Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the head — (Mike Tyson)
The great chinese military leader Sun Tzu once wrote in his book The Art of War, ‘Every battle is won before it is fought’. What he meant by this is that by having an understanding of your enemy you can create a set of circumstances that means they cannot be successful. The same is true in sales. In other words the better you understand your competition, the better prepared you can be for the daily fight of competing with them.
Now, you may say to yourself, I know my competitors, I know what makes me better, what makes me or my product stand out from the crowd. This is not the issue. The issue is do you know what is important for your customer to understand when she is evaluating the competitive landscape. This is the art of war.
Lets look at this topic not as a war of attrition, but rather as a war of strategies. It used to amaze me when I worked with some more junior salespeople, how much time they spent in a back and forth with their prospects about how much better their product was, compared to the competition. They would repeat ad nauseum, we are better because of features A,B,C,D and E. The competitor didn’t have F,G,H,J and K. It was almost like a mantra. What was missing in these discussions was an appreciation of what the customer viewed as important to them. If you know what is important to your prospective customer, you can easily deposition your competitors. Let me illustrate by way of an example.
From ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have’
In recent years I was working with a company that sold solutions in the financial services sector. They were a mid-size company operating in a specialized field. We had engaged with a prospect who operated across the US and Europe and represented a multi-million dollar opportunity to the company in question. The prospect had grown by acquisition and as a result has acquired a number of technologies that competed directly with that of the company I was working with. They wanted to consolidate and were progressing down the path of one of the incumbent providers, who also happened to be the world’s largest provider of this type of solution.
Over the course of several months I had met with key members of their executive team, from their COO right down to some of their regional European Directors. It was clear that this company was concerned with providing a more personalized experience for their customers, so I noted this as key requirement. A number of other comments were made about the desire to personalize the product to take account of various cultural differences that existed across their global entities, and of course there were language considerations to further consider.
When the time came for us to have more detailed discussions with the senior executive, we prepared a demonstration that encompassed all of this. We paid great attention to detail to ensure that regional variations were obvious, we had multiple demonstration versions of the product to show them, and pretty soon what started out as ‘Nice to have’s’ were now ‘must have’s’. I refer to these as competitive landmines. If you manage this process correctly, you should be able to deposition your competition before they engage. By first understanding what is important to the prospect and then overlaying and having them prioritize what is unique about your product you will have created significant challenges for your competitors.
I’ve personally found that having a primary competitor in mind when evaluating what stage you are at in a sale is a great habit to develop. I’ve always found it motivating to assume that if I allowed it, my competitor was always one step ahead of me; they were always working to get higher up the tree in terms of the decision maker. Sales is Darwinian in nature — it literally is the act of adaptation and evolution of your sales process and style of selling that you will prevail. If you are not — you will die, and your company will die with you. The fact that you have a competitor should therefore be viewed not as a disadvantage, but rather it should be viewed as something to be exploited and built upon.
Let me give you an example to illustrate the point. In my early sales career I was working for a company in the telecoms space. Our primary competitor was a company called Rockwell. They were part of a global conglomerate that had commercial interests that ranged from aerospace to satellite components and a great deal in between. It had tens of thousands of employees across the globe. It was a giant compared to the company that I worked for. By contrast, my company was approximately 1500 people predominantly in the UK and USA. At the time I was focused on selling entirely into the European Financial services sector and had engaged in a competitive bid with one of UK’s largest retail banks. Lets just call them National Bank for the purposes of this story.
National Bank had hundreds of branches across the UK and had almost 20 call centers spread across the country as a result of mergers and acquisitions it had made over the years. They were headquartered in Milton Keynes, a town about 90 minutes north west of London. This also happened to be the UK head office location of our largest rival competitor — Rockwell.
