We live in a competitive world, and that means that you'll frequently be drawn into situations where you need to sell "against" a competitor, rather than simply selling what you've got.

There's an art to doing this effectively, according to Linda Richardson, founder of the sales training firm Richardson and author of numerous books on selling. She points out there are two important aspects to selling against a competitor.

The first aspect is very basic: Know how your offering is different from that of the competition. This is mostly a matter of doing your homework, researching your industry, and figuring why a customer might find your product more attractive than a similar offering from your competitors.

If you don't do your homework, you might as well forget it, because you're probably going to lose the sale. However, if you do know how to position your product, you can address the second aspect: guiding your conversation with the customer so that the superiority of your offering becomes clear in the customer's mind.

There are two ground rules for these conversations:

  • Never badmouth a competitor. Badmouthing tells the prospect that you're bitter and petty. It makes the competitor look good by comparison.
  • Be honest with the customer. If you truly believe that buying from a competitor would be bad for the customer, you must communicate that belief.

At first glance, it seems that the two ground rules are mutually exclusive, but they're not. In order to satisfy both, you need to ask questions that raise questions.

Ask the Right Questions

This is a very important technique, so read closely.

Suppose you're selling for a start-up, and your competitor is a large established firm. And let's suppose you know from your research that the competitor's customer service department is often high-handed and annoying. By contrast, your firm is famously easy to work with, which is your competitive advantage.

Your challenge is to point out your competitive advantage without rubbishing the competition.

Now, you could simply claim to have "great customer service," but the competitor probably claims the same thing. You could also say something like: "Why would you want to work with those guys? They're a bunch of arrogant S.O.B.s!"--but directly criticizing the competition only makes you look as though you're afraid that the competition is going to steal your sale.

Instead, you should ask a question that gets the prospect thinking in a way that's advantageous to your marketing position. For example:

  • Prospect: "We had a meeting with MegaCorp about this problem."
  • You: "Well, they're certainly an established company. Have you talked to some of their customers about their service?"
  • Prospect: "No. Why?"
  • You: "I've heard that they have their own way of doing things. You might want to ensure they have a service culture that matches your expectations."

Note that you've said nothing negative about the competitor, but you've planted a seed that there's something wrong that warrants the prospect's attention.

Plant a Seed

Here's another example.  Suppose you're selling for a well-established, publicly held company against a small firm that's funded primarily through venture capital.

You could, of course, blurt out something like: "They'll probably run out of money, so I wouldn't buy from them if I were you."  Unfortunately, that kind of blunt approach makes you sound like a tattletale and a know-it-all.

It's much more effective to raise the issue with a well-considered question:

  • You: "Just so I can be sure to provide value, who else are you talking to about this opportunity?"
  • Prospect: "We've had a meeting with TeenyCorp."
  • You: "I've heard some good things about their product. Just out of curiosity, how does your company protect itself against risk when purchasing this type of product?"

Once again, you've said nothing negative, but you've asked a question that plants the seed that buying from the competitor could be risky. In addition, your question is likely to start a conversation that allows you to talk about the stability of your own firm.

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