How do you turn your intelligence on direct competitors into a significant advantage for salespeople? It’s a question that I get asked a lot, and shows the growing importance organizations are placing on turning information and raw data into actionable intelligence.
In the world of competitive team sports, coaches and athletes often review tapes of previous events studying the strengths and weaknesses of both the opposing team and individual players. Surprisingly in the business world, this approach is rarely ever used to prepare for sales meetings or presentations. Other than holding a weekly or monthly sales team meeting – to briefly introduce new products, revise quotas or discuss success/failures with certain customers – sales directors and sales teams spend little time researching or understanding their direct competitors.
Which is a shame, because knowing your competitors and how they operate is crucial in understanding how a competitor will react in a variety of sales situations. One of the benefits of having a competitive intelligence program is to track and map competitor behavior for a wide variety of situations. If you know how your opponents are going to behave, you can proactively safeguard your relationship with your customer or prospect by defending yourself against that competitor’s tactics and strategies.
For most organizations, there are three levels of competitive intelligence that sales reps need to know about your direct competitors. The first is the readily accessible information found on most company websites and social media outlets – their size, locations, financial situation, awards and reputation etc.
The second level is an in-depth understanding of the competitions’ products and services as well as their strengths and limitations compared to your own. While most companies love to brag about the relative merits and strengths of their products on their websites and social media outlets, it can take a little digging around both on the internet and by asking customers, business partners, your R&D department and other sales reps to root out an accurate appraisal.
For me, the real value that competitive intelligence brings to the sales process is in understanding the third level – how the competitors’ sales people sell.
As competitive intelligence professionals, we often look to gain insight into how the executives of a competitor make strategic decisions. We profile the first, and occasionally the second, level of company management looking for track records, relationships, and significant events. An executive profile gives us insights into how a competitor’s leadership thinks and reacts strategically to events.
However, sales are won on a tactical level and very few sales teams know much about the individual salespeople from rival companies.It’s the rival salespeople that are the real competition, not the competitor organization or their products or services.
Anyone who has spent anytime in a sales role knows that most sales reps have at least a limited degree of flexibility in how they respond to an immediate competitive threat. This is why you can generally barter for a price reduction or additional service for just about any product or service. But understanding how rival salespeople respond when they face the prospect of losing a sale is tactically important. Do they call in management, do they automatically cut their price, do they start lying or bad-mouthing your company, products or services? From a sales point of view, this is important information.
As you build an understanding of how rival salespeople typically respond to both winning and losing a sale, you can start to predict what their response will be to your sales tactics. This it becomes much easier to protect your relationship with your customer in a way that will allow you to close the deal without resorting to price reductions.
For example, if you know your competitor likes to undercut your prices, your sales rep can spend additional time building a trusted advisor relationship by bringing them ideas, insights, and information that helps them achieve their business objectives. Orchallenging their current way of thinking by providing them with fresh perspectives and guiding them about how to make good decisions, that benefit you both.This can be an opportunity to introduce sales support, customer service, and other department employees to each other. Your customers want your company, not just your sales reps, to be an invaluable resource to them all the time.
So, understanding how rival sales reps operate gives you the upper hand in providing the value that your customers are looking for.
This is not to say that your sales reps should only be focused on worrying about competitive threats. It’s also important that sales teams spend time honing their presentation skills by taking part in scenario planning and role-playing exercises designed to help them understand your customers’ requirements, issues, and potential objections as well as developing a deep understanding of your own products. But spending no time understanding the individuals you are selling against is a recipe for losing sales.
Compared to gathering information on a company and its product and services, finding information on rival sales reps -what their strengths and weaknesses are, what their approach is and who they try and build relationships with and how – can be incredible difficult and time consuming. Often, your research needs to start at the ground level, by training your sales reps to get ask their customers questions about product or service substitutions they may be considering and to follow-up by asking questions about the substitution option’s sales rep.
Just as pro athletes prepare for competition by directly and indirectly observing their rivals, sales teams should be active in building profiles on their rivals.Ideally you are looking to gather information such as:
- Into what industries and companies do they sell? – Do they have deep knowledge of the industry you are selling into? A well-informed sales rep can be a strong competitive advantage.
- Who are their biggest, most satisfied, and least happy customers?– Sales reps don’t like to spend time rebuilding soured relationships, hoping that the customer will get over it in time.
- What is their typical sales process? – Understanding how they approach a prospective sale -do they suggest a demo? A survey/needs analysis? When do they submit a proposal or attempt to close? – gives you an understanding of the timeline and pressures to close that the sales rep faces.
- How high into their customers do they typically call? – Some reps are afraid or incapable of calling on C-level suite decision makers. Mapping their sales relationships will help you target other influencers and decision-makers to counter rival sales rep efforts.
- What value do they provide during the selling cycle? – There are order takers and knowledgeable, trusted resources for the customer, which are they?
- How are they measured and compensated? – If you’ve ever competed against someone on 100% commission, you’ll understand. That being said, a sales rep that is on a substantial base and bonus is more likely to take the time to build a trusted advisor relationship.
- What is their win/loss ratio against your sales rep? – It’s a real kick to the ego to lose one or more than one deal to a rival sales rep. But it’s often an opportunity to analyze why and adjust your own tactics.
- What type of sales strategies do they typically use? – Are they strategic and working with the customer to change the buying criteria to favor their product or are they aggressive price cutters?
- When they win, why? – When they lose, why? Understanding whether they have the skills, traits, behaviors, knowledge, resources, and whatever else it takes to win business in your industry is vital.
- What is their view toward your company? – There are a few sales reps that take things very personally and act unprofessionally. Knowing what they say about you, whether they negatively sell and what you must do to counter their vitriol can often mean the difference between a sale and a loss.
- What do they do when things are going well/badly? – How a sales rep acts under pressure, whether they panic and call in management, whether they automatically drop their price or whether they focus on their products strengths gives you unmatched insight into how to counter their approach.
While large companies with established competitive intelligence, marketing, or sales support often have the internal resources to systematically collect, analyze, and distribute this form of intelligence, small firms with limited resources are not necessarily at a disadvantage. A vast majority of organizations have not adapted the rigorous processes need to convert raw data and information into actionable intelligence.
A small firm that builds the collection, analysis, and distribution processes into its day-to-day operations and than rigorously utilizes the intelligence to create scenarios, role-play, and actively build the skills and knowledge needed to counter rival sales people, will have a significant competitive advantage.