I had gathered a team of people to work with me on the bid to secure National Bank’s business and we had been working for 3–4 months when it was announced that we had been shortlisted as a potential provider. It was clear also, based on the types of questions that were being asked during the sales process that Rockwell was also being actively considered. The Rockwell sales rep was using the same ‘competitive landmine’ technique I spoke about earlier so we were getting requests for functionality that we didn’t have, and hadn’t started to develop. Most of the requests were quite nuanced but it was clear that they were coming directly from Rockwell because of the specific nature of the questions. As you might expect we were also laying our own competitive landmines for Rockwell, effectively trading blow for blow. It was clear that not a lot functionality separated both companies and the team at National Bank were having difficulty determining what company they wished to go with. It became clear to me that trading functional shots at each other was not going to help the situation so I scheduled a ‘roadmap’ day with the client. I argued that if we were going to work together for the next 5–10 years then we should be sharing our views on where we believed the market was going. I suggested this because the company I worked for was a specialist in the space and had given a lot of thought to the future possibilities for the market. We had pretty forward-looking demonstrations, mock-ups and videos that spoke about video call centers, virtual assistants and advanced voice recognition technologies that were in their infancy at the time. I knew the person leading the National Bank evaluation process would find what we had to say interesting for two primary reasons. Firstly, he was a geek who loved new and emerging technologies and secondly, and more importantly, he was politically astute and was on the management fast-track at National Bank so anything that made him look good, would be well received. On the flip side, because he was politically astute, he wasn’t about to hitch his wagon to a company that might not deliver the progressive solution that he wanted so we needed to ensure that we addressed any doubts he may have had in this area.
The moment of truth.
The day arrived to meet with the team from National Bank. I had carefully set up the entire day to walk the team through what it would be like to work with my company, both today and into the future. Starting with a welcome from our CEO who had flown in from the US we heard about the provenance of the business and how it had grown over the last 20 years to become a global player in the highly specialized world of ‘mission-critical’ call centers. That was followed by a session with he UK managing director, who shared her stories of the past 15 years we had spent in the UK supporting some of the largest call centers that the UK had. In between we played a video that was effectively an amalgam of all of the TV ads that our customers had, set to an uplifting backing track. All the while, we were building a picture of our company with our prospect, setting the scene for what we could do for them today, but providing context on what qualified us to get to that point.
We followed the initial presentations with a summary of the solution we were proposing, followed by a summary of our proposed project plan. This was delivered by our head of consulting, the person whose team would deliver the solution if we were chosen. This built confidence that we had a well-proven process for deploying even the most complex networks of call centers. We then toured our support center, demonstrating how we supported not just our products, but proactively provided help and support to call center managers, supervisors and team leaders on a daily basis. Having seen our capabilities as they stood at that time we then moved into looking at the future, or what we referred to as our roadmap. For this, we had presentations from our head of Product development followed by product concept demonstrations from our senior product managers looking at the future of multi-media call centers, natural language voice recognition and ‘assisted selling’ or ‘virtual assistant’ technology that was in the early stages of development at that time.
Before we ended the day I facilitated a question and answer session firstly with our team and subsequently with two existing customers who agreed to act as advocates for us and answer any questions National Bank had about what if was like to be a customer of ours. The team from National Bank loved it and although it was an exhausting day, it was clear that we had created significant distance between Rockwell and ourselves. We reinforced at every point we could during the day that ‘this is all we do’. It was a deliberate ploy on my part to differentiate ourselves from Rockwell who had such diverse interests, with the call center component of their business easily one of their smallest divisions.
A few weeks later, I was on week long break in the highlands of Scotland when I received a call from the executive at National Bank. I had asked him to call me if they had come to a decision while I was away. He told me they had decided and was happy to inform me that we had been chosen. We had, in his words clearly demonstrated what made us different. It was the people and the passion we had for the industry we worked in. No amount of product differentiation was gong to do that. We managed to win a multi-million dollar contract with National Bank because we understood what was important to the client and we prioritized in his mind that ‘this is all we do’. It was like a political campaign slogan, and in many respects it shared a lot in common with running a successful campaign in the political arena. View your prospect as the electorate. Understand what is important to them. Highlight these issues as part of your campaign and ensure that they are prioritized as important by those who can vote for you.
I had a lot of respect for Rockwell and how they managed their campaign but we managed to establish what was different about us and ensure that National Bank shared our view on the importance of domain focus.
I have always made it a priority of mine to understand the competitive landscape completely. Knowing what messaging they lead with, what customers they have, how they sell, direct or indirect, who their executives are, where they have come from all provides insight into how they are likely to compete with you. You have often heard it said; keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. This is true irrespective to what you are selling. If you do not know what or whom you are competing against, you are at a major disadvantage.