Experience teaches that when you badmouth someone else, you’re actually saying more about yourself than you are about them. And when it comes to competitors, this is especially true. They may be lazy, dishonest, incompetent, and sundry other unpleasant things, in your estimation, but you won’t gain points in a sales call telling a homeowner about it. In the age of online research, you can believe that yours is not the only company that your homeowner prospect has looked into, and yours are not the only reviews they’ve read. If they haven’t actually set an appointment with a company you compete with, the homeowners may be thinking about doing so, depending on what you put forward as the solution to their home improvement wants and needs.
Seth Godin, at LinkedIn, puts it well. In many selling situations, the competition is “the elephant in the room.” It’s what prospects are thinking about, but aren't necessarily mentioning. So do you bring it up? That’s a matter of choice. “In some corporate sales cultures,” Godin writes, “it’s taboo to mention a competitor. Other sales professionals consider competitor insights and ‘educating’ the customer a key part of their sales strategy. Both approaches have merit.” Let’s start with the argument for the Let’s Not Mention It approach. The downside of discussing your competition, says Mark Hunter, a veteran salesperson, author, and frequent speaker on that subject, is that it impugns your own integrity. The negativity you’re introducing can result in the prospect preceiving you as weak and lacking confidence. Hunter also points out that if you make a habit of trashing the competition, you can wind up starting a war of words in which all competitors lose. The negativity will swiftly escalate to toxic levels, coming to resemble ads for a political campaign in the peak of election season.
View From the High Road
OK, but what if you know for a fact that your competitor is a scammer or does poor-quality work? What if, for instance, you’ve been called in to correct something that this company did wrong—a roof failing in three years, say—because they refused to fix it? Now they’re underbidding your proposal with the intention of slamming the homeowner with change orders. It’s still smart to shut up about the competition, say some sales experts such as author Bob Burg, who points out that there’s little way to change a homeowner’s mind if they’ve already got a strong opinion on the subject. “If your prospect has already talked to your scammer competitor (and they like him or her),” he says, “how do you think it will come across if you say, ‘Oh, that person is a scam artist and if you’re not careful they’ll rip you off big-time!’” And what if you hear, from the prospect, that the competitor is bad-mouthing you? Now the temptation to fire back is compelling. But there’s a more effective way to handle it, according to the website SalesPractice.com, where a forum participant “Houston” has this to say on the topic: “One thing I wouldn't do is reciprocate. If the remarks come up when you're with a prospect, set the story straight and move on with what you're doing.”
More Than Two Choices
But if the prospect is strongly leaning toward a competitor, he or she may be looking to you for a reason to decide otherwise. In that case, if you ignore the competition, you’re pretty much finished. The blog SalesEngine.com makes the point that there are more than just the two dead-end paths of totally ignoring the competition or slamming them up and down. “Salespeople,” the writer argues, “should always be prepared to talk about their competitors' strengths, not weaknesses.” The advantage in acknowledging your competitors’ strengths, he says, is that 1) you gain credibility by being aware of that, 2) you demonstrate a knowledge of the overall market, 3) you position yourself as trusted advisor vs. a partisan for one cause and one cause only, your own.
And what if your customers are asking? What if they’re pushing for information about your competitors? Of course, if you do talk about the competition, you need to do so strategically. While acknowledging that she goes with the “never, ever bad-mouth competitors” school of thought, Colleen Francis advises that if prospects push, acknowledge the competition (for example, “I can tell you that we see a lot of them in this marketplace and they’re a strong player,”) before bringing the conversation back to the strength of your own company’s position (such as, “The reason customers choose to do business with us is because ________”).
Keep your comments about competitors as general as possible, Francis says. “Anytime you say something specific about a competitor’s products or features there’s an automatic risk that what you’re telling your customer is wrong,” she writes. “And worse, if your client knows more about the competitor than you do, they’ll spot the mistake and it’ll hurt your reputation.” But in an age when homeowners do a lot of research before they ever talk with you, it’s likely that they know who else is in the market, and they may ask you to comment or invite such comment by remarking that they’ve been in touch with the competitor, or are seeing the competitor. Blogger Darrin Fleming, at Roi-selling.com argues that, “If the customer asks a direct question about your competition, keep it short and steer the conversation back to the areas where you believe your solution is superior.” Point out, he says, ways in which your company can save the customer time or money or can provide a superior experience.
How to Be the Standout
Ultimately, your homeowner prospect will see your company not because of how great you are but because of what you can do for them. If your sales presentation is all about the homeowner and what the homeowner wants/needs, you can be fairly certain that, in the mind of the prospect, you’re already differentiating yourself from potential competitors, whose pitch will be self-referencing, self-serving, self-congratulating. Give homeowners the information they need to make a smart choice, understanding that that choice will likely be your company. Competitive differentiation, says sales blogger Jill Konrath, comes from “helping your prospect make a decision.” Explain to prospects how they might best decide which company to use. They may be a bit taken aback. But, she says, “you’ve differentiated yourself already … because of your focus on helping—not selling. And in a world of copycat products and services, that’s how you really stand out from the crowd.”