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Strategy 18: Become An Expert At Competitive Positioning

Hey, I have a proposition for you.

I had a really bad experience with Dearborn Trade Press (now Kaplan Financial Publishing) with my book, How Winners Sell, Second Edition. It’s no longer in print, although companies seem to be able to find copies somehow when I come in to present at their sales kick-offs and other events.  (I will write about the whole nasty Kaplan situation one day.  In the meantime, anyone considering publishing with Kaplan needs to give me a call.)

I was thinking about putting How Winners Sell up on Amazon’s Kindle. After a long, long effort, I finally got the rights back.  I wrote the Second Edition in 2004, but most of it is still very relevant.

The proposition.  Here is a free chapter.  All I ask is if you get some value from it and are interested in reading the whole book on either the Kindle or an e-Book format, let me know.  I may decide to republish it.


Strategy 18: Become an Expert at Competitive Positioning

I don’t know about you, but I get a big thrill when I watch a high-integrity, seasoned sales pro competitively position his company and offering. It may happen during a presentation or during a sales call as objections are raised by the buyer.

When you think about it competitive positioning begins when you formulate your strategy. From that point onward, your messaging, talking points and objection handling are driven off the same thing—the unique value you can provide to your client.

Here are some examples of how winners I’ve worked with masterfully handle competitive positioning:

Situation 1: Selling Against Goliath

If you sell for a smaller company that competes against the big guys, the age-old story of David and Goliath might come to mind. In this story, the giant, Goliath, was beaten in a fight by the small boy, David. I often see “Goliaths” beaten, but it takes flawless execution of a well-designed plan.

The most important thing of all when selling against a much bigger competitor is to be certain that if you meet or exceed all the prospect’s requirements, that size—for size’s sake—does not matter. That’s an issue of qualification. You may have the best product, innovative service capabilities, committed people, stellar customer satisfaction levels, top product quality, most respected investors or anything else that you consider of value, but if size matters, little else will measure up. And if size does matter, and you can’t convince your prospect fairly quickly that it shouldn’t, you need to get out of there—and quickly on to another opportunity. Know your prospect’s history regarding doing business with smaller companies. It may mean nothing to them, since they do it all the time. On the other hand, you may be the first and may have a long, bumpy road ahead.

What all this means is that there are certain opportunities for which you should not compete, because you can’t win them. Sorry, but that’s a fact.

Now What Do You Do?

You’re going to need to influence your prospect’s decision criteria, so that the perceived value of your competitor’s size as well as other size-related capabilities are diluted, neutralized or, in the best case, seen as a disadvantage. Many salespeople are accustomed to highlighting a competitor’s weaknesses. In the situations where you are competing against a bigger company, you will (professionally and subtly) dilute their strength.

Here is a simple, well-proven example. Let’s say I sell for a smaller professional services firm and I am up against a major player. Based upon preferences and needs of the buyers, I may decide to use the “small-fish-in-a-big-pond” approach.

It goes like this: “Ms. Prospect. There are few people who would not be impressed by my competitor’s size, global reach and financial as well has human resources. I’m sure they proudly reference some very prominent customers. However, you might consider that a project such as yours, although highly critical for you, might very well not have the same level of importance for them and therefore may not generate the ongoing attention within executive levels of their company that their premier customers’ projects would. It’s only natural…”

From that point, you would discuss how you would meet their technical requirements and establish a business relationship going forward, stressing attention that would be paid to the progress by your executives. You’d convince them that your company’s success would depend directly on their success, not the other way around. You’ll be portraying them as big fish in a small pond, with the driving message being how important their business is to you.

If you are effective with this approach, you will have moved down in importance the size and impressiveness of their customer list and up in importance the attention paid to them by your executives as well as your company’s interest in their success.

Here are challenges you might face in a David and Goliath situation and some alternatives to consider: Continue reading

Checklists: For Surgeons, Pilots and… Salespeople

I believe in checklists.  Clearly the medical community just got the message as well.  A study published online by the New England Journal of Medicine this week shows that adopting a surgical safety checklist (PDF) reduced deaths and complications by more than a third.  From the Wall Street Journal:

Researchers collected data on nearly 8,000 patients who were operated on in eight hospitals scattered around the world. As a basis for comparison, about half the patients underwent surgery before the checklist was adopted. The death rate fell from 1.5% to 0.8%, and the rate of inpatient complications fell from 11% to 7%.

As a pilot, I’m always aware that while flying and on the ground, lives depend on me not missing any steps or getting them out of order.  Make sure propeller area is clear before starting engine.  Landing gear extended before touching down on runway.  It’s amazing how many pilots don’t use a checklist and execute wheels-up landings.   (Note:  I wrote this post literally as US Airways Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River.  There is no doubt in my mind that the event would have been a disaster had the pilots not executed their emergency engine-failure and water-ditching checklists. )

ESR estimates that 80% of sales opportunities are lost due to either ineffective qualification or ineffective planning.  Every sales plan I’ve ever written has had a checklist.  What’s a sales plan without a list of events, activities, calls, meetings, and tactics—a checklist?

A top salesrep I mentored almost missed his number one year because he didn’t have a checklist.  Here’s what happened:

He was selected at a division of a Fortune 500.  The VP of Manufacturing was his sponsor.  The solution was $1.5 million of ERP software and related services.  During a conversation about the opportunity, I asked him whether the appropriation was on the agenda for approval at the next board meeting, the last of his company’s fiscal year.  The silence on the other end of the phone was my answer.  “I’ve never forgotten to check that before,” he said.  I believed him, but he forgot this time.  I held on as he called his sponsor on his cell phone.  The item had not been added to the board’s agenda for that next meeting.  A quickly executed series of calls got the item on the agenda and the rep got his dea.

