“Hi Jeff. This is Tom calling. Hey, before we get started, I wanted you to know that you did a great job…”

Uh-oh. I know how this song ends. For several weeks, I had been locked in a brutal bakeoff against a formidable competitor for a new sale. Five vendors were initially invited to compete for the job. I had competed well, enduring any number of trials, meetings, customer reference calls, and multiple rounds of negotiation. I’d bested three vendors. Now, it was down to the final face-off.

“I’m sorry to say that we have decided to go with your competitor.”

As Tom continued to sheepishly explain why he’d selected my rival, I couldn’t help wondering what the fifth-place contender had been up to for the past month. Exploring dozens of new opportunities, I was certain.

Sure, we all love winning competitive deals. But I’d rather finish dead last than come in second. There is no silver medal in sales. Second place leaves you with exactly what you get when you bring up the rear: Zilch. Zero. Absolutely nothing.

You can't win every time. But there are ways to better your chances. Here are three things I do.

Consider the odds. I generally back out early when I discover that I'm one of three or more vendors under consideration. This is not a table I’d ever sit at in Vegas, so why do it in business? Plus, who has time to look at four vendors? Is this person really a decision-maker? Or worse, is this even a real project? By walking away early, I get to focus on better opportunities. And I can always revisit the opportunity later after few competitors have been eliminated.

Bury one early. If the customer is considering three different offerings, then I stand, at best, a 33-1/3 percent of winning. Not great either. My only choice: bury one competitor immediately. My goal is compete head to head, or not at all. Fifty-fifty gives you a fighting chance.

So here’s how a conversation with the customer might go:

“I need to tell you something, Tom. I work with these companies every day, and you should stop looking at Vendor One. Based on what you have told me, your needs are far too sophisticated for them. They didn’t create their product for companies like you. In fact, I would bet that their sales manager is shocked you’re even evaluating them-;you’d easily be the most significant customer they’ve ever had.”

“What about Vendor Two?” asks Tom.

“We can discuss Vendor Two later. For now though, I would advise you to seriously reconsider Vendor One.”

Notice that I didn’t really badmouth Vendor One. I just used them as a way to pay the customer a compliment: Tom’s business is a sophisticated operation, and it requires equally as sophisticated vendors. And by ignoring Vendor Two, I add tremendous credibility to my opinion.

Get a champion. The idea here is to find one member of the buyer’s team to like you best. This doesn’t guarantee a sale, but it may give you a champion. And this champion can help identify your “anti-champion.”

Imagine this conversation:

“Based on what you have seen so far, Tom, are we your favorite?”

“I like what you're offering, Jeff--but it’s not solely up to me.”

“Understood, Tom. But if you are fighting for me, who are you fighting against?”

Try to uncover who is championing your competitor. You can be sure that someone is, and they’re sitting in your meetings, quiet and smiling. The earlier you can learn this, the better shot you have at disarming him.

I have since moved on from the sting of Tom’s call, though I am sure there will be similar ones in my future. But whenever you are faced with competitors for an account, remember: Fight to win or bow out. When it comes to sales, it truly is winner takes all.