05008 At Each Other’s Throat: Handling the Competition

For any of you who have been closely involved in a sale where your product was competing directly against another product, you know that selling against a competitor is tough. Product Managers, as part of supporting the sales force, need to provide guidance and support in selling against the competition.

But there is no formal body of knowledge, nothing that you can study in a college course, on how to provide backup to the sales reps. Instead, you have probably encountered a confusing mix of vague and conflicting maxims, truisms, and opinions, scattered in various books and seminars on selling and from coworkers.

The broad range of opinions you hear may not help you narrow down just what to do to back your product in a competitive situation. Read on below for some things to consider as you determine how to keep your sales force strong and confident during the sale and make the competition break into a sweat.


Some Past Articles

The article 04010 – Competitive Analysis For Sales discusses competitors and selling. In addition, the article 04026 Pride, Denial, and Product Positioning talks about how your product can be positioned relative to the competition.

A Confidence Game

In my experience a Product Manager who wants to shore up a sales rep, or the sales force as a whole, does as much good by bolstering confidence as by providing information. Sales reps have learned to be sensitive at reading prospects and customers and good at bonding with them. So when a prospect sounds doubts about your product, or raises challenging questions – often provided word for word by a motivated competitor – the sales rep gets rattled.

Your aim as Product Manager, in talking with sales on how to counter the competition, is to provide both information and confidence. You want a sales rep to walk away from your discussion with the motivation to compete.

Up Against No Decision

When I hear sales reps discussing a prospect, my antennae tend to go up if they talk about a competitor in the sale. Obviously the sales rep can benefit from covering specific capabilities of your product that are strengths of yours and weaknesses of your competitor’s.

But it’s just as important to remember that in the majority of sales, the rep is up against the option of making No Decision at all. The rep’s goal is to build a vision of how your product will solve the prospect’s problems, a vision that compares very favorably to the oh-so-tempting option of not deciding anything, not spending the money, and not having to go to the higher-ups for budgetary approval.

So in some ways, the most important competitive benefits Product Management can provide the sales force is the benefits of using your product versus not using any product at all. By doing that, you’ve already prepped your reps to deal with much of the competition.

Blow By Blow

When a specific competitor is selling against you in a sale, you need to make sure that the sales rep can effectively counter that competitor with your product’s strengths where the competitor’s product is weak.

When your sales rep understands what the prospect wants, what their pains are, which competitor you’re up against, and which of the competitor’s features your prospect likes most, then you as Product Manager have what you need to help the rep. Take that information and provide a focused list of strengths in your product and corresponding weaknesses in the other one.

This should not be a complete laundry list of every capability you do well. Narrow down your points to just those areas that the rep has been able to uncover. And provide the rep with two or three of your top strengths that haven’t been mentioned, as backup material, so that when the discussion extends to new areas, the rep is knowledgeable.

On Call

For efficiency, the best way to present this material is via a thorough presentation, say one to two hours, to a large group of sales reps, with time for Q&A afterward. If you get the opportunity to stand up in front of the sales force, you’re one lucky person to make it onto their calendar.

If the aim is effectiveness instead (meaning that your effort actually produces results), a Product Manager needs to be available and on call for when reps need assistance. While this is a less efficient method, it’s a way to ensure that you provide a rep with the specifics that they need for the current prospect and competitor, so the time you spend is well worth it.

Encourage the reps to call on you as the need arises. And if you provide written answers, make sure a copy goes out to the entire sales support staff.

Choose Your Battles

For conversations with individual reps, try to focus on just those features that seem to get the most traction with the prospect.

You can also draw up a more comprehensive list of competitive strengths and distribute it as a written document. But the reps won’t necessarily read it.

Besides looking for specific benefits that will help them with the prospect today, the reps are also probably looking for a little boost in confidence so that they’re ready to face the prospect.

Bonding and Logic

The decision by your prospect to become your customer basically centers around how well you connect with your prospect and how much they like and respect you. Often the kind of feature-to-feature comparison logic that you run into in RFPs is not central to whom the customer picks, though that may be what your prospect uses to justify the expense to their CFO.

So the Product Manager can help keep actions focused on smooth communication and teamwork with the prospect, rather than painstaking and factual justifications and explanations.

I’ll Take the High Road

Does your competition bash you? It certainly happens. It can be subtle or overt. And a sales rep who is pulling out all the stops to sell to a prospect can be tempted to hit back.

How about unethical competitors? It can be tempting, once you feel wronged and the adrenaline starts pumping, to stoop to their level.

The most effective tactic in such a case is not to fight back directly, and not to stoop to your competitor’s level. Instead, take the high road. Focus on the prospect’s issues and the capabilities in your product that help them. Let them see that you’re on the up-and-up, and let your competitor dig their own grave. Most prospects will figure out that you’re more trustworthy.

Best In the Industry

Is your company an industry leader? Rely not just on the strengths of your specific product, but of your company and its other products as well. One competitive strength, often high on the list of CFOs and purchasing teams, is industry leadership and financial stability.

David and Goliath

Or you may be in a position where your company is fighting an industry giant. You’re small and nimble. In this case, you still can use your company as a strength. You can be very effective at bonding with your customer by providing a picture of the mouse that roared, or the brave David who goes up against the industry Goliaths and wins, because you’ve got a better product.

A lot of people out there are rooting for David.

Stop Selling, Start Solving

A final suggestion, but one to keep in mind whenever you need to handle the competition, is to keep the focus on the customer and solving their problem, not selling and convincing them of the rightness of a given capability over another.

In the end, the customer will go with the company that appears to best understand their problems, sympathize with them, and provide sound ways to solve them. And that’s the best way to counter a competitor.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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