How to talk about your competitors

Ever heard a salesperson or founder smack-talk their competition? Kinda feels like Silicon Valley Mean Girls, right? Yep - sounds something like this:

FMLSoft? Yeah, it’s nothing like what we do. It’s totally half-baked, and they don’t give a shit at all about their customers. I actually met their founder once, he was a real ass. And he kicked a dog as he walked away.

If you don’t hear that last sentence unprovoked, press it enough and you’ll usually hear it emerge: the real source of the hate. And for those of you that are thinking, “Nah, I don’t do this… maybe just a little, but not that bad” — fine. But you still need to think about where the bitterness is coming from.

When people bash competitors, what’s going on?

Insecurity. Pure and simple.

Some of the biggest insecurities I’ve noticed are personal grudges. The most common way I see these come up is when a person’s first thought about a Competitor company is the people they dislike who work there (including the founders). This inevitably shows when they’re asked about said competitor: the hate flows, and focuses on their grudge, not on what’s relevant to the prospect, who is doing the asking.

The prospect’s internal reaction?

Wow — that sounds heavy. And also, I don’t give a shit at all about these guys’ gripes. Get me out of here, I’m not interested in coming between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Clear that hate from yourself, and force yourself to recognize that sometimes, you can be an asshole too — and you’re probably exaggerating a lot of your negative opinions about this company, even to yourself. People aren’t perfect, and you’re no angel.

This doesn’t apply to legitimate ethical issues, but here’s the way to bring those up:

FMLSoft? Yeah, on the whole great people who work there, have met several and they’re solid folks. Feature-wise, we definitely overlap in a lot of ways! More unfortunately, and I’m not sure if you heard about this, but they’ve had a lot of key people leave recently — hard to know if you can believe what’s on Glassdoor, but the COO’s leadership was given as the reason for many of those departures. Can never be sure, but that certainly gave me pause when I read it. I admit, it echoed my own thoughts when I met him in person several months ago.

Here’s the difference...

It’s okay to bring up negatives, but it should be clear that you are only doing so in order to give a complete and honest opinion, and that if you left the negatives out, you would be giving incomplete information. Stick with that mentality, and you’ll be better-able to give a fair assessment. It’s impossible to remove all bias, but do what you can.

The next big form of insecurity I encounter often when working with salespeople as well as leaders is insecurity about your product: a refusal to acknowledge that a Competitor’s product is any good, or does any of the things that yours does. If you take this too far, you’re probably guilty of over-exaggeration, and your prospect will sense this and mistrust you. And they’d be right to.

Here’s a paraphrased conversation I had with a friend recently:

Man, I really just need to get out there and eat FMLSoft’s lunch if we’re going to survive. We lost a couple really solid deals last week to them — I’m worried.

I was taken aback: the two products are completely different. Sure, they’re both options to consider initially for people who are, broadly speaking, considering different ways to increase revenue at the early stage — but they operate in entirely different ways. Theirs is a software, yours is a SaaS+Service; theirs offers no help with crafting messaging, yours does; theirs costs $800/mo, yours costs $6000/mo. One is a cool software, the other is a full-service solution that could take the place of a full-time position.

So why worry?

If a potential buyer truly understood the competing solutions in enough detail, aren’t the options different enough that only one of the two would be the right choice?

And if so, isn’t it better to simply be completely transparent and help buyers understand their options in full, so they can come to the conclusion that your product is the one they should use of their own accord?

Here’s the hard part. The corollary is that, if you’re transparent about the options and confident in the value of your product, you need to be prepared to tell a buyer that a competitor’s product — not yours — is where they should go, and calmly walk away from the sale.

Not many people can do that, but if you can, it sets you apart from the kind of salesperson that bleeds bias and emotional over-involvement with every word.

When I was the Director of Sales @ inDinero, a software/service accounting hybrid solution, we sometimes appeared to compete with Bench.co, a similar product. In my opinion, we were never competitors, IF you knew enough about each product. Most of Bench.co’s customers were companies that were really too small to see much value in inDinero, and many of inDinero’s best customers were the kind of companies that needed more than Bench.co’s business model was set up to provide.

Here’s how I coached my sales reps:

There’s no need to talk about Bench in comparison to inDinero. In fact, the people there are great, and you should lead with a genuine compliment when discussing them. Instead, put the focus back on the buyer: talk about what kind of companies are a great fit for Bench.co, and what kind are a great fit for us. Then, just work with the buyer to locate where they are on the spectrum. It should never be about “who’s better”, but all about “what’s right for the buyer”. Plus, they’ll come to their own decision this way, without any pushing or persuading.

And guess what: Bench.co’s reps did the same thing. We worked together sometimes, traded referrals when it was appropriate, and there was no bad blood.

Our sales reps were able to develop more of an unbiased, help-people-first attitude, which made them great relationship managers. It pushed them to simply be masters of the industry product knowledge, since they knew they could rely on that knowledge to get to a “Yes” or “No” as quickly as possible during the sales process.

When it comes to talking about competitors, I’ll sum it up like this:

Let the best product win.

With good enough coaching skills, and a good enough underlying product, there should never be a need to ‘bash’ a competitor. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good sales.