Competitors stay up late at night and get up early in the morning. They scheme and work hard to lure away people who buy your products and services. Competitors try to offer more quality for less money, better services, more convenience and higher prestige – the same things you offer your clients.
If you want to compete, you have to learn about the “other guys.” Who are they? What are they selling? How do they sell it? What does your customer know about them? The more you know, the more effective your sales strategies will be.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
The cornerstone of your strategy for staying ahead of the competition is knowledge – about other companies, their products, their selling strategies. Suppose a client interrupts your presentation and brings up another company and their product. It you didn’t even know they exist, what would you say?
“I’ve never heard of them; they must be new,” can create several problems. First, it makes you look bad. If the customer thinks he or she knows more about your business than you do, your credibility takes a sudden drop. Second, if customers are almost sold on the other product, your ignorance might be offensive. “Maybe you think I’m a dummy for considering an unknown product,” your clients might tell themselves. Third, your lack of knowledge gives the customer a convenient smokescreen. If there are other doubts or concerns, they can use you lack of information as an excuse not to buy.
BE A DETECTIVE
How do you find out about your competitor before you’re put in such a bad position? Develop a “sixth sense” – listen and look for the presence of other companies and ask questions.
Sometimes customers will come right out and say, “I’m going to get bids on this purchase.” Usually the hints are much more subtle. A customer may say, “I want your best price on this, ” or “I need to talk to some other people before I can make a decision.” Listen for these subtle cues that indicate a competitor might be involved.
Also, look for “trail marks” or signs of the competitor’s presence: a car in the customer’s parking lot, a salesperson’s calling card on the receptionist’s desk, sales literature in the customer’s office – anything that indicates a competitor has been there.
A few discreet questions can uncover vital information, too. A friendly receptionist or secretary may say, “Mr. Jones has been swamped with salespeople today.” You can learn a lot by asking, “Were they mainly new people, or those who call on him regularly?”
Your competitor might not even be another company in your field. For example, when the Cadillac Division of General Motors was about to go under during the Depression, the company’s new president asked the question, “Who is our competitor?” His research people came to the conclusion that Cadillacs were competing against diamonds and mink coats -not other cars.
A furniture salesperson might find that the prospect is weighing a living room suite against a trip to Europe, not another store’s merchandise. If you’re aware that a conflict exists, your chances of swinging the sale in your own favor get a real boost. Always look for the competitors in disguise.
Once you know who your competitors are, find out about their products and how they do business. You can start by classifying their product lines with yours. Most companies design products in price brackets to keep up with their competitors. It’s no accident that Burger Kind has a “Whopper,” MacDonald’s has a “Big Mac,” and Wendy’s has a “Triple Decker.” It’s very important for you to understand this game. Your client may get a bid that seems ridiculously low and you can help him or her discover that it’s a price for a cheaper product line.
Be alert for “sneaky” practices, too. Most competitors are honorable people, but a few are not. For example, a salesman who sells to convenience markets told me about a rival company’s rep who slit the packages of other products on the shelf with a razor blade. When the store’s customers picked up the damaged goods, they’d put them back and pick up this competitor’s brands.
Fortunately, unethical tactics are the exception, not the rule. Concentrate on terms and discounts competitors offer, shipping schedules and methods, service policies, warranties, and other intangibles that make the other company look attractive. Often a small thing, like a 2 percent discount for payment within 10 days, can swing a sale in your direction.
Finally, know your competitor’s relationship with the customer. Sometimes you’re competing against the person, not the product. For instance, a purchasing agent might be paying more for another product because it’s sold by his brother-in-law. You have a better chance of handling this situation if you know what you’re up against.
AVOID OPEN CONFLICT
A spotless reputation is invaluable. “You can fight with a skunk, and you can kill him, but when you finish, you’ll smell just as he does,” says it all. Open conflict almost always diminishes your standing in the eyes of the client. Here are some principles to help you avoid direct conflict with competitors:
1. Never knock a competitor’s product or service. It might feel good to say, “They know what their stuff is worth,” but snide remarks have a way of cheapening your image. If the customer has already made up his mind to buy the other product, you’re casting doubt on his judgement. Chances are, you’ll never get in to see this prospect again.
2. Don’t be overly nice about the other guy. A simple statement like “I respect your appraisal and recognize that you have the right to make any choice you wish,” is usually sufficient.
3. Stress your assets. Emphasize your product’s benefit to the customer, the advantages of doing business with you, and the superiority of your company and its products and services. Build up the value of your proposition by showing its superiority, rather than tearing down claims of the competition.
Find out what the customer expects to get from your competitors and their products. Tactful questions can uncover the other guy’s selling points so you can counter them effectively.
