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The Top of the Heap

March 1, 2003
No matter what their outward circumstances, your customers will act with some basic perceptions at the back of their minds. Things like, “I will buy from

No matter what their outward circumstances, your customers will act with some basic perceptions at the back of their minds. Things like, “I will buy from my favorite supplier” or “I can buy from whomever I want!” Any attempt you make to differentiate yourself as a salesperson must take into account such unexpressed “truths.”

There are steps you can take to make such underlying attitudes work for you. In this article we will look at how to win business when you are selling against entrenched competition.

When a customer has in the back of his mind the thought that “I can buy from whomever I want,” in effect he''''''''s not considering himself constrained by quality, price, delivery, service or anything else. These are all important values, but an experienced buyer can easily develop a strong case — strong enough, at least, to convince higher management — for purchasing what he wants from whom he wants, even though other suppliers might offer what appears to be similar products or services at lower prices. Why would a customer do this? There are valid and understandable reasons. Here are just a few:

  • The customer feels obligated to a particular supplier who provided financial or technical assistance in the past.

  • Others in the company are content with the current supplier and would resist any change. Rather than take on a tough internal selling job, the customer therefore rationalizes the decision to maintain the status quo.

  • The customer has experienced a trouble-free relationship with a particular supplier and views change in terms of potential risk rather than potential gain.

  • The customer enjoys a personal friendship with a particular salesperson and doesn''''''''t want to jeopardize it.

  • There are as many motives as there are customers, but these motives are based only partly on hard facts. The information your customers use when making purchasing decisions passes through a unique set of filters — intellectual, emotional, psychological — that often distort their purchasing priorities. Even the most objective customers are affected.

At this point you are probably thinking, “Okay, customers have different motives for buying, some highly subjective. I accept that. But when these motives cause a customer to buy from my competitor, how can I change it? How do I get the customer to buy from me?” The answer demands a professional approach, one best described by the following process:

  • Probe for motivation
  • Understand and accept
  • Compare, educate, persuade
  • Persist

Let''''''''s briefly examine each in turn and see what they entail.

Probe for motivation

If you don''''''''t know why the prospect is buying from someone else, you will have a hard time convincing him to buy from you. The first step, then, is to uncover the prospect''''''''s motivation, and your best tool to accomplish this is the question.

There are many different types of questions — direct, leading, rhetorical, overhead, overstated, etc. — and as a professional salesperson you should become proficient in their use. For example, if the prospect has been relatively straightforward with you, you need not hesitate to use the direct question:

“You''''''''ve been buying from XYZ Electric for some time now. What in particular do you like about them?”

You just might get a direct answer. More often than not, however, the prospect will respond in generalities.

“Well…they''''''''ve been a good supplier — good products, good service, good prices. We''''''''re happy with them.”

What does this tell you? Not much. You can''''''''t very well respond with: “Well, we''''''''re a good company, too.” (An office supply salesperson once said these very words to me in response to my general praise of his competitor. I think he expected me to pull out a purchase order and say, “Oh, well in that case…”) such inane statements have no impact whatsoever. Equally ineffective is to launch into a detailed presentation of your products, service and pricing in an attempt to prove that the prospect would be just as “happy” buying from you. So what? Obtaining the same benefits at a competitive price is no incentive to change.

To have any chance of success, you must probe deeper. Uncover the specifics: 1) the true motivation behind the prospect''''''''s current buying decisions; and 2) real problems to which you can provide solutions. As a follow-up to the general answer given above, you might say:

“Yes, XYZ''''''''s a good company, but we compete effectively with them all the time. What would you say is the most important benefit you obtain from your relationship with them?”

Many salespeople can''''''''t resist knocking the competition whenever the opportunity arises. The tactic is almost always a mistake because an attack on the customer''''''''s current supplier can easily be perceived as an attack on the prospect''''''''s judgment. (He is, after all, buying from them.)

