Up against a strong incumbent? Be the game changer!

If you want to get the customer’s attention, and differentiate yourself as someone who is looking out for the customer’s long-term benefit, then you must think big. Start with the end in mind.

By Bob Rickert

Have you ever had this happen to you?

You’re sitting at your computer early Monday morning enjoying your first cup of coffee when an email comes through letting you know that a major prospect on your named account list has requested information for a very high profile, big-dollar project that is perfect for your company (at least, that is what you believe). A “bluebird,” as they say, something that could close in 30 days with little effort. That would be payback for the 5 prospects you have labored over for the past year to push over the finish line, only to get 2 of the 5 closed. The others are “on hold,” “lack budget,” or were lost to your competitor. Of course, you curb your enthusiasm since most bluebirds tend to vaporize before they start.

What do you need to know? Who is the company? Have you done business with them before? Who is in there now? Who do they know? What is the project, scope, and budget? This could help make your number for the year. In fact, right now you might be dreaming of that in-ground swimming pool you have been promising the kids. (Do you hear Bing Crosby’s Mele Kalikimaka, the Hawaiian Christmas song, playing in your head like Chevy Chase did in the movie Christmas Vacation?)

Most likely, every prospect you target has an incumbent, someone who has built relationships, earned credibility by delivering value and has access to all the key players that channel the information needed to identify new opportunities. Of course, too often, incumbents lose their peripheral vision. They tend to get relaxed, over-confident and lose touch with the changing priorities before they manifest into new strategies and the need for new solutions. This is the case with our “bluebird” account.

Winning a new account that lacks relationships, data, leverage and proven results is extremely challenging, especially today when competitors are stronger, wiser and perhaps even better resourced. Chances are the bluebird company’s project is defined in operational terms. The specifications are well spelled out. Installation dates are projected, and the decision process is clearly articulated.

Let’s say that the bluebird company is a manufacturer looking to install software to reduce administration, speed-to-market and provide just-in-time data for better decision support. Let’s assume the technology group has made the case for an application that will solve the business owner’s key operational and business issues.

The project and the budget have been approved and now it’s up to the functional leaders with the expertise to sort out the options, analyze the competitors and their offers, and to make a decision. Unfortunately, the incumbent is No. 1 on the list and pretty much a foregone conclusion.

No problem – your solution is better and, given the right information, it can be proven to outperform that of the incumbents. You think you’ve found nirvana: a need, a great fit, a budget, a short turnaround decision, and an inferior competitor. Bet you can’t wait to show the kids your perfect cannonball into the new pool!

If only it were that simple. The fact is, you are on the outside looking in and time is not on your side. Gaining the access, building the relationships and getting the traction needed to equalize the playing field with your competitor are huge challenges. What do you do when the deck is stacked against you?

It’s easy to become shortsighted in a situation like this. Because time is of the essence, seek shortcuts. Get enough information to drop into your tried and true proposal template; slap on some notable references; hammer sales management for a lower price “to increase probability” of success, and away you go. Unfortunately, if you have been selling long enough, you know that these high possibility opportunities usually lead to low probability outcomes.

Change the game

If you know you are up against a strong incumbent, then in many ways, you have nothing to lose. It is like a sports team that has no chance of winning, playing loose and easy, swinging for the fences (and hitting them) in the mostunapologetic way.

Another way to look at this is to ask yourself, “If a highly successful salesperson were faced with this challenge, what would they do?” They wouldn’t waste time digging for technical specs, trying to quickly build relationships and position their solution to compete with the incumbent. They wouldn’t spend time with procurement and lower the price to win the business. They would change the game. If they were your manager, here’s what they would demand you to do:

1. Think big!

You are not in business to provide short-term solutions, partial answers to bigger business problems. You are in business to make a difference, a big difference. Often customers define their needs too narrowly. They address a specific or short- term problem. You know from experience in almost every case, many other factors go into any solution. Although the incumbent has the inside track, they are tied by the specificity of the project parameters.

