The most challenging sales are when there's already a competitor entrenched in the account. Because the competitor is already there, with a head start developing decision-maker contacts, understanding the politics of the situation, and capturing the inside track.

Don't despair, though. While it's difficult to dislodge an entrenched competitor, it's not impossible. It does, however, require an extra dose of chutzpah and some plain old hard work.

You need chutzpah because the only way that you're going to find out what you need to do is by asking the customer what your competitor is up to. And that can be a bit difficult, because some people consider it impolite to ask your customers about competitors.

If you feel this way, my advice to you is: Get over it.

Ask the Hard Questions ...

If you don't ask, you can't find out what's going on, and you'll lose the sale. So gird your loins and work the following questions into your next conversation with the customer:

1. Who has the prospect's firm met with?

2. What has the competitor sold to the prospect so far?

3. What value did the competitor provide to the prospect?

4. What does the prospect perceive as the competitor's strengths?

5. What does the prospect perceive as the competitor's weaknesses?

6. What level of satisfaction has the competitor provided?

7. What is the prospect's perception of the competitor's quality?

8. What decision-makers or influencers sponsored the competitor?

9. What enemies (if any) did the competitor make?

10. What's the "buzz" about the relationship with competitor?

11. How is the sales rep for the competitor perceived?

12. How do we compare, overall, with the competitor?

Take extensive notes when you're getting the answers to these questions, because those answers will guide your competitive selling effort.

... Then Fight Back

Once you're alone and have time for some deep thinking, ponder what you've learned. Then, based upon your analysis of the situation, execute the following three-step plan to "unentrench" the competition:

  • Reposition the problem and your product. Redefine the customer's problem and the benefits that your offering provides (faster, cheaper, more thorough, etc.), so that your offering seems like a better fit.
  • Focus on the competitor's allies. Spend extra time with the people who've been sponsoring the competition or have bought from them in the past. Use the information you've gathered to weaken the competitor's case.
  • Level the playing field. Get as many decision-makers and influencers as possible to publicly state (by email or by attending a meeting) that they are open to your approach rather than committed to the competitor.

When you've executed this plan, the sales situation will now be an open competition rather than a done deal for somebody else. You must still, of course, outsell your competitor head-to-head–but he's no longer got the inside track.

Note: The above is based upon a conversation with Linda Richardson, author of the New York Times best seller Perfect Selling and founder of the sales training firm Richardson.