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.


ABM and High Growth Companies

Account Based Strategy Adoption Rates (DiscoverOrg and Smart Selling Tools)
Account Based Strategy Adoption Rates (DiscoverOrg and Smart Selling Tools)

A joint study by DiscoverOrg and Smart Selling Tools of 200 sales and marketing organizations found that high growth companies with at least 40% growth over the past three years are 2.5 times more likely to have adopted an Account Based Marketing (ABM) strategy.  Furthermore high growth companies are twice as likely to have successful cold calling programs and are more likely to have a dedicated outbound prospecting team.  High growth firms are also more likely to hire sales reps based upon their “tech-savvy” than experience and have adopted twice as many sales technologies than their slower growth brethren.  With respect to MarTech, high-growth companies have adopted 24% more marketing solutions.

The study also found that fast growth companies provide at least three hours of coaching or training per week to their sales teams.  At slower growth companies, training appeared to have less of an effect.  According to the report, “While an increase in training hours correlated with a rise in growth rates for the high growth group, it did not with low growth companies. This suggests that training may not in of itself cause growth, but it is critical in sustaining it. Fast growing organizations need to train constantly to maintain momentum and enable teams to perform at a high level. Companies that err on the side of less training and coaching do not appear to set their teams up for the same level of success.”

“The findings clearly demonstrate that achieving fast growth is not as simple as having a great product and hiring experienced sales reps.  Sales and marketing teams that are true revenue-generating engines take risks and do the hard things – like cold calling, focusing on data quality, and heavily aligning sales and marketing teams across account-based strategies.”

– DiscoverOrg CEO Henry Schuck

“Technology proliferation in the sales and marketing industry is both a challenge and an opportunity,” added  Nancy Nardin, CEO of Smart Selling Tools. “The fastest growing companies are investing in technologies that make their sales and marketing teams more productive and more insightful, while recognizing it is equally as important to have highly trained team members who know how to leverage that technology to its fullest power.”

The primary inhibitor of even faster growth at high growth companies was data quality issues concerning accounts and contacts.

The top technology available to sales reps were CRM (52%) and LinkedIn (free LinkedIn was deployed at 45% , premium LinkedIn at 33%, and Sales Navigator at 27% of sales teams).  Pipeline and Opportunity Management software was third at 42%.  Rounding out the top five were compensation/commission software and sales intelligence, both with a 38% deployment rate.  Surprisingly, 37% of sales teams still employ account and contact data providers / list providers.  As sales intelligence vendors support list building along with sales intelligence (and some also data hygiene), there are likely ongoing opportunities to move sales teams up the value chain from list purchases.

Predictive analytics / predictive intelligence placed 36th out of 37 technologies with only a 5% deployment rate.  As Gartner estimated the total global market for predictive analytics technology to be between $100 and $150 million, this low penetration rate should not be overly surprising.

The study, conducted in November, used 40% growth between 2013 and 2016 (estimated) as the high growth cutoff as it is represents the recent growth floor for Inc. 5000 membership.  Of the 200 firms studied, 17% fell into the high-growth category, 69% fell into the low-growth category (1-39%), 13% had flat revenue, and 1% had declining revenues.  The survey was over weighted to technology companies with software, IT Services and Telco as the top three industries surveyed.  82% of the firms were B2B and 85% were headquartered in the US.

DiscoverOrg: TiLT Sales & Marketing Certification

Conviction is one of the ten "micro-burst" training modules in the Sales Development certification program.
Conviction is one of the ten “micro-burst” training modules in the Sales Development certification program.

Technology Sales Intelligence vendor DiscoverOrg formally launched a sales and marketing training program called TiLT.  The certification program is available at no charge to DiscoverOrg clients.  Three programs are planned for sales development, marketing, and account executives with a ten module sales development program now available.  The marketing program should be available by early Q4.

“DiscoverOrg’s mission is to provide actionable sales and marketing intelligence that enables our customers to open the door to growth like they’ve never experienced, and we are leading by example. Our experience as one of the fastest growing companies in the country over the past decade gives us a unique perspective, and the TiLT training program is grounded in real-life, practical examples of what works and doesn’t work in today’s incredibly tough sales environment,” said Henry Schuck, CEO of DiscoverOrg.

The training sessions are platform and sales methodology agnostic and allow the sales rep to engage in “microburst learning” with a combination of videos and curated content.  Each module includes a recorded challenge with students self-reporting their level of sales-skill confidence along the way.  Course metrics are then available to sales managers for tracking the progress of their staff.  Thus, a new sales development rep might take two sessions per week over the course of five weeks.

DiscoverOrg is looking to improve the success of its sales clients, many of whom have devalued the value of good salesmanship.  “Conversation is a lost art due to the advent of technology,” said DiscoverOrg’s Senior VP of Customer Success David Sill.

Sheri Schiffman, Director of Inside Sales for WatchGuard, commented on a recent new hire TiLT training session for their Inside Sales team, “We were looking for a way to decrease ramp-up time for new sales employees, and give them new techniques for converting leads to sales. The TiLT training was relevant and provided immediately applicable information and sales skills. Their commitment to our success is outstanding, and we are looking forward to running other new employees through the training in the future.”

