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How to Sell Against Competition

Nido Qubein

Any salesperson who wants to become successful must learn to sell against the competition. Those who do it well often find that it is both financially rewarding and exciting. In fact, many salespeople who are very competitive by nature find that they are stimulated by competitors far more than they are by incentive programs, commission checks and quotas set by their own companies. Professional salespeople, recognizing that they are selling against other salespeople, have devised strategies aimed at beating that competition. Here are some of those winning strategies we have found in analyzing thousands of successful salespeople.

Strategy 1—Know your competition

It is highly disconcerting to be interrupted by a prospect in the middle of a presentation and introduced for the first time to a product you have never heard of. Your answer, “I’ve never heard of them; they must be new,” can create several problems for you. It makes you look bad to have the prospect know more about your business than you do. Your selling power is weakened. The alert salesperson keeps all five senses working to spot anything remotely resembling a competitor. Here are some pointers we have learned from professionals.

Listen to your customer. Sometimes the customer will come right out and say, “I’m going to get bids on this.” But often the hints are more subtle, like, “I want your best price on this,” or “I need to talk to some other people before I make a decision.” Listen for any hint that a competitor might be involved. Watch for any trail marks left by a competitor.

Watch for signs of a competitor’s presence, like a car in the parking lot, a salesperson’s calling card on the receptionist’s desk, a catalog or sales literature on the prospect’s desk—anything that would indicate a competitor has been there.

Ask around about competitors. This has to be done carefully. A receptionist or secretary may say, “Mr. Jones has been swamped with salespeople today!” You can learn a lot by asking a subtle question like, “Were they new people or those who call on him regularly?”

Look for competition in disguise. Research showed General Motors during the depression years that the competitors for their Cadillac was not another make of car as much as was other luxury items like diamonds, yachts and mink coats. It can get tricky for the salesperson when the wife wants to buy new furniture but the husband wants to spend the available money on a trip to Europe. Watch for competitors in disguise!

Know about competitors’ products. Make it your business to know what each of your direct competitors has to offer: features, prices, advantages, disadvantages, quality levels in each price bracket.

Know about competitors’ methods of doing business. Most competitors are honorable, but a few are not. Be alert for “sneaky” practices and “dirty pool.” Fortunately, unethical tactics are not the primary concern of most salespeople. What they want to know are such things as terms and discounts competitors offer, shipping schedules and methods, service policies, warranties and other intangibles that make it attractive for your customers to buy from them.

Know the competitor’s relationship with your customer. Sometimes you will find yourself selling, not against a competitive product, but against a unique relationship the competitor has established with your customer. How you handle that must be appropriate to the situation, but to simply sit through it is not very smart.

Strategy 2—Avoid open conflict with competitors

Open conflict almost always diminishes your standing with a competitor and, more importantly, usually hurts your standing with the customer you’re fighting over. Here are some principles that help you avoid conflict with competitors. Never knock a competitor’s product or service. Snide remarks have a way of cheapening you and what you’re selling. To knock a competitor’s product, when the customer has made up his mind to buy it, is to cast doubt on the judgment of the customer. If the customer interprets it that way, it is likely to be hard to get back in to see him or her. Focus on products and issues, not personalities. If you believe your product has been misrepresented by a competitor, don’t call the competitor a liar, just prove the facts. Sell the benefits to the customer of the superiority of your company, its products and services. If your product has advantages over the competition, respect the customer’s appraisal then ask if he or she has considered the benefits your product offers. “Yes, the X-brand is a good product and will give reasonable service. But have you considered the labor savings the increased speed of our machine will give you over its lifetime?”

Strategy 3—Find out about the customer’s expectations of the competitor

By tactfully asking questions, you can learn a great deal that will make it easier for you to sell against the competition. It is easier to sell against a competitor if you know what the customer knows. Here are some things you might want to ascertain from the customer. What does the customer know about the product or service the competitor is offering? The customer might not know about certain disadvantages. How does the customer feel about the competitor and the products or services offered? If the customer calls you Mr. Brown and your competitor, Charlie, that might indicate a different relationship with the other person. Attack a product the customer strongly favors too directly and you might get thrown out before you can get started. How close is the customer to making a buying decision? Is it too late to change the     decision? Why hasn’t the customer already bought the competitive product or service? Is there some perceived drawback you can capitalize on?

Strategy 4—Outsell the competitor

Many times an underdog can win out in a sale simply because of superior salesmanship. Here are some tips to help you outsell the competition. Get there first and try to lock up the sale before a competitor gets the business. Give a better presentation. Practice your presentations and give your best. Demonstrate. Get the customer involved in the presentation. Build more value. Don’t just claim your product is superior, prove it! Close today. Try to close NOW. Any delay just invites competition.

Strategy 5—Turn price into an asset

If your price is lower, focus on the value received and the money saved. If it is higher, focus on increased benefits, lower risk and hidden factors. Amateurs get the wind knocked out of their sails by the discovery that the customer has been offered a lower price; but professional salespeople seek to turn price into an asset.

Strategy 6—Make it easier and more pleasant to do business with your company

Lack of attentiveness to a customer’s needs can cost you as much as two-thirds of your repeat business, according to studies. Your attitude of concern for the customer’s best interest can help you lure business away from your competitors. A commitment to be the most convenient, most pleasant and most cooperative salesperson in your territory can go a long way toward making you rich.

Strategy 7—Benefit from the sales you lose to competitors

Professional salespeople learn to be good losers. They always seek to leave the door open to future business. There is no place in professional selling for the attitude that says, “You’ll be sorry!” or, “You’re making a big mistake!” Learn to be gracious whether you win or lose. Learn something from the experience! Winners learn from their failures, but losers only wallow in their negative feelings. Persist! Take the long view. Track the results of the competitor’s product or service and stay ready to move in if the customer shows signs of dissatisfaction. If the customer offers enough potential for future business, keep going back, again and again, until you sell that customer.

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