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The “Competitor” Question

by David Brock on August 3rd, 2015

It happened again this morning.  I was doing a review with a sales person.  It was a very important call, we were discussing the customers’ attitudes, views, priorities, and so forth.  I asked, what competition are they looking at, what do they think of them?

There was a momentary pause on the phone.  The sales person responded, “I think they are looking at competition, but I’m not sure……”

He went on, “….I’m really afraid of planting the idea in their heads or of bringing it up…..”

I actually hear this too often.  Sales people dance around the competition issue.  They don’t want the customer to look at competitors, they don’t want to make the customer aware of competition, they are afraid that bringing up the issue of competition might disadvantage them.  Too often, as a result, they tend to avoid the issue, addressing it only if the customer brings up the competition first.  Too often, sales people feel they are disadvantaging themselves by bringing up the competition.

Avoiding asking about competition is equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand.

When talk of competition comes up, too often, sales people try to avoid it, shifting focus away from the discussion, hoping to diminish the competitive potential.  “If we avoid talking about it, it reduces their visibility and the ability of the customer to compare alternatives.

Customers aren’t naïve or stupid.  They realize there are alternatives available in the market, probably by the time we are talking to them, they are already looking at and evaluating a number of alternatives.  If they haven’t, they will be.  Their managers will challenge them with what alternatives they have considered.

Understanding the competition, understanding what the customer thinks of the alternatives, understanding why they have chosen certain alternatives is critical.

It’s not just to develop our strategy for competing, but it helps us better understand the customer and what they are trying to achieve.

When we talk to the customer about the competition and alternatives, we need to learn more than who they are considering.  We need to ask:

  • What is it about each of these alternatives that interests you?  Why did you select them, versus others that are on the market?
  • What is it that you really like about each of their solutions?  What is it that you really like about how they are engaging you?
  • Are there any shortcomings?  Are there things you would like to see them do that they currently aren’t discussing?
  • What are their attitudes, beliefs, feelings about the alternatives?

In asking these, we aren’t doing it just to learn about the competition.  The primary value is the answers to these questions give us deeper insight into what the customer is trying to achieve.  These answers may give us information our discovery questions may not have surfaced.  We get more clues and a better understanding about what’s interesting and important to the customers.

We may learn things they like that we can do as well–but we never knew, so we never helped them understand.  We may learn some thing that we completely misunderstood, but now can adapt our approach.  We begin to learn their attitudes and feelings by asking them about the alternatives, getting much more than if we just focused on our offerings.

Understanding these things gives us better understanding of the customer, as well as the competition.  It enables us to more effectively position ourselves and differentiate our solutions.

What if they hadn’t been looking at competition?  Did we make a mistake by bringing it up?

I tend to think not.  We know they will be challenged when they seek approval for their solution.  Suggesting they may want to evaluate alternatives is just the recognition of their reality in buying.  Hopefully, though, we can leverage this to help them think about what they should be looking for and how they should consider evaluating the alternatives.  In this case, we have a tremendous ability to shape how they might consider alternatives.  They, naturally, won’t buy all our ideas, but done properly, we can have huge influence.

The only party we disadvantage when we choose to avoid the discussion about competition and the alternatives is ourselves!

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  1. I remember 20 years ago when a new direct competitor organized a launching event in my city, I invited my whole database of customers to the party: shown we were really sure about ourselves, confused the newbie about who has been successful providing people, and also they run out of souvenirs…

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