Fighting—and Winning—Above Your Company’s Weight Class

UPDATED: May 7, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 18, 2022
Fighting—and Winning—Above Your Company's Weight Class

When I looked at the sign-in sheet in my dream client’s lobby, I spotted the name of our competitor, which is the largest firm in our industry. Not just the largest in the U.S., the largest in the world. This company had the name recognition we didn’t have. It had the money and resources we didn’t have. Its client list was the envy of the industry. And it was on a roll, winning one new client after another.

Representatives of this corporate heavyweight poured out of my dream client’s boardroom as I finished signing in. That polished, professional A-team came to wrap up an account worth a couple of million dollars annually. I smiled at these competitors as they walked out. They didn’t smile back. It seemed they felt they were above acknowledging our presence. Clearly, they felt we were no threat.

Two months earlier, when we were first invited to compete, 11 companies pitched for the business. After the client’s first-round interviews, only five remained. After the second round, my team and I represented one of two competitors still in the running, and we were fighting way above our weight class.

As we entered the boardroom to present for round three, we brought nine people, although we were supposed to bring five. I told the client’s 14 stakeholders that only five of us would be staying. The four members of my team who would leave were the actual managers who would work with the client’s team on a daily basis. I told the stakeholders that while I would personally oversee their account, these four would do the heavy lifting. I had the managers introduce themselves quickly, share how excited we were to have the opportunity to be of service and explain what they would do for the client.

Our global competitor had brought its A-team from corporate. We brought the people who would actually serve the client. That was one way we defined ourselves with this dream client. But there are other ways of standing out that will help you beat your gigantic competitor.…

A Winning Fight Plan

First: Adjust your mindset. Before we address the strategies and tactics necessary for fighting above your weight class, we have to deal with mindset. You must believe you can win. You have to believe you deserve to win because you can do a better job serving your dream client than anyone else—including Megacorporation Inc. You have to believe that size doesn’t matter, that bigger isn’t better, that better is better. With that accomplished, you can move on to two key strategies and five specific, proven tactics.

Strategy: Fight using your strengths. Everyone knows the story of David and Goliath. Goliath is bigger, stronger and tougher. If David goes toe-to-toe with Goliath, he’s dead. Because his foe is too strong to take on conventionally, David changes the game so the odds are in his favor. He is small, agile and highly competent with a sling and a stone. Before Goliath closes the distance between them and uses his greater size and strength to destroy his smaller foe, David brings him down with the rock he never saw coming.

Small companies can take business from a larger, better-financed and better-known competitor by fighting where they are strong and the opposition is weak.

Strategy: Avoid the competition’s strengths. You don’t want your dream client to make its decision based on size, number of employees or offices, or global footprint—where your competitor has a big edge. Ignore those topics in your pitches and instead shift your dream client’s decision criteria to factors that favor you and make your competitor’s size its weakness.

Then use five giant-killer tactics. Now you’re ready to deploy the following five tactics to convince your dream clients that your team will produce knockout results—because of (rather than in spite of) your company’s size.

1. Sell speed and agility.

As companies grow larger, they increasingly adopt formal processes to cope with their size. They grow layers and layers of bureaucracy. They get slower, less nimble. It’s difficult for them to make decisions quickly, and most decisions need management approval, a process that can take far longer than many customers want to wait. Because large corporations are so process-driven as opposed to being agile and flexible, they have a tough time being perceived as caring and providing personal attention.

That weakness is your strength. Your size means there is no bureaucracy, no red tape preventing you from changing to help your customers. You sell speed and agility by explaining—with examples—to your client how responsive you can be. You emphasize that the decisions that are required for meeting their needs will be made locally, by the very people who serve them, instead of some office located thousands of miles away.

Your large competitor says, “We have 4,000 offices and 22,000 employees worldwide.” You say, “If you have a problem or need something changed, I am the only number you will have to dial. You won’t have to call anyone else.”

2. Differentiate your skillset.

One tough challenge for your big competitor lies in differentiating itself from other giant competitors in your market. Over time, these behemoths work to match each other’s processes and capabilities. They start to look and sound more and more alike because—instead of being different—they start to play a game of “me, too.” This steady counter-punching makes it increasingly difficult for any of them to describe how they are different. By extension, they can’t pitch to their clients that they have specific superiorities, making them the clear, hands-down choice.

As lumbering giants grow ever more process-oriented, they usually sell “how” they do what they do. You create a tremendous advantage by selling the “why” of what you do instead. They say, “We use this process to produce this result.” You say, “The industry believes that this process is effective. We have found that by doing X, Y and Z differently, we help our clients produce a better result.”

