Always Ask About Competitors

By: Linda Richardson | 2003-04-17

Sometimes you can get so caught up in learning about the client's needs and so excited by your own enthusiasm for your solution, that you can miss asking about the competition even if the client mentions "competitors." Although you can, you may not want to ask about the competitor the minute the client brings it up, but you must get back to it.

Whether or not the client raises the issue of competitors, it is VITAL that as the salesperson, you ask about competitors. Many salespeople are hesitant to ask. Some are concerned it is inappropriate. Others may not want to hear what could be bad news. But most, it seems, just are not disciplined to make it a critical part of their sales dialogue. Of course, there are a small percentage of clients who will not disclose who the competitors are and, for those, a simple acknowledgement ("I can understand") and moving on works well. You often can try again to get competitive data by saying, "I know you don't want to share names, how does… (your idea) compare to what else you are hearing?"

Much of the time in most sectors, if you ask, clients will tell you about competitors in real depth. You will gain very important information that will let you plan a competitive strategy and best position your solution/recommendation.

To learn about your competitors:

Time it

  • Don't ask too soon in the meeting. Identify client's objective, needs, current situation, etc., first.
  • Ask about the competitors before you position what you offer.
  • Preface your competitive question with a client benefit ("To help me understand the approaches you are considering, can you tell me who else you are talking to?").
  • After you ask about the client's criteria is often a good time to ask about the competitors.
  • When the client mentions the competitor, you have a perfect opportunity to probe the topic.

    Probe it
  • Acknowledge what the client says.
  • Once you learn who the competitor is, ask for details ("What is their approach?" "What are they offering?" "How do you feel about it?" Most importantly after you position your ideas, ask, "How do you feel we compare?"). Drill down to gain specifics. Find out who the competition has met with, what the relationship is, and what they are offering.
  • As you ask questions you will gain very important competitive data for this and other sales.
  • Ask other contacts in the organization for their perspective on the competition to get multiple views. (Once a salesperson was told by one of her contacts that her experience with the company's top competitor would be a detriment to her being selected. She learned, just in time, from two other decision makers that, in fact, her relationship with the prospect's competitor was a big advantage - one she used to win!
  • Tread gently if the customer is reluctant.

    Offset it
  • Know your competitors but never denigrate them. To point out competitive weaknesses, ask questions that strike at the competitor's weakness. For example, if you know the competitor has poor distribution capabilities, ask about that and then position your capabilities to highlight your advantage. Sometimes you can raise a point that the customer has not previously considered about the competitor. Always ask your client for feedback on what you have positioned.

    The most compelling reason to ask about the competition is to give you the information you need to create a competitive strategy to help you win deals. Asking about competitors also provides you with competitive data critical not only to your deal, but to your organization.

    Remember, just knowing who the competitors are is not enough. As you debrief the call, ask yourself - Who are the competitors? How do my offerings stack up? How does the client feel about them? How does the client feel about the competition compared to how they feel about my company? No matter who the competitor is, don't be crestfallen. Don't make the assumption that you can't compete. Don't underestimate yourself. Remain confident. Ask questions. Get specifics. Get the competitive information you need to differentiate your offering and win.

    About the Author: Linda Richardson: President and CEO of Richardson, training consultants to corporations, banks, and investment banks globally. Richardson has 110 professionals, 15 regional offices in the United States, and presence in London, Australia, Singapore, Latin America, and Asia. Clients of Richardson include KPMG, Federal Express, General Mills, Tiffany & Co., Dell Computer, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Citibank, Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, and Kinko's. Visit