Selling Competitively: Trash-Talk Is Trash
Last week’s column by Amy Auerbach and Jason Krebs addressed a common issue that every publisher, online or off, faces: how to sell “competitively.”
There are really two issues here: How and when to sell “offensively” against a competitor -- and how to “play defense” when a competitor is trashing you in sales calls.
I’ve worked in some very competitive environments: Decades ago, selling House Beautiful against competitors House & Garden and Metropolitan Home, and more recently in the digital space, when Kaboose.com (since purchased by Disney) was competing with Disney, iVillage, Meredith baby properties and Café Mom. Salespeople look for every edge they can to win business, so inevitably we’d hear about trash talking in the market.
Playing “defense” in sales is really not complicated. First, we should remind ourselves that when a client or prospect tells us negative feedback from the market, we should be glad. Better we hear about it than not.
One of the first steps a salesperson can take toward relationship building is to teach prospects it’s OK to voice an “objection.” If we don’t hear objections, if they remain hidden, we can’t address them, and they can do damage.
When a client or prospect passes on a negative comment, we should treat it like any other objection. We need to acknowledge it, determine how important it is to the buyer before addressing it. Then, after answering, we must determine if we have addressed the issue to our prospect’s satisfaction.
A good thing to keep in mind here is that when you speak about your own property in a sales situation, you are generally considered the authority. You’re believable when you are talking about the things about which you SHOULD be most knowledgeable.
Think of the trust you have from a buyer like a glass of milk. It starts out half full, and as you deliver well-thought-out, and relevant information to them about their market and how your property performs, your trust from the client grows and your “glass of trust-milk” fills up.
However, when you begin talking about a competitor, your buyer’s distrust antenna perks up, and if you denigrate the competition, your glass full of trust-milk springs a leak and begins to drain. Buyers don’t disbelieve everything negative you say about a competitor, but they certainly take it with a grain of salt. The more negative talk, the more leakage from the “glass full of trust.”
Now you may be saying to yourself, my property is better than my competitor’s and I should be getting more business. How can I sell against my competitor if, when I talk about them, I lose credibility?
There is a two-part answer to that. First, your job as a salesperson is to be more than an expert on your property. To be the best, you must be an expert on the market you serve. That market is also the very market the advertiser sells to. You will build your personal credibility and the trustworthiness and recognition of your brand if you bring value to the conversation about the client’s market, marketing problems and opportunities every time you interact with them.
The best practices in media sales are to focus the beginning of the conversation on the client’s market and marketing needs. When you have successfully added some value to the client in this way, you can then reasonably use publicly verifiable facts to compare your property to others.
Competitively, the winning approach is to establish buying criteria at the beginning of the conversation that favors your property over your competition. If you have done a good job at the beginning of the conversation, establishing what should be important to the client and why, then you can provide perspective on those criteria -- competitive comparisons -- without damaging your own reservoir of trust.
When competitors attack your property by name, it can only be the result of their own fear and lack of better things to talk about, as well as an acknowledgment of your own strengths. Never lower yourself to their level. Always take the high road.
Complimenting your competitor to a buyer may actually build the trust you need to be successful. Then, when you can show side-by-side comparisons of your property vs. competitor using publicly available (verifiable) information, you are still adding value to the sales conversation. I think of this approach as the sophisticated sales equivalent of the maxim “Speak softly but carry a big stick.”