Who is the competition and what are the rules of the game?

frustrated lebron upset about losing to the competition

How often have you been in the end stages of a sales cycle, you think you’ve laid out a great case against the competition, only to find the prospect goes dark? The first step to beating the competition is to understand the true nature of the competition– who are you playing, and what are the rules of the game.

We tend to gravitate to confrontational battles against rivals– Coke vs. Pepsi, Boeing vs. Airbus,  Oracle vs. SAP, and so on. But there are other types of competitors, and various types of competitive landscapes.

Here are some types of competitive match-ups:

Direct Competition

This is the Coke vs. Pepsi scenario. For example, United Airlines vs American Airlines. It’s the one that’s easiest to envision, and probably the one we spend the most time preparing for and fighting about, if we have one or more rivals.

Indirect Competition

A competitor in a different category that helps achieve the same goal. This could be videoconferencing vs air travel. Bottled water vs Coke, etc.

Elimination Competition

Beyond indirect competition is something I call “Elimination Competition”– something that removes the need for this whole category. For example, perhaps reengineering the product and providing more online support would allow customers to order and configure your product themselves, eliminating the need for expensive direct sales. On demand video is tough competition for makers of CD players. Eating more vegetables can eliminate the need for many expensive medical interventions, and so on. This can be the hardest form of competition to face, but the most powerful when you deploy on costly traditional solutions.

Status Quo Competition

Last but not least, asking for any form of change is hard. Depending on the situation, this maybe the leading competition, that often vanquishes all opponents.

You want to know if the status quo is an option. Sometimes it’s not– an upcoming regulatory change or other external event may force the prospect to do *something*. Usually, the status quo is a quite attractive option. It may also have downsides. You need to know “what happens if you just keep doing things the same way?” Sometimes there are consequences below the surface.

If you end up with a lot of “no decision” decisions, either the status quo wasn’t bad enough, or there were too many obstacles to changing.

The Rules of the Game

It’s not enough to know who you’re playing. You have to know the rules of the game. Will the buyer(s) judge you on:

  • Price? Definitely, but not always in the way that you think. I recently spoke to a friend who lost a huge contract (he thought it was huge), because the buyer needed at least one more zero in the number to take his firm seriously. When lower price is important, how will they measure? Will they include ongoing costs? ROI from labor savings, etc? In theory, a rational buyer would take all of these things into account, but in practice, a rational buyer may have different incentives– a budget that expires, liking lots of people on the team because it makes them feel important, etc.
  • Savings? Savings of money and time are usually important– but how is the buyer measuring these things? If savings involve less people, will that make the buyer seem less powerful in the organization? Or is there something more valuable you can help those people do? Or do they want to work with you in part to help them hire out a bigger team?
  • Risk? Risk is a huge factor in a lot of decisions but it’s hard to quantify for most projects. Some firms seem to have more experience. Sometimes the buyer(s) know some or all of the vendors. (This could be an advantage or disadvantage for risk, depending on their relationships and experiences.) Strong, relevant customer testimonials help here.
  • Timeline? How quickly/flexibly/on-demand/etc can you get it done? Can you work within their timelines, which are not always explicit.
  • Impact? How hard will it be on the people in the organization (and perhaps their network of partners, suppliers, customers, contractors, etc) to do this project? Will customers be upset? Will critical systems be offline? Or critical people unavailable because they are in a training session?
  • Personal objectives ? The buyer(s) may be up for a promotion. Or on the edge of being fired. How do the stated goals of the project line up with what individual players want?
  • Personal chemistry? Personal chemistry also comes into play, especially when an executive brings in an expert. Can they admit to themselves and their people that they need help? (Talking to you indicates that they have at least started that process, but sometimes people get nervous, especially if they are used to doing everything their way and you are pushing them out of their comfort zone in a direction they weren’t trying to go.) Do they want discreet advice or someone who is willing to say how #$%@ed up the problem is?

To make things harder, even if there is only one person who can say “yes”, there are often multiple people who can say “no”, so you have even more dimensions. Sometimes you have a direct competition where everyone knows the rules. The Celtics are playing the Lakers and it’s the rules of basketball. Other times, the Dallas Cowboys playing the Lakers, but each home run counts for 6 goals and line changes are only allowed in even innings and icing rules don’t apply in odd innings. Sales is hard.

I find it much easier in my own mind to think of “helping” the prospect, rather than “selling.” (Want a “fill in the blank” hero proposal template that helps you ask the right questions to get the answers and create compelling proposal?)

Either way, know who you’re playing and the rules of the game.



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