Woe The Digital Sale: To Trash-Talk Or Not?

Editor's Note: This classic Online Publishing Insider was first published March 1, 2012.

Question from a seller: I've been told that my competitors spend a lot of their time on sales calls talking about my products and disputing them. I however, always try to spend my time talking about my products, not my competitors. Should I change my style and just start talking trash about others in the market? Does that work?

Amy says:  Any great seller should know the marketplace in which his offering exists.  Established players like portals, news sites, women’s site etc. have it easy, with full-blown marketing teams who write beautiful slides touting this index or that, putting their audience above the competition and making it so easy for a buyer to say if I want reach, site X is the best -- but if I want composition, I should buy site Y.

So you must focus on the intangibles to make your sale.  If you lack quantitative data points to provide that what you are doing will work, how can you convince a buyer to test your property?  Keep in mind that a buyer has more intimate knowledge of your competition.  Price differences are seemingly random, so be prepared to discuss why your offering is justified at a higher rate.  What are your inventory sources, are they exclusive partnerships or on an exchange up for grabs for anyone?  It’s not so much that you need to trash-talk the competition, but more that you understand the business you are in and how your offering is positioned against the competition.



For example, there are a gazillion new mobile ad networks that reach out to me on any given week.  When I read the email pitch, if nothing sounds different, it makes me wonder if talking to that person is worth my time.  Fragmentation is an unstoppable force, across media choices for consumers and for buyers.  Good sellers need to find a unique way to articulate their own value proposition.

 I’m not sure, though, that your value proposition should come at the expense of your competitors’ reputation. If your pitch is that the other guy doesn’t know what he is doing or can’t be trusted, that says more about you as a sale person than the competitive company.  It’s not like this kind of information can really be verified.  And don’t forget: birds of a feather flock together.  If the other guy is doing something wrong, how are you proving that your company is not also doing that wrong thing?  It makes more sense to talk about the common issues that everyone in the category faces and how your business model addresses those challenges.

Ask buyers about their experiences and let them tell you where your competition has been lacking.  What are the buyer’s pain points -- and then say how you can be helpful to make sure those things aren’t going to happen if they bring business to you.  Keep it positive and demonstrate how your company is innovating and addressing problems everyone faces.  Buyers will be more likely to support something they can believe in, versus partnering with the least of the evils in a new segment that is still working out the kinks.

Jason, how can sellers take the high road among potential bad actors?

Jason says: While at the playground with my kids recently, I heard a response that might be helpful upon hearing a buyer mention a competitor. Here goes: "They are poopyheads." Has a nice ring to it. However, you may need to elaborate. The situation comes up often enough that the proper response needs to be taught and practiced. Let's apply the opposite test. For instance, “I want to have a business that has high revenue and high margins." Well, does anyone ever say the opposite? No. A friend says, “I just want to find a partner who’s smart, funny, and attractive.” Are there people who ask for an alternative to that? In the same vein, every company leads in some way with the notion that they are providing the best value, a better or more efficient process, a new way, etc.

Certainly, they may start a new business seeing that no other company is doing something the right way, and that's fine. It's a market opportunity. However, when you go into a situation pitching your services, it is imperative that you lead with your benefits and not with others' shortcomings. In practice, that makes complete sense.

In reality, sometimes the dark side creeps in. When a buyer mentions that he might be happy with the product or service that a competitor is providing or a seller feels that they are not winning the battle, at the moment of truth, it may seem easier to knock down an existing wall than build your own. Now, that is unseemly. Yet, we know it occurs often.

In the old days, things were simpler. One could argue about the quality of the newspaper or television program vs. the competition -- but that was very subjective. However, if things were up for analytical discussion, it generally revolved around the interpretation of audience numbers. Now, there are much deeper technical situations to address. And the discussion points deal with murkier topics that are not easily proven right or wrong.

I asked my friend and industry veteran, Mark Westlake, Chief Revenue Officer at Tech Media Network, what happens when his company hears about a competitor speaking negatively to a client. “We try to understand from the client why the competition is talking about our products -- and if they believe them,” he said. “Usually the competition is speaking negatively because they have nothing good left to say about their own product!"

I agree with Mark (we also agree that drinking expensive Scotch is a noble pursuit). I’d add that all buyers should do two things when hearing a negative comment from a seller: 1) Ask the mudslinger for proof that there ‘s something wrong. The onus should not fall solely on the sling-ee to defend themselves from an unsolicited swipe; and 2) Bring the complaint to the affected party. Allow the person who’s being besmirched to hear what is being said, and by whom.

Of course, this applies to above-board business rhetoric and hyperbole. I asked revenue legend and current CRO of Triad Retail Media, Brian Quinn, for his advice. “First, ask the client if they agreed with any of what was said, and address concerns. I may also call the competitor's sales head and tell him/her to cut the crap.” (Note to all of you, please don’t cross Mr. Quinn).

In general, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. And if someone is talking trash, I find that a properly delivered, "I know you are, but what am I?" works wonders.

2 comments about "Woe The Digital Sale: To Trash-Talk Or Not?".
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  1. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, March 1, 2012 at 2:08 p.m.

    Sales calls are so hard to get and you have such limited time on them when they do occur, so spending any time talking about your competition is time that could have been spent talking about how your property can uniquely help solve the client's problem.

    As always, Jason & Amy your insights are spot on...

  2. Leslie Laredo from The Laredo Group, October 17, 2014 at 5:04 p.m.

    I would take a proactive approach..., " Before we start, I do want to mention that it has come to my attention that some of our competitors are spending a lot of time downplaying our company so I guess they feel threatened. Because we take a "high road" to addressing competitive situations, I have a competitive analysis that I will leave with you so we can use our time on more important aspects of applying how our products perform and address why they will support your campaign objectives."

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