Written by Steve Gielda, Principal – Ignite Selling

Many people in selling know at this point it is important to get inside your customer’s head – to think as your customer thinks. We cannot think about our offering, talk about our offering, present our offering and be successful selling our offering to clients across the board. We need to be thinking about our client’s industry, trends, needs, problems and opportunities from their point of view.

It is also important to think like your competitor. Your strength is their weakness, your opportunity their threat, and vice versa. The strategic approach you take with these strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats ought to be weighed carefully against what your competition is also trying to do. If you want to emphasize your strength, they want to hide a weakness. If you want to offset a threat, they are trying to capitalize on an opportunity.

We recommend using a competitive analysis tool to first prioritize the selection criteria which are considered important by your customer. The next step is to evaluate the areas in which you are considered to have an advantage over the competing alternatives. You are looking for the relationship between the importance to the client and your strength compared to your competition.

The greatest challenge when it comes to our strengths is holding our ground. One of the most common traps sellers fall into is complacency. With regard to strengths, it’s acting as though a customer’s opinion will not shift or change over time. Remember, the competition is looking to displace us, to erode our strengths, or offset them with strengths of their own.

Emphasizing our strengths by continuously “reselling” them to the customer is one approach. Most salespeople default to this approach because they are comfortable touting what they are good at. Who is not? The downside risk in this approach is human nature. We tend to discount the self-praise of others; it is well crafted and scripted. Not only do we discount it, we might even be offended. Over-selling your strengths may have counter-productive effects.

What would your competitors do?
What would your competitors attempt to do with regard to your competitive strengths? Some might attempt to discredit you. To what result? Well, how do you feel about politicians who attempt to discredit their opponents or product manufacturers who talk badly about their competitors?

Another approach is to persuade the customer to want the strength less – that is, to make the selection criterion less important, especially when compared to areas where their company is strong. Sometimes this is called overtaking, which amounts to substituting one criterion for another on their ranking scale.

When faced with a situation of a customer criteria that is not in your favor, you can use questioning techniques to explore the situation. “Why is that so important to you?” And, “What could some of the consequences be if…?” These types of questions reinforce in the customer’s mind the idea of the importance of criteria where you are strong. Getting the customer to articulate the rationale is important for several reasons. The first, and perhaps most important reason, has to do with an old selling proverb: “If you say it, they can doubt it; but if they say it, it’s true.” The second reason questioning works has to do with ownership. When the customer expresses the rationale – when they specify why they want what they want – it is in their own words. Therefore they own it. They are then more possessive of it and are better able to communicate the rationale to others (to explain or defend it, if needed).

Those criteria which the customer sees as important, but where you are at a comparative disadvantage to your competition, are considered weaknesses. The challenge in dealing with a weakness is that it’s difficult to make a customer care less about something that they feel strongly about. Have you ever tried to tell someone on the opposite side of the political aisle to let go of their favorite issues? To care about them less? How did that go?

It is often possible to influence, or redefine, criterion to be in your favor. For example. often times price is a selection consideration. It is often possible to get someone to consider the “total cost of ownership” in place of simple price. However, this questioning and influence must be done cautiously. I recommend you test the willingness of your customer to look at things in a different light, otherwise you risk alienating them.

Another approach to dealing with a weakness is to alter how importantly the criterion is regarded by the customer. However, let us restate a grand caveat. If a customer has determined that something is important, it will almost always be difficult to make them think otherwise. Unfortunately, that is our challenge here: persuade them to care less than they say they do.

A third approach is to persuade them that you are stronger than they realize. Or, you could simply strengthen your offering. Unfortunately, we all have weaknesses, and our customers generally know what they are. If the customer believes you’re weak in one area, and they are correct, then you have one option: change the criterion’s importance. If the customer is wrong about you, and you’re actually better at something than they believe, then it is about changing that perception and providing evidence to support the position.

Our goal here is to see ourselves very openly and candidly in comparison to our competitors strengths. Having open conversations internally on this topic can help in doing an accurate competitive analysis. The more open and accurate the conversations and the analysis, the better.