In the farm equipment business, many managers often tell their sales crews to never mention the competition when making a product pitch to farmers. It’s a negative to bring up another dealer’s different colored highly competitive machines, service concerns, parts delays and other business practices.

Dealing with these negatives reminded me of a time back in the 1980s when our family-owned Rural Builder magazine. This publication was distributed to around 23,000 post-frame and metal-frame builders around the country. 

At that time, we worked closely with Bill Uphoff, who had previously been the sales manager at Morton Buildings in Morton, Ill. This is a firm that today has a staff of 1,700 and does around $750 million in annual sales.

Bill was one of those types who demanded that the company’s sales force never mention a competitor with a prospective buyer. Over the years, he let them know that doing so could lead to parting ways with any salesmen who did this.

The importance of what he demanded was brought home during one of the company’s annual sales meetings. During the event, Bill asked 3 salesmen from different areas of the country to come up on stage. When asked whether they had made presentations in which they mentioned competitors, all three sheepishly admitted they had done so.

Right in front of several hundred Morton folks in attendance, Bill fired all three.

Not a Good Way to Sell

In a recent HubSpot blog, sales trainer Art Sobczak explained why he believes voluntarily discussing the competition is a bad idea. The following comments came from Art’s blog.

Degrading a dealer is certainly out of bounds. It only serves to bring attention to them, adds credibility to their business and gets the potential buyer thinking once again about them. By doing so, you may even reinforce the prospect’s reason for using them. And insulting the prospect’s vendor that they use slaps them smack in the face as well.

If these possibilities for backfire even remotely exist, why mention the competition at all?

A good example that fits most any adult these days deals with the current political election season and the attack ads that seem to run nonstop. The more I hear someone’s name in an attack ad, the more I become familiar and curious about the other person running for office.

Let’s look at the technique found in some sales motivation books (perhaps written by people who haven’t sold much). When a prospect says, “I’m already buying from ABC Company,”  these authors normally recommend that the salesperson respond with, “Oh, what do you like best about them?”

Proponents claim that helps you learn the prospect’s selection criteria. I thought that at one time, too, until I used it and the prospect said, “Well, let me tell you about the ABC Company. They’re great. They’d run through a brick wall for me. I’d do the same for them. They’ve been there when I needed them. They’ve pulled me out of jams. They make me look good. They broke the mold after their salesman was born.”

When I heard the prospect’s answer, I thought I might have seen a tear trickle from the buyer’s eye. Heck, I even wanted to buy from my competitor after I heard that.

The worst part was that I had prompted this response. Sure, the prospect already had those feelings. But he wasn’t thinking about any of them until I asked about the supplier. And by reliving those feelings, he was selling himself even further on staying with my competitor.

I should have received a thank you note from the competition!

What To Do Instead

The most common situation where sales reps get dragged into talking about the competition is when the prospect is already buying from someone else, and you’d like to grab some, if not all, of that business.

So instead of prompting them to voice compliments and further reinforce their positive feelings about a dealership, get them talking about deficiencies such as:

  1. What do you want?
  2. What would you like that you’re not getting now?
  3. What gaps are there in their sales, parts and service?
  4. Under what circumstances have you, or would you, use someone else? 

Try Something Along These Lines

Here’s a new favorite I just came up with a couple of months ago when someone told me they were satisfied with their existing vendor:

“That’s great. Most people I speak with are. But what would take you from being just satisfied to being absolutely delighted?”

Notice that all of these questions are assumptive.They assume no one is perfect, including their existing vendor. That’s a pretty safe guess.

Another safe question to use when discussing the competition: What criteria did you use when selecting your current provider?”

Then you can follow up with variations of the others I mentioned. For example,“And where haven’t you received everything you expected from that dealer?”

Of course, it’s always good to let the prospect express their dissatisfaction when they volunteer it. Here’s what I mean:

Prospect: We just weren’t that satisfied with the last sales guy that called on us.”

Salesperson: Oh, why was that? Tell me more.”

The answers to this question would tell me what to say, and what to avoid.

There are many examples of how mentioning the competition can backfire. Don’t let it happen to you.