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Who Are We Selling Against?

by David Brock on January 29th, 2010

Who are we selling against?  It’s a question I hear as I do deal reviews everyday.  I see variants of this in blog posts, LinkedIn questions, and other discussions.  I have a problem with that question, because I think, except in one case, it causes us to focus on the wrong things.  It diverts us from performing at the highest level, or from developing compelling sales strategies.

Most sales people, in answering the question, focus on the competition.  It’s important for us to be aware of the alternatives our customers are considering, but the issue of “who we are selling against” changes the focus of our strategy.  It causes us to spend our time on developing strategies to beat the competition. Rather than serving the customer and addressing their business problem, we divert our focus to beating the competition.  

Beating the competition is fine, but does that mean we are developing and presenting the most compelling solution to our customers?  Are we presenting the best solution and creating the most value in helping them achieve their goals? 

We all fall into this trap, we get diverted from focusing on our customers and serving them.  A great friend reminded me of this the other day.  We were reviewing the sales strategy for the most important deal his company had in their funnel.  We were strategizing the final proposal and presentation to the key decision-makers.  I asked the question, “What’s the competition doing?”  He responded, “I don’t really care much about them.  I know who they are, I know their capabilities and what they are likely to propose, but I can’t do anything about them.  What I can do is make sure the customer we present our solution in a way the customer understand the real value we are providing, and the return they will get on their investment.  I can only focus on putting our best solution to their needs in front of them.”

His response struck me and reminded me that too often we get diverted, we focus on the competitor and beating them, rather than focusing on the customer and demonstrating we have the best solution available.  It may sound like wordsmithing, but it framing the issue to focus on the customer causes your strategy to be very different than one focused on beating the competition.

Who are we selling against?  There’s another response to the question that really disturbs me.  The other day, I was in a conversation with a colleague.  He mentioned that when you remove all the niceties, sales is a predatory activity (I’m really taking his comments out of context and being a little unfair, but I liked the phrasing so I’ll use it).  Too often, I think we are selling against the customer.  Think about it, how often have you heard (or thought), “They’re so stupid, they really don’t get it.”  What about those win-lose negotiations we get into?  While I may be making an extreme case, I think unconsciously, we fall into a trap of selling against the customer.  This can never be a winning strategy.  If we can’t focus on creating a compelling solution to the customer, if we can’t communicate the real value we create, if there are better alternatives, we should stop wasting our time  and the customers.  We should go someplace else, we should focus on those were we can make a difference and help them achieve their goals.

To my mind there is only one legitimate answer to “who are you selling against?”  It can only be:  Ourselves.  The true test of real professionals is whether we are performing at the highest levels we possibly can.  Are we continually learning, improving, innovating?  Are we measuring our performance and constantly raising the bar on what we do?  Are we focusing on maximizing the value we create and deliver for every customer on every deal? 

Somehow, I believe if we focus on these areas, we will win more often than not.  Oh, and buy the way, we’ll beat those competitors we sell against?

What do you think?

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  1. I do not agree. Although there is a point where one devotes to much time to the competition. You always have to know where your competitive edge is other than your winning personality. i have had sales fall through because another company had better distribution points, faster deliveries or shorter lead times, better net terms, or rebates. However, if you just use the competition as an excuse NOT to sell, that is another story.

    • Allan. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Clearly, in every sales situation, the sales person must take the competition into account, understanding their strategy, their offering, and develop strategies to demonstrate greater value than the competition. However, too often, sales people become so focused on “beating” the competition, they lose site of the customer and their needs.

      Recently, I was buying my wife a new car. I had done my research and had gone to several dealerships. In a very short visit to one, once we had gone through the pleasantries and I told the sales person what I was looking for, he asked if I had shopped around. I replied that I had. He then said, “Show me the offers from my competition, I will beat all of them.” I replied, “Look you don’t understand, I’m not necessarily looking for the best deal, but I am looking for a few things in our relationship…….” The sales person ignored that, and repeated himself, “Show me the offers from my competition, I will beat them.” I politely declined and said it looked like we couldn’t do business. As he and his manager followed me as I left the dealership asking what they could do to get my business, I told them they should listen to what I wanted in the deal and respond to that, not focus on the competition.

      Too often, we see the same behavior from sales people, they focus on beating the competition, not responding to the customer needs, requirements, and prioirities. Customers don’t care about competition, they want the sales person to focus on them. Beating competition must be an element of the sales strategy, but not the focal point. Thanks for joining the discussion Allan. Regards, Dave

  2. Mohamed Saad permalink

    Dave, great post….but leads me to a more complex inquiry…Aren’t we just practicing what we have been taught should work the best!!!
    Again tight to sales process which reflects the focus of the sales process makers…who is the competition, weakness, strengths, how to beat? Price, technology even reputation!!!! And so many other how to’s
    To avoid diverting from the main goals and the right strategies we need to set them up right first…

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