A checklist is a simple way to instill some discipline into a salesperson or sales team.  There is very useful technology that will support building a series of pre-ordered events and steps for a sales process and for monitoring execution.  But in the absence of a tool like that, an Excel-based checklist will get the job done.

When you think about it, the checklist is nothing more than a to-do list.  The difference is the checklist is built for multiple sales opportunities.  Here’s one you can download, with my compliments.  It was used as an example in my book, How Winners Sell. It’s very simple, but will get you moving in the right direction if this is a challenge for your sales team.

If you don’t know whether your sales team needs a formal checklist as part of their standard sales planning regimen, ask them, “What are the next five things that need to be done, in order, to advance this sale?”  The answer will reveal a lot.

Photo source: http://www.pilotmall.com

A Few Good Sales Coaching Blog Posts

If you’re in sales (or general) management, two consecutive posts on Bill Caskey’s Inside the Sales Mind blog are really worth reading:

  1. Sales Training Q&A #12: How to Maintain a High Performance Sales Team.  During my years as a sales consultant this was one of the coaching exercises I did with every sales manager.  It is very, very effective.  I learned this reality check from my former boss, Ken Arnold, many years ago.  Don’t watch this video only once.  Watch it until you can, at any time of the day, week, month, quarter or year, instantly respond to the question, “If you had to reduce your sales team by 20 percent, whom would you fire?”  Make sure you answer Bryan Neale’s other questions as well.

  2. Salespeople, What Is Your Selling Time Worth? The second post discusses how to calculate the value of a sales person’s time.  It too, makes a lot of sense.  We used to handle this one slightly differently:

If a salesperson’s quota is $2 million, and you use the same denominator, 2000, what you are calculating is how much product or service the salesperson needs to be selling on an hourly basis.  In this case, it’s $1,000 per hour!  Ask a salesperson to go through the math with you.  Then remind them that they need to be spending their time in a way that will return an average of a thousand an hour.  It’s usually pretty sobering.


One of the other points I like to make is this:

“Do you really believe a particular opportunity is qualified and worth pursuing? Give it the acid test. Ask yourself: ‘If I had to fund every penny of my salary, benefits, expenses, and other costs of acquiring this contract, in return for, say, reimbursement and a 30 to 40 percent commission, would I do it?’ Makes your collar feel a bit tight, doesn’t it? That’s the bet your company is making. That’s why it’s your responsibility to be logical, objective, diligent, and unemotional in pursuing the right deals.”  Source: How Winners Sell (Kaplan, 2004).

Business Acumen: A Critical Selling Capability

When I wrote How Winners Sell one of the most important messages I needed to communicate to my readers was this:  The timeless truth about sales is it’s all about money.  B2B sales is not about selling software or strategic advice or capital equipment.  It’s about your products and services improving your customer’s business.  I was very lucky to have learned that early in my sales career.

Many of the Tier One sales training companies don’t cover this subject.  They tell you that you have to sell high, get access to influencers, understand business challenges and opportunities.  But they don’t tell you what to do once you have that information and you’ve gotten access to those top-level executives.  This isn’t a problem if you fill that gap some other way.

During the time I was a sales consultant, I recommended to a number of clients that they put their salespeople and managers through business acumen training.  First, we helped each company assess the requirements of their customers with respect to business value justification.  Then, we went about building the right tools: business cases, customer testimonials that included specifics about the improvement they realized, ROI models, strategies and tactics for gaining and maintaining access to financial and business managers.  Then the reps were put through the training.  Finally the reps were coached and supported until business value justification became a standard component in every sales cycle.  In every case, the CEO and VP of Sales were convinced that there was a substantial improvement in sales performance.  (Unfortunately I couldn’t convince them to formally measure their return on investment in those initiatives.  Ironic.)

There are a few training companies that understand the importance of business acumen and are focused entirely on that subject.  One is Executive Conversation.  ESR has formally reviewed them.  You can listen to a fabulous podcast that I conducted with the CEO and one of their consultants.

Last week I received an email from Paradigm Learning about a white paper they just released (PDF).  They specialize in business acumen and learning.  I don’t typically provide links to white papers (here’s why), but this is an important enough issue for me to break my own rule.  This white paper discusses a broader view of business training than just sales.  This paragraph gets to the heart of the matter:

During a business acumen session, new managers at a major retailer found out just how difficult it is to make a profit. Their facilitator used this example: A warehouse employee dropped several cases of lightbulbs. The bulbs shattered and so did the opportunity to make a $25 profit. The first reaction of the class was, “So what’s $25 to us?” But after calculating the company’s net income at just over 1 percent, they realized that the store would have to sell $2,500 in new merchandise to make up for the lost profit on the shattered bulbs! 

Is your sales team business savvy enough to gain and maintain access with key business executives?  Can they:

  • Determine, by reviewing your customer’s financial statements, whether your products or services can drive business improvement and generally by how much?
  • Talk about the specific business impact your products and services have had on your other customers?
  • Mitigate a customer’s focus on price by bringing the conversation to a higher, more impactful level?
  • Work closely with the customers financial staff to enable them to construct a credible ROI model for your products/services?

Or better yet, try Executive Conversation’s fluency assessment.

Business acumen for B2B sales people has never been more important than now.  Prove to your customer how you will get them through these challenging times and they’ll get you through them in return.

Photo: © James Steidl – Fotolia.com