How to Gracefully Torpedo a Competitor

In the post “How to Outsell a Competitor’s Rep,” I explained a basic principle of competitive selling — knowing who you’re selling against.  In the post, I mentioned the concept of competitive positioning, which consists primarily of contrasting your strengths with a competitor’s weaknesses.  However, some readers wanted to know how to go about doing this, which is the reason for this post.

First, let’s start with some rules.

  • Rule #1: Never say anything bad about a competitor. Badmouthing a competitor tells the prospect that you’re bitter, angry and probably scummy.  It usually makes the competitor look good by comparison.
  • Rule #2: Warn the customer when a competitor is wrong for them. If you truly believe that the customer is about to make a big mistake by buying someone else’s products, it is your solemn duty to communicate that fact to them.

Rule 1 and rule 2 only seem to be mutually exclusive.  Resolving the apparent conflict requires a certain amount of finesse, but the basic approach is simple:

Ask questions that raise questions.

This technique is best explained with an example:

Suppose you’re selling for a start-up and your competitor is a large, established firm.  You know from your research that the competitor’s customer service function tends to handle customers in an arrogant manner.  By contrast, your firm is extremely easy to work with.

The challenge is to point out your competitive advantage without sounding like you’re running down the competition.  You might just claim to have “great customer service”, but the competitor probably claims the same thing.  To cinch the deal, you need to create contrast of the “we good; they bad” variety.

You could, of course, say something like: “Why would you want to work with those arrogant S.O.B.s?!?”  That is, you could if you wanted to take yourself out of the running for that opportunity.  Instead, you need to ask a question that gets the prospect thinking.  Like so:

  • You: “Just so I can be sure to provide value, who else are you talking to about this opportunity?”
  • Prospect: “We’ve had a meeting with MegaCorp Unlimited.”
  • You: “They’re certainly a pretty big, established company.  Have you talked to some of their customers about their service practices?”
  • Prospect: “No.  Why?”
  • You: “I’ve heard that they have their own ways of doing things.  You might want to ensure they have a service culture that matches your needs.”

Note that you’ve said nothing whatsoever negative about the competitor.  Quite the contrary; you’ve actually praised them as being “big” and “established.”  But you’ve also planted the seed that there’s something “wrong” that warrants the prospect’s attention… before buying from that competitor.

Conversely, suppose you’re a big company selling against a smaller competitor.  Your strength is your deep pockets, while the competitor is running out of venture capital.  You could say: “Those small potatoes are gonna run out of money.”  You could, that is, if you wanted to sound like a big bully and a tattletale.  Instead, you say something like:

  • You: “Just so I can be sure to provide value, who else are you talking to about this opportunity?”
  • Prospect: “We’ve had a meeting with MicroCorp LLC.”
  • You: “I heard some good things about their product.  Just out of curiosity, how does your company protect itself against risk when purchasing mission critical products?”

Once again, you’ve said nothing whatsoever negative about the other firm and have even provided a modicum of praise.  But the juxtaposition of the question planted a seed that going with that competitor could be risky.  And you’ve probably begun a conversation that allows you to talk about the stability and security of your own firm.

Needless to say, the more you know about your competitor, the better you’ll be able to craft questions that cut into the competitor’s value proposition.  And you must be able to deliver these questions in a matter-of-fact manner, without arching an eyebrow.

Once you’ve planted a seed, then you fertilize it by adding weight to the area where your offering is more competitive.  For example, if buying from you entails less risk than buying from the competitor, you work with the customer to quantify the risk, so that the customer understands the full awful consequences if a vendor doesn’t or can’t deliver as promised.

READERS: What’s been your experience in situations like this?   I know that some sales reps shy away from this kind of thing, but I suspect it’s because they’re afraid it will backfire.  Your thoughts are welcome!


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