In one industry in which I work, it’s customary to prepare employees for a new job by calling them at home and reciting expectations and procedures. We generate better results by bringing employees into an office, where we can prepare them much more thoroughly, answering their questions in back-and-forth exchanges and replicating our client’s initial training in a hands-on setting. It’s radically different, and it produces a radically better result.

Another of my clients sells a commodity used in construction. Most companies in the industry ship truckloads of the commodity to their customers. When my client ships the tools, it also sends in teams of skilled salespeople to help each client set up jobs, train employees and answer questions, therefore providing a more-valued (and higher-priced) commodity. This extra care differentiates this smaller company in a crowded market, and its clients feel the extra money is well-spent for the high level of service.

3. Describe how you can customize.

It’s very difficult for large organizations to tailor products and services to suit individual customers. A company can’t have thousands—or even hundreds—of different processes for different customers. When customers ask for special treatment, megacorporations have an extraordinarily difficult time delivering it; they’re not flexible enough and have a difficult time bending the rules.

Being smaller allows you to give your customers the one-size-fits-one solution they need. You can also personalize your customer experience and your delivery to provide your dream client with something that your gargantuan competitors can’t easily accomplish (or can’t do at all).

The big guys say, “We have a process.” You say, “We are flexible in our approach. We will build a process with you to ensure that we meet your unique needs.” Play up your ability to customize your solution to fit your client’s needs.

Larger companies need to manage many more transactions. One of my clients in the travel industry competes effectively by customizing the experience. While any retail travel agency can easily book a holiday, my client customizes by choosing the right flights, taking care of check-in for those flights, calling the hotel ahead to confirm the room and ensuring that its patrons receive special treatment.

A smaller, nimbler company can more easily provide individualized services such as a single point of contact, the ability to follow the client’s special requirements, custom reporting, custom invoicing and a one-size-fits-one experience.

4. Use proximity to build relationships.

Your giant national and international competitors often will bring in people from their corporate offices to sell accounts. Some even have a national sales team. These qualified, competent sales staffs are ferocious competitors. But they aren’t from “around here,” and they aren’t the people who will work with your dream client if they win the account.

Assuming that your company is local, you have easy, continuous access to create and steadily build an advantage by developing relationships with the individuals who work for your dream client’s company. You schedule appointments to meet with the stakeholders who will use what you sell every day. You take the decision-makers and decision-influencers to lunch or meet them for coffee. You invite them to your offices to meet with the rest of your team. Your local presence is an advantage if you use it to create valuable relationships.

Whether you’re local or not, relationships require an investment of time and care. There is no doubt that there are people within large organizations who have excellent relationship-building skills and who care deeply. But a featherweight company can easily punch above its weight class by focusing its time and attention on meeting with the prospective buyers within their dream clients’ companies, by ensuring that they know what the end-user stakeholders need from their product, and by out-hustling their larger competitors. A big account for the featherweight, and therefore worth the concentrated effort, is “just another account” to large corporations.

People still buy from people they know, like and trust. And there aren’t too many things that create an advantage like personal relationships—and you have a further advantage if you’re near your customer. Megacorporation Inc. says, “We can fly in our team in two weeks.” You say, “We’ll bring breakfast for you and your team tomorrow morning.”

5. Exploit the small-pond preference.

A $2 million account is important to a company of any size. But if your national or international competitor has hundreds of these multimillion-dollar accounts and you have only a few, will the client’s decision-makers think the behemoth or the bantamweight is more likely to shower them with the attention they desire?

Many of your dream clients want to be a big fish in a smaller pond. They don’t want to be “one of many” large clients because they fear being neglected, overlooked or ranked a low priority. Your smaller size shifts from being a disadvantage to an advantage. But be careful: You can be perceived as being too small unless you can prove that you have the resources and capabilities to serve dream clients well.

The corporate pitchmen say, “We serve all of these Fortune 100 clients.” You say, “You will be one of our largest clients, and we will dedicate all the resources necessary to take care of you.”

So Who Won?

What happened to our dream client? Did it bite on our pitch or the mega-competition’s?

After our presentation, the chief decision-maker for our dream client said he’d let us know his company’s decision in a few days. And he did, by calling and asking to visit us at our office. Several people from his team showed up to deliver some of the product they manufactured as well as to notify us that we were their new partners.

They liked our unique approach. They loved that we could make changes without having to navigate 16 layers of bureaucracy. They needed a solution that was flexible enough to serve their varied divisions. If they had wanted to visit our huge global competitor, they would’ve had to fly to Europe; we’re in the same town. We proved that we were “big enough” and offered the vital resources to serve them.

This article was published in February 2014 and has been updated. Photo by @Yankasvetlanka/Twenty20

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