Don''''''''t put the prospect on the defensive. Instead, accept the basic facts of business life. Most of your competitors are good companies. If they weren''''''''t, they wouldn''''''''t still be in business. Belief in one''''''''s company and products is a trait of the successful salesperson, but a blind faith that ignores the realities of a competitive marketplace is a prescription for failure.

By stating that the competitor is a “good” company, you are not saying that they are better than you. You are merely telling the prospect that you understand why he might buy from them. But not the next phrase: “…we compete effectively with them all the time.” This plants a seed in the prospect''''''''s mind, a seed of doubt, letting him know that your company, in the eyes of many customers, provides superior benefits. Later on, when you have a sense of the prospect''''''''s priorities, you can help this seed take root by referring to specific customers and what you have done for them. (Just be careful when using testimonials from satisfied customers, especially if they compete with your prospect. Does he respect them or perhaps despise them? The answer will determine how receptive he will be.)

The question itself — “What would you say is the most important benefit?” — demands a specific answer, and how you proceed depends on the prospect''''''''s response. Some people will say the first thing that comes to mind, and it may or may not be truly important. For example, assume he responds with:

“Well, a big concern right now is controlling our inventory costs. XYZ has been pretty flexible about meeting our changing delivery requirements, even on relatively short notice.”

Now you have something specific, something to start a meaningful dialogue on the prospect''''''''s requirements and problems relating to delivery performance, inventory costs. Lead-times, shipping cycles, transportation means, warehousing needs, etc. If these are important, it will be evident. If not, you must probe deeper, using your knowledge of the competition as a starting point. What are the competitor''''''''s strengths? If they have this business, they have probably sold the customer on these areas.

Understand and accept

Sell yourself, sell your company, sell your products and services…and do it in that order! Your immediate goal is not to sell either your company or your products. That comes later, once you have the knowledge you need to address the prospect''''''''s unique problems and needs. For you to obtain this knowledge, however, the prospect must be willing to talk and to listen. He must feel comfortable in your presence.

You must sell yourself from the outset, and the best way to do this is to focus on the customer. Possess and display a real interest in your customer''''''''s welfare. Commit yourself to helping them identify and solve their problems so they can run their business more efficiently. There is no substitute for a positive customer-focused attitude. It will be noticed.

The quantity and quality of the information the customer provides will depend not only on what you say but also on how you say it. Right now you''''''''re on the outside looking in, and if you present any kind of threat you will stay there. Pay attention to your tone of voice, your expression and your body language. You are neither a quiz-show host nor a prosecutor questioning a hostile witness; rather, you''''''''re a salesperson seeking the information you need to help your customers.

Exhibit understanding, a sense of empathy for the customer. You don''''''''t have to agree with the customer''''''''s motivations, but if you hope to bring about a change, you must understand them and accept their validity. Doing so is especially difficult when these motives are based on technical or other forms of ignorance. The key? Never ridicule a customer''''''''s motivations or beliefs. Accept them for what they are and then work to change them.

Remember, your customers call the shots. You can''''''''t force them to buy when they don''''''''t want to. You can''''''''t force them to share your enthusiasm for your products and services. You can''''''''t force them to concentrate on specific benefits or features when their primary concerns lie elsewhere. Self-confidence and competence are desirable attributes, but when combined with short-term success, they can sometimes breed complacency when your products are so good and your terms so attractive that you can dictate to your customers. After all, whom else can they buy from? We all know the answer: from whomever they want.

Selling against entrenched competition can be difficult, but not impossible when you use finesse and learn why your prospect is buying from a competitor. You must know what you are up against.

Compare, educate, persuade

Once you have determined the prospect''''''''s driving motivations — the reasons he or she buys from your competition — it''''''''s time to shift gears and begin the job of real selling.