The ten-part sales development program contains the following modules:

  1. Improvisation
  2. Engagement
  3. Relevance
  4. Trust
  5. Conviction
  6. Authenticity
  7. Persistence
  8. Persuasion
  9. Creativity
  10. Storytelling

When LinkedIn acquired Lynda last year, I expected they would quickly integrate Lynda training tools into Sales Navigator, but they have yet to do so.  The Sales Navigator training and tools section is provided by Cornerstone OnDemand, not Lynda.  When searching on Lynda, there are five Sales Navigator courses, but four were five to seven minutes overviews and one was a seventy-eight minute Sales Navigator Basics class.   Thus, it appears that DiscoverOrg has stolen a march on LinkedIn with respect to professional sales development.

Historically, the sales intelligence vendors have avoided formal training programs.  They usually provide a set of short training webinars, both recorded and live, but these have tended towards tool training.  DiscoverOrg is going beyond mere tool training to certification training in “the art and science of sales and marketing.”

GIGO: Did We Lose on Price Again?

Loss Reason

Steve Silver, a Research Assistant at Sirius Decisions, recently blogged about a client where the overwhelming reason for losing deals was price.  But the client had a differentiated service where price should not have been the primary factor.

Silver discovered the reasons for this anomaly:  The field was not used by any departments at the firm.  Without an owner, the path of least resistance was selected — the first choice in the picklist.  And in the case of the client, 90% of the losses were flagged as price-based.

Did we establish value?

Silver omitted a third reason, and one which is common amongst sales reps.  Price is an easy scapegoat for lost opportunities.  But if your service is well differentiated and you focus on your value proposition, price should not be the primary loss driver.  Yes, some deals will be lost because a competitor low balls the deal (a true price loss), or the prospect simply does not have the financial means to purchase your service (a poorly qualified prospect), but in most cases, losing on price is a failure on the part of sales reps.  If they thought about it more, they would realize that price is not an exogenous variable outside of their control.  That’s because price is tied to value.  Price is the critical variable if your value has not been established.

This isn’t to say that pricing could be wrong.  If your competitors are quickly moving up the value curve, your historical price may no longer be sustainable as you become less well differentiated.  With good data and analytics, you would capture this shift in the competitive marketplace and act accordingly (e.g. R&D to better differentiate your service, better product bundling, or reduced prices), but price should only dominate the loss reasons in a commodity business.


So what else could be gleaned from this situation?  First, somebody needs to own data quality within the CRM.  If a field is viewed as busywork, your sales reps will populate it with junk data.

Garbage in, Garbage out.

Managers should also be pushing back on reps to better understand why deals were lost so that mistakes can be avoided in the future.  Does the sales rep need additional training or coaching?  Are additional sales tools needed for competitor handling or establishing value?  Are we poorly qualifying opportunities or failing to identify the key decision makers?

Yes, it is easier to move onto the next deal without taking the time to analyze deal losses; but a learning organization needs to understand its failure points.

Sales Operations

Sales Operations should be cross-checking fields.  If the loss reason is price or features, then a competitor had a better offering.  Was the primary competitor recorded in the CRM?  If the competitor is blank, then additional explanation should be required.  Did you really lose on price or features if you don’t know who the competitor was?

Or did you lose to no decision or the incumbent because there was insufficient value established to warrant funding the purchase or sustaining the switching costs?

If you don’t collect the data or you allow a field to be treated as busywork, it won’t be available for analysis.  I have had several instances where my clients did not record the loss reason or the competitors.  I have also had others where the fields were usually blank.  In short, the firms were operating in a competitive fog and not using their CRM for market monitoring.

In the end, it is important to not only gather win/loss information, but to use the data for sales training and coaching, marketing communications, sales enablement, and product development.  When information is valued by the organization, then sales reps are less likely to blithely skip fields or enter the first field in the required picklist.

The Value of Tribal Lore in Sales Training

Goguryeo tomb mural from Korea (Public Domain)

When launching a new sales intelligence service, it is critical that management participates in the rollout and explains the benefits.  If management backs the financial outlay, then reps are more likely to invest as well.  Conversely, if management doesn’t participate in the service rollout, why should your sales reps invest their time in learning and personalizing the new service?  After all, not only is there effort involved in learning a new service and customizing it to their information requirements, but adopting new tools requires reps to modify their workflows and sales processes.  As such, you are asking reps to take a shared risk.

A second way to reinforce the benefits of your sales intelligence investment is to employ tribal lore.  Let one or two sales reps discuss an opportunity they discovered or insight that helped close a deal during the trial period. Sales reps are natural story tellers and enjoy talking about their victories. A good story can do more to sell your product (or a sales tool) than a recitation of features and benefits (but make sure they understand the benefits as well). Sales stories should be viewed as internal case studies generated by sales. They are a low cost means of rewarding reps who gain a psychic reward from retelling their victories. Encouraging such tribal knowledge helps motivate sales reps and is akin to the hunter retelling the story of the hunt.

Furthermore, sharing knowledge across teams fits well with millennial transparency and social media practices.  Peter Ostrow of the Aberdeen Group emphasized the value of such tribal knowledge in a recent report on Sales Reinforcements:

Today’s millennial sellers are far more willing and comfortable to share with one another, as compared to 20th-century quota-carriers. A generation ago, a sales rep was expected to acquire skills and knowledge predominantly from managers above them in the corporate food chain. Modern enterprise social collaboration platforms are designed to leverage the changing mindset of individual contributors, and help provide companies committed to lifelong sales education with technology platforms that complement their commitment to learning that clearly pays measurable dividends.

Attribution: Goguryeo tomb mural from Korea (Public Domain)