Navigating Competition During the Sales Process

By: Phil McCarthy

During the RSPA’s most recent Marketing Committee meeting, the topic of best practices relative to talking about the competition was introduced. The topic was largely inspired by Toast’s recent introduction of a 99-cent surcharge to the consumer’s bill for online orders. While the introduction of this fee has been well documented, how to use this type of information in a competitive situation often presents a grey area for salespeople.

For some salespeople, this will be seen as an opportunity to trash the competition, and for others, they’ll want to take the high road, talking only about their own solution because “talking about the competition” is often frowned upon.

Like many things in life, the truth lies in finding a balance. Trashing the competition seldom works. It usually makes the prospect feel uncomfortable, and likely damages your credibility. Having said that, ignoring the competition and any of their shortcomings likely does the prospect a disservice as well. If you know something about the competition that can better inform the prospect’s decision, you owe it to them to share that information.

First and foremost, you need to REALLY know your competition. Take the time to do the research. Whether they are publicly traded, or you just get to know how they do business while bumping into them on the mean streets, take notice of how your competitors do business. What are their sales tactics, upfront fees, recurring fees, hidden fees, upgrade processes, after sale support, etc. Then look at your own organization to see how you differ. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Be sure to make an honest assessment because any good competitor is doing the same thing and will be sure to point out any of your weaknesses. Keep in mind that strengths and weaknesses are situational as well. As an example, if you’re a smaller company, that could be a strength to some prospects and a weakness to others.

With that information in hand, you’re now positioned to be a trusted advisor to your prospect. Typically, during the survey phase of the sales process, I suggest the following approach:

“Thank you for inviting me into your business. As we discussed when we spoke on the phone, I typically like to sit down with prospective customers to ask them about their business, have them ask questions about our business, and at the end of the meeting we simply need to decide if there is enough of a fit to keep on talking. If it looks like there’s a fit, that would be great, but if there isn’t, that’s ok too and we can both move on with our lives.”

During the survey process I’m going to ask a lot of questions about their business. In the case of our Toast example, I might ask how many online orders they currently have, or how many they anticipate in the future. I’m also going to ask what other companies they are talking to. Some salespeople get squeamish about asking about the competition, but in my experience, putting your head in the sand and hoping they’re only looking at your solution usually comes back to haunt you.

Once you know which competitors they are looking at, you are uniquely positioned to talk about what your company does, and what the competition does. Being a trusted advisor means sharing a balanced approach. “I’ve been doing this for a while and what I typically find is that customers like us for A, B, and C, and that one concern about us is that relative to competitor X and their venture capital funding, we’re a smaller organization.” “Some customers prefer our smaller size, but there are some that prefer a bigger company.” You have now earned the right to talk about the competition, but it bears repeating that it needs to be done in a way that moves the conversation forward in a positive way. “Company X is a great company. In my experience they excel at X, Y, and Z, however some of their customers have found their 36-month agreement has some red flags in it, and as a newer startup, they’re well funded, but are still finding their footing and have made some decisions that the industry finds interesting. Their 99-cent fee on online orders is a great example of perhaps not understanding the marketplace and is creating concerns about how they might behave now that they can’t lose money each quarter in the pursuit of customer growth at all costs.”

The goal of the above statement is to show the prospect that you’re a thought leader in your field, and that you understand why a competitor does what they do. You’re not there to tell them what is right for their business, you’re there to see if your way of doing business might be a better fit for them.

As salespeople, it can be easy to want to say terrible things about the competition. Let’s face it, some of the competitors might actually be pretty terrible. That said, we aren’t in front of prospects to satisfy our own egos, we’re there to see if we have a fit, and if we do, we’re there to get them to buy from us. That’s the job, but being a trusted advisor means taking the time to present as an authority figure. If you do this, you’re going to win more deals, but in the event you do lose one, and your advice about a competitor comes true, you also might find yourself with a referral you can use to prevent someone from making the same mistake in the future.