If you want to get the customer’s attention, and differentiate yourself as someone who is looking out for the customer’s long-term benefit, then you must think big. Start with the end in mind. Envision your total solution being deployed, see all of the ways you have proven where it can lower costs, drive new revenues, and create efficiencies that can lead to significant profit improvement. While the incumbent and the “specifiers” are dwelling on features and functions, you are the business consultant who is helping customers achieve their broader strategic goals.

Think ROI – make it a financial decision and not a product decision.

  2. Make it about profitability

 Don’t confine yourself to the established budget. Think ROI – make it a financial decision and not a product decision. That’s how CEOs and CFOs view their decision. If you have a profit story, they want to hear it. If you have a product story, they will tell you to grab the elevator to the first floor and someone there will listen.

There is a good chance that a happy incumbent is not paying attention to the economics of their customer’s business.What is happening with their topline growth? What are the trends? What are the keys to their growth strategies? Are they growing their business profitably? Are they efficient and growing operating margins at desired levels? How would your total solution drive the revenue growth that is so critical to executive management?

The more you know about the issues, the stronger your message will be as you gain the attention of the economic decision makers. Answer these questions and you will positon yourself as a problem solver, someone who is focused on what they arefocused on: profitability!

Ultimately, you need to understand how your “total solution” impacts profitability. For example, will your solution drive new revenue growth through new customer acquisition, or speed-to-market? Quantify it based on industry standards, or your proven successes at similar customers.

Will your solution reduce labor or costly workarounds that eat up time and money? Every dollar of cost you can take out of the customer’s operation drops directly to operating profit. While the incumbent is talking product, you are talking financial return.

What’s the worst the customer can say – No? Chances are that is going to happen anyway. Now’s your chance to make a difference.

  3. Go to the top

It may sound intimidating to get to an executive level decision maker, but you really don’t have anything to lose. The onlyperson who is at risk by going over the heads of the functional buyers and “specifiers” is the incumbent. The incumbent can’t run the risk of offending their key relationships. In short, they must play by the rules. You don’t have to.

If you are going to get a decision in your favor, and beat a strong incumbent, then you need to do it on your terms. The only termsthat matter are those of the executive level decision makers. The CEO or CFO won’t typically care about an individual software purchase, unless it’s a huge investment. However, if you think big,if you have a significant profit improvement story, it will get their attention. Change the conversation from what they are trying tobuy, to a business investment aimed at moving their financialdials.

Picture sitting down with the CEO. You would be talking about the impact that the CEO would experience by installing your total solution, the short-term and long-term profitability and that anything less would be a bad business decision. Then picture the incumbent (your competitor) pulling out his credit card to buy the procurement person lunch. Who is in the better position?

4. Be bold!

This is no time to be timid. What’s the worst the customer can say – No? Chances are that is going to happen anyway. Now’s your chance to make a difference. Get outside of your comfort zone. Don’t fear proposing solutions that completely change the way a customer is approaching a business problem or opportunity.

Being bold is asking for a meeting with a C-level executive knowing that you or your company may not have gotten there in the past. Being bold means asking for information that may be closely held, or “typically not provided.” Being bold is communicating a strong point of view even when you know conventional wisdom is against you.

Being bold is a willingness to guarantee an outcome that your competitor will not. Being bold is stating your desire and your ability to deliver profitimprovement and then doing it. That’s what you would do.

  5. Believe

You have to believe in yourself first. Know that you can change the game for your customer and for your company. Know that if you invest the time to become a profit- centered salesperson and succeed in delivering profit improvement, you will differentiate yourself from the incumbent and 95 percent of the salespeople selling to the executives.

Believe in your company, confident that if they experience the profit improvement that comes with sellingeconomic impact, they too will support and invest in you. Finally, believe in your customer. Know that they will reward you for your innovation, perseverance and commitment to improve their profitability.

That is how you beat a strong incumbent!

Bob Rickert