For too many salespeople, selling against entrenched competition means taking the obvious (and easiest) approach; that is, they resort to a frontal attack based solely on price, only to be repulsed by a quick-reacting competitor. Others lay siege to the account, hoping to break the competitor''''''''s hold by overwhelming the prospect with a barrage of visits, mailings, faxes and phone calls. The result? More often than not, the prospect perceives the salesperson more as an irritant than a potential supplier. These and similar approaches, while occasionally achieving short-term results, fail over the long run because they do not focus on the unique customer''''''''s satisfaction.

The customer will compare, particularly when you are attempting to displace a competitor. You must, therefore, understand and control the basis of these comparisons. Use your knowledge of the competitor and the customer to good advantage. If, for example, you know that the prospect''''''''s current supplier has recurrent problems with on-time delivery, you should come prepared with hard evidence or your ability to meet or exceed their delivery requirements:

“Let me show you the results of our most recent customer survey when it comes to meeting scheduled delivery dates…”

In other words, you should focus comparisons on those areas likely to be of interest to the particular prospect. Probably half of the successful field salesperson''''''''s hard work occurs during presale preparation, before he or she meets with the customer.

What if the prospect''''''''s motivations are based on ignorance? Quite simply, you must educate him. Assume, for example, that your products have a technological edge on the competition''''''''s. If the prospect buys from your competitor because he considers their design proven and reliable, your task is threefold: 1) educating him on your technology and its benefits; 2) proving that your technological advances won''''''''t sacrifice, but will actually enhance reliability; and 3) providing a psychological “escape hatch,” an acceptable reason for being ignorant. This last task, often overlooked, can normally be accomplished quite easily:

“Reliability or performance is critical to us as well, and is the main reason we developed this new technology. Because it''''''''s new, I realize that you probably haven''''''''t been exposed to it before…Let''''''''s take a few minutes to see how it has already proven itself, and how it greatly increases product reliability.”

The “newness” of the technology provides a convenient escape hatch. After all, he can''''''''t be expected to know about every new advance. Note, too, that the use of the words “reliability” and “proven” help reinforce their association with your company and its products, particularly if you continue to use them during the discussion that follows.

You must avoid using the kind of “canned” presentations we have all been forced to sit through. Unless the customer is already sold, they flat-out don''''''''t work! Focus on the customer''''''''s unique goals and problems, and their resulting needs. Involve your customers in your presentations, particularly when you are attempting to educate them. Recall your own school days. Weren''''''''t your best teachers those who actively involved you in the learning process?

You must, therefore, educate without sounding like an educator. Don''''''''t succumb to the tendency to tell him he''''''''s wrong and then prove it! You might win the argument, but you''''''''ll probably lose the business. Salespeople determined to impress customers with their knowledge rarely achieve long-term success. In the words of one successful salesperson, “Don''''''''t take the credit, take the order!”


This doesn''''''''t mean that you keep calling and calling until the customer finally tosses you a small piece of business just to get rid of you — that''''''''s hardly the way to begin a successful long-term partnership. Also, given the high cost of sales today, it won''''''''t endear you to your management. The persistence we refer to here is the creative persistence of the professional who realizes that selling against entrenched competition is never easy. It takes time.

Unless the competitor has made serious mistakes or unless your benefits are truly exceptional, very few customers will change suppliers overnight. Your immediate goal might, therefore, be limited to small gains. Can you sell any products not included in the competitor''''''''s line? Are there other areas where you and the competitor don''''''''t directly compete, areas where the customer has real needs? Can you get your foot in the door as a second source?

Such gains might seem overly modest, but they will help you establish a relationship with the customer, one on which you can then capitalize. If entrenched competitors have one weakness, it is complacency, the belief that they are invincible, that their established customers will never go elsewhere. They often provide only average or even poor service to their established accounts. You can take advantage of this weakness by selling and servicing each new account according to its potential, not according to the size of the first order you receive. If your competitor is providing only mediocre service, the difference will be noticed.

By focusing on the customer''''''''s goals, problems and needs, you can make small inroads on the competition, giving the customer a reason to look beyond longtime suppliers.

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