakeholders, with our customers, with our employees, with our partners.

Our trust is with you and we take that very seriously.  It’s our highest value and we ask every company to ask what is your highest value and in the world when technology is taking us over and in a world where technology through the Fourth Industrial Revolution is grabbing us, realize that we all have a higher responsibility to ask that question especially you see the gambits that are unfolding really before us. Especially as artificial intelligence gets released into the whole world we must ask this question, “What is truly important to us?”…

We realize technology is not good or bad, it’s what you do with it that matters…We’ve restructured our company to have an Office of Ethical and Humane Use of the technology so that as our employees or our customers or our partners say “Are we doing this? Are we aligned with our values? Are we moving forward?”

We can have a structured conversation not just with our own employees myopically but by bringing in the key advisors and supporters and pundits and philosophers and everybody necessary…to ask the question, “Is what we are doing today ethical and humane?” and we’re all gonna have to ask that question in the technology industry and every company and every CEO better be ready to answer to that question through their values.

And we’re putting our values into action because our values create our behaviors…

We believe we have to bring everyone in.  Everyone has to come in to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s inclusive capitalism.  Inclusive capitalism means we’re all going together into the future.  We are leaving no one behind. Nobody will be left.

 

 

Facebook Reaps What It Sows

Facebook dropped 20% in one day as the ongoing news about their misuse of personal data began to hit their bottom line a few weeks ago.  Here is a guerilla protest campaign in London which encapsulates their issues:

The problem at Facebook is that they forgot that they were there for their members not their advertisers.  The idea was free content (news, fake news, and social), no editorial review, and monetization of the data exhaust from their platform.

When that happened, truth and privacy became irrelevant.  They can whitewash their actions and pretend that the problems are exogenous to their company, but hiring editors is only the beginning of excising the rot that rests at the center of Facebook’s business model.


Source: Instagram images from ProtestStencil

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.

Satya Nadella and “Trust in Technology”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella digressed from standard earnings call topics two weeks ago to discuss the importance of ethics, privacy, and cybersecurity.  While he did not provide a specific reason for the digression, the Facebook hearings and impending GDPR implementation were likely motivators.

Nadella noted that the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge are “tremendous opportunities” for Microsoft customers, but that it is critical that both Microsoft and its customers “ensure trust in technology” across three dimensions: privacy, cybersecurity, and ethics. Nadella argued that “privacy is a fundamental human right” and that the firm has implemented an “end-to-end privacy architecture” which is GDPR compliant.

“For customers, we will provide robust tools backed by our contractual commitments to help them comply with GDPR,” said Nadella. “In fact, for most customers it will be more effective and less costly to host their data in Microsoft’s GDPR-compliant cloud than to develop and maintain GDPR compliance tools themselves.”

With respect to cybersecurity, the company spearheaded a coalition of 34 global tech and security companies for the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, “an important first step by the industry to help create a safer and more secure online environment for everyone.”

Nadella also announced the establishment of an AI and Ethics in Engineering and Research Committee at Microsoft “to ensure we always advance AI in an ethical and responsible way to benefit our customers and the broader society. This includes new investments in technology to detect and address bias in AI systems. Microsoft stands for trust, and this will continue to be a differentiating focus for us moving forward.”

Up until recently, information technology and social media have been viewed as social goods with few drawbacks, but now that we are all tied into the social communications fabric, we are beginning to worry about the dark side of such connectivity whether it be job losses through automation, the stripping away of privacy, the vulnerability of our networks to hacks, or the undermining of objective truth and democratic systems.

One step towards addressing these problems is the GDPR Chief Privacy Officer requirement with its focus on privacy and cybersecurity.  At most companies, this role is likely to be one of compliance, not ethics or broader social questions.  At a few, however, this role may grow beyond mere compliance and begin to address the broader social and economic issues posed by information technology.

 

Ethical Competitive Strategy

When training sales reps, I 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.  Oftentimes it can backfire.

“It is a mistake to believe that you can win hearts and minds by attacking your competitor. When you have no idea how strong the relationship is, you can make a complete fool of yourself, doing more harm than good, and doing nothing to create a real opportunity.

Speaking ill of your competitor is an indication of who you are, not who they are. There are better strategies available to you.”

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 which 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.

Of course, sales reps will only be able to deploy landmines and respond with quick parries if they understand both the value proposition of their offerings, the needs of their clients, and the strengths and weaknesses of their offerings vis-à-vis competitors.  This is where tools and training come into play.