Ask yourself – or the client – these questions:
“What does the customer know about the product or service the competitor is offering?” He or she might not be aware of certain disadvantages.
“How does the customer feel about the competitor and the products or services offered?” If the customer still calls you “Mr. Brown,” but he calls your competitor “Charlie,” you know you have some work to do.
“How close is the customer to making a decision?” The customer who’s going through the motions of a sales call to prove to his superiors that he’s explored all his options, is in a completely different situation than the one who’s just beginning to look into his choices.
“Why hasn’t the customer already bought a competitive product or service?” There may be a drawback you can capitalize on.
OUTSELL THE COMPETITOR
Underdogs can win out over other reps with superior salesmanship. A competitor, selling an inferior product, at a greater price, and offering less service, can close the sale because he’s outclassed you. You can be the pro who gets the order by using a few winning tactics.
For a start, get there first! Try to lock up the sale before a competitor sees your client. You’ll have to do a better job of prospecting, time management, and closing sales than the other company’s reps.
Next, give a better presentation. Practice it until you can outperform any competitor in your territory and give every customer your very best shot.
Then get the customer involved in a demonstration. Let him or her participate in the selling process by actually touching, smelling, seeing, hearing and using the product. This moves the client toward psychological ownership.
Wrap up by building more value. Don’t just claim that your product is superior – prove it! Invite comparison, use proof statements from satisfied customers, and stress the benefits that appeal most to your customer.
TURN PRICE INTO AN ASSET
If your price is lower, focus on the value received and the money saved. If it’s higher, focus on increased benefits, lower risk, and hidden factors. Amateurs get the wind knocked out of them if a customer is offered a lower price by someone else. Professionals turn prices into assets.
Here are some responses to clients who bring up the competition’s price.
1. “They must be leaving something out.” Focus your questions on what’s missing from the competitor’s deal to show your client that the other product really has a lower value than yours. At the same time, you’ll raise questions in the customer’s mind about the competitor’s credibility.
2. “Price is not the whole cost involved.” In the early days of photocopies, the Xerox people focused on the per copy cost, instead of the purchase price of a new machine. Gradually, other copier salespeople wised up and began to use the same tactic, but not before the name Xerox almost became a generic term for photocopied materials.
3. “Better quality is actually cheaper in the long run.” Whether it’s true or not, most people believe that “you get what you pay for.” Especially in times of financial uncertainty, buyers tend to avoid risk and move up in quality.
4. “Our product comes with some outstanding benefits that are ours alone.” Stress the intangibles – reliability, reputation, prestige, convenience, and service. Remember that the four reasons most people buy are fear, pride, gain and to intimidate others.
MAKE BUYING EASY
A chemical salesman once chartered an airplane to deliver a $10 bucket of paint to a customer in a remote area. Foolish? Consider the situation: his customer’s shipment didn’t come in on schedule. The delay could have been blamed on the freight company (it was their fault) but that wouldn’t have changed the fact that the customer desperately needed the paint. That one special delivery opened the door to more sales. Soon the client was buying over $200,000 worth of chemicals from that rep.
Why do customers quit buying from a salesperson? A Rockefeller Corporation survey indicates that 68 percent of the people who drop a supplier do so because of “an attitude of indifference toward the customer by one or more persons representing the supplier.”
Do you realize what that means? Lack of attentiveness to a customer’s needs can cost you as much as two-thirds of your repeat business. It also means that your attitude of concern for the customer’s best interest can help you lure business away from your competitors.
LEARN FROM YOUR LOSSES
It’s hard to be positive when you desperately need a company’s business and your competitor walks away with the order. Make the best of the situation and consider your long-range opportunities. Always leave the door open to future business. “You’ll be sorry!” or “You’re making a big mistake” slams that door shut.
Be gracious – whether you win or lose. Wait until you’re a few blocks away before you whoop and holler about an order. If you feel like grumbling, complain to your mate or your dog, but not to the customer.
Most important, learn something from the experience. If competitors beat you once with a tactic, that’s one point for them. If they do the same thing twice, that’s two against you. Winners learn from their failures.
If you’re positive and persistent, you may find an opportunity to move in if the customer shows signs of dissatisfaction with the other company. Track the results of the competitor’s product or service, and keep going back to the client – again and again – until you get their business.
IT’S UP TO YOU
You’re the only person that can let the competition take away your orders. Right now, competitors are giving you dozens of clues about how to outsell them – if you know where to look. Professional salespeople know their competitors, avoid open conflict, turn price into an asset, make it easy for customers to buy from them and learn from every lost sale. Say “thank you” to your competitors and start making their sale yours today.