Competing with an Incumbent

A reader writes, "Recently, one of my best sales reps lost a deal we thought was a sure thing. She knew who we were competing against, and was told that our company was the first choice among all of them. After delivering the bad news, the decision maker informed her that he had decided to stay with the current provider. How could we have seen this coming?"

What was the decision maker thinking, right? During meetings, he complained incessantly about the existing solution! He met with vendors, sat in on product demos, read your proposals and negotiated on price. Why would he expend all that time and effort just to stay with the same provider?

Faulty Assumptions

Even top-notch salespeople sometimes confuse a decision makers venting about the shortcomings of a current provider with a firm decision to stop doing business with them. These reps know their product / service might not get selected, but they feel certain a new vendor will get the nod.

In the process, reps forget the biggest potential obstacle to successfully closing a sale - a customer choosing to stay with the product or service they already have -- the status quo. Despite all the complaining, it is almost always easier for a company to stay with the current vendor.

Understand the Status Quo

To avoid this disaster, when interviewing potential clients reps need to include questions that uncover what they like about their current solution such as:

  • Tell me about your existing system.
  • How did you go about choosing it?
  • What set it apart from all the others?
  • What is your business relationship with that company like today?
  • What do you like about the system?
  • What about it still meets your needs?
  • If you had it to do over again, would you still select this product / company?  

These inquiries lead to an understanding of the prospects overall feelings about the product or service and the provider. Reps come away with solid information on how their company stacks up against and compares to what the customer uses today.

Leave the Key Question until Last

Those reps serious about closing sales will not be shy asking the most critical question of all:

What are the chances that you will stay with the product / service / solution that you already have?

They listen carefully to the decision maker's response. Any hint that the present provider will be considered along with all other vendors poses a giant red flag. Taking the business away may prove difficult.

Only the bravest, most money-motivated reps will make this inquiry. Why? Time is money and they're wasting it with a prospect that isn't ready to move on from their current vendor. The best reps want to extricate themselves from an unproductive situation and meet other, potentially stronger prospects.

The Incumbent has a Built-in Advantage

The current provider enjoys a built-in advantage over any competitor. They have a relationship with their client (your prospect) and will fight hard to maintain it. Having the client take their business elsewhere could mean losing revenue from service contracts or supplies.

Complaints that you've listened to from the decision maker have undoubtedly been heard many times over by the current provider too. No doubt they're busy trying to address those concerns. Subtly or not, they're reminding the customer at every turn about the expense and pain of switching companies altogether.

Sales reps that focus exclusively on the competition do only part of their job. Equal time should be devoted to learning about what the decision maker already uses. By including the status quo in customer discussions, they get a far more realistic picture of their ability to close the deal.