Making the Case for Your Competitor’s Product

By Heather Baldwin

Today, when customers have access to more information than ever before, it’s no longer enough to focus just on building customer relationships. Instead salespeople need to become true customer advocates by impartially comparing potential products that could solve their business challenges and recommending a competitor’s product in situations where that product makes the most sense for the customer.

For many salespeople this assertion might sound a bit like jumping off a bridge to save your life. The most successful reps will tell you, however, that they have been doing this for a long time. They push solutions, not products, and recommend a competitor’s product if it’s better for the prospect’s situation because they know in the long run this kind of advocacy builds trust – and trust leads to sales.

Glen Urban, a professor of marketing at MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, chairman of Experion Systems, Inc. and author of Don’t Just Relate – Advocate! (Wharton, 2005) is a champion of the advocacy movement. He asserts that while many companies have moved successfully to problem-oriented selling, that strategy no longer is enough. Organizations must go beyond problem-oriented selling and become willing to talk about their competitors’ products openly and fairly. “You gain an understanding of prospects’ problem and then give them a full, honest comparison of the products that can solve that problem,” says Urban. If your product honestly is the strongest and best fit, great. If your product falls short, says Urban, “you need to go back to your product development people and explain where your product falls short so they can make the product stronger.” Building customers’ trust is key to this approach, which will result in far more sales in the long term than simply pushing your own products.

Take AMD Corp., for example. The company publishes a “Mobile Competitive Performance Guide” that compares AMD products to Intel processors across a range of performance specs. Prospects wanting to determine which product is superior for a certain application need only pick up this guide and look at the test results. “Presumably, AMD is trying to be superior on all tests, but it reports even inferior results to build trust with potential customers,” says Urban. The report was conceived by AMD’s vice president of customer advocacy. Cisco, Siemens and AOL also have executives dedicated to customer advocacy and trust building. Other major companies that have recognized the importance of customer advocacy and are shifting to an advocacy strategy include GM, Qwest, John Deer and eBay.

The foundation for the shift to advocacy is the Internet, which has enabled an unprecedented increase in customer power. With indepth information about your company and products and your competitors’ companies and products, including third-party information and ratings, is only a few clicks away, Urban argues that advocacy is the most effective strategy for dealing with this rise in customer power. “If a company advocates for its customers, customers will reciprocate with their trust, loyalty and purchases. They will advocate for you now and in the future,” he says. “Your firm then can command higher prices for its products and services because many customers will be willing to pay for the extra trusted value and the superior products you offer.” Trust also means customers will buy more from you and will tell others about you. In the long run, it all adds up to sales growth and a thriving business in the age of customer power.

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