Know Thy Competition

Every new salesperson is taught the mantra, “product knowledge, product knowledge, product knowledge.” There is no doubt that acquiring product knowledge is important, if not critical. If you don’t have a strong understanding of the benefits your product or service offers to your prospects, you’re dead in the water.

Notice I used the word “benefits,” not “features” of your product or service. Too many salespeople feel that if they memorize the product literature, they’ve gained product knowledge and are ready to sell. Not so. All you’ve become is a talking catalogue, providing prospects with nothing more than what they can find out for themselves if they read the literature.

So, then, the key to gaining product knowledge is to truly understand the benefits your product or service provides to your prospect.

But that’s only half the battle. The other half is knowing what benefits your competition offers as well.

That’s right. It’s not enough to know your own product inside-out. The true sales professional also knows his or her major competition. It’s this competitive knowledge that will put you head and shoulders above the other salesperson.

So where can you obtain information about your competition? There are many sources.

The most popular is to acquire your competitor’s literature. In fact, professional salespeople will keep a file folder on each major competitor in which they store literature, news articles, press releases, price information, and anything else they can get their hands on.

Reading trade journals and other publications may also provide useful information. Watch for competitors’ advertisements as they often highlight major selling points.

Spying is common. Some salespeople will either ask a friend to call the competition or call themselves to gain information. This is questionable ethics, for sure, but it does happen. (Someone once said that “business ethics” is an oxymoron.)

Sometimes a good source of information is the competitor’s salesperson. I had a great experience some years ago when I was selling liquid scintillation counters (a medical instrument used for cancer research). I happened to be walking down a hospital corridor when I heard my major competitor giving his sales presentation in one of the rooms. So, I stopped, stood beside the doorway and listened while Charlie not only gave a sales pitch for his own product, but then launched into an anti-presentation about my product.

What a windfall! Not only was I now armed with some good product knowledge about my prime competitor, but I also knew what “untruths” he was saying about my product.

After that, whenever I knew I would be up against this particular competitor, I’d ask the doctor if Charlie had been in yet. If he said no, I’d say something like, “Well, when he comes in, here’s what he’ll probably tell you about my product…” and then I’d go on and give Charlie’s anti-presentation. Then I’d say, “Now here’s the truth…” and go into my sales presentation, always making sure to counter the points I knew Charlie would make about his product. 

If, on the other hand, the doctor said that Charlie had already been in, I’d say, “Here’s what Charlie probably told you about my product…” and then go on and give Charlie’s anti-presentation. In both situations I had effectively neutralized Charlie’s presentation. At no time did I ever knock Charlie’s product and, by doing so, I established my company and myself as being more professional. I drove Charlie crazy for two years until he finally caught on and changed his pitch.

That whole experience drove home to me the need to stay on top of my competition because, if I didn’t, I could easily get blind-sided by knowledgeable prospects. Prospects love to whap salespeople on the side of the head with a competitor’s benefit. It’s supposed to keep us off balance and get us to drop our price.

You won’t lose your balance if you know your competition. By knowing your competitor’s product well, you’ll be able to counter their strong points with ones of your own. What if the competitor has stronger benefits that you do? Don’t despair. Just make sure you continue to spotlight the features and benefits that the prospect likes about your offering. This way you keep the focus on your product, not your competition’s.

Another way to gain a competitive edge is to mentally put yourself into your competitor’s shoes. If you were them, how would you sell against your product or service? The answer to that question allows you to arm yourself against competitive sales pitches and puts you well on the way to building a more effective sales presentation.

Competition is a fact of sales life. And it’s hard to get ahead of the competition unless you know thy competition.