When they're buying something big, customers like alternatives. Your challenge is to transform the alternatives into also-rans. Here's how, based on a conversation with Linda Richardson, author of "Changing the Sales Conversation: Connect, Collaborate, and Close."

1. Assess the competitor's offering.

Skim the competitor's corporate overview and its product and service descriptions.  While the information will be at the "brochure level," it will give you a good idea exactly how they're planning to present themselves.

In addition, you may be able to find some leverage to push them out of the running.  Look for two things:

  1. Missing features and functions. Anything that you've got and they don't is potential leverage to get them out of the running.
  2. Business model mismatches. For example, they're primarily a packaged software firm when the customer needs customization.

2. Research potential soft spots.

If you know your competitor's weaknesses, it will be easier to knock them out of the running. There are two places to look:

  1. SEC filings.  If the competitor is publicly held, they're bound by law to reveal to investors the potential risks of investing in their 10K and 10Q reports. (You can find them on www.sec.gov.) While some of these items will be pro-forma, you'd be surprised how much you'll learn about what's keeping the competitor's management awake at night.
  2. Help wanted. Most companies post ads on their website describing the type of people they need to hire but haven't found yet.  For example, if a company has three open positions for programmers with C++ skills, you know that they're short staffed and probably can't take on any more work that requires those skills.

3. Uncover hidden connections.

What you're looking for here is pre-existing business relationships that might give the competitor the inside track.  Here's where to look:

  1. LinkedIn. Compare the profiles of your competitor's management with each customer decision-maker.  If you find connections, assume that the decision-maker question is "on the other side."
  2. White papers. Companies frequently hire "independent" analysts to write research reports that are biased in their favor. If the competitor is using an analyst's "white papers" or quoting "custom research" you can assume that analyst is in the competitor's pocket.
  3. Case studies. Any case study that your competitor posts on a website is a potential reference account. The more recent the case study, the more likely it will be called into the engagements.

4. Customize your campaign.

Congratulations!  You now know far more about your competitor than your competitor probably knows about you.  All you need do now is take advantage of your research.  Here's how:

  1. Customize your sales materials. Emphasize your company's strengths against your competitor's weaknesses.  For example, if the competitor is weak in customer service, emphasize that area in your presentations.
  2. Provide counter-examples.  Select case studies and reference accounts that "steal the thunder" of the competitor's.  For example, if the competitor has sold to a division of Ford, talk up the deal you made with GM.
  3. Neutralize the analysts.  Contact every analyst who's in the competitor's camp and open negotiations to purchase custom research.  Or hire different analysts to act as a counterweight.
  4. Plant time bombs. Ask questions that will plant doubts about the competitor's ability to perform.  Example: "What would happen if your system went down on a weekend? Unlike other vendors, we have a full support staff available on weekends."
  5. Play chess.  Think two to three moves ahead of your competitor. For example, if the competitor has a connection with the CFO, present a bulletproof ROI to the CEO before the competitor has a chance to get the CFO involved.

Preorder my new book and get an exclusive bonus chapter plus a signed bookplate. (Note: Once the book's published, both will be unavailable forever.)