“Never knock the competition!”

The admonishment emerged in the early stone age, and it has enjoyed a long life, immune to skepticism and philosophical challenge. Unfortunately, this once-useful wisdom has become stultifying to salespeople, causing them keep an important arrow in the quiver, so to speak. I recommend a refresh.  Our hyper-competitive times require adding just a single word to the end: “Never knock the competition stupidly.”

Knocking the competition is a selling skill, as essential as establishing rapport, qualifying opportunities, and closing the deal. Telling a salesperson to never knock a competitor makes as much sense as telling them not to be “too salesy” when they’re paid commission and the word Sales is in their job title.

Knocking the competition can be defined as any statement intended to diminish a competitor’s appeal to a prospective customer. The operative word here is intended. Done wrong – as it often is –  knocking the competition can backfire, explaining why it has been roundly pummeled as a sales tactic. The bad rap also comes from the fact that some people associate knocking with unfairness, not “playing by the rules” and dishonest behavior. That’s wrong.

Some overcome their dissonance by saying that when facts are being presented, it’s not knocking. Ahhh. But let’s not get hung up on semantics. I have an article to finish. We can discuss the finer points over a beer after everyone has been vaccinated. In the meantime, I’m sticking with my definition. When performed with planning and insight, knocking the competition is a vital part of the salesperson’s arsenal.

How might prospective customers perceive these competitive knocks? You be the judge:

  • “Our meantime between failures (MTBF) was independently benchmarked as 30% better than [competitor X].
  • “Our advantage is that we’re a much smaller company than [competitor X]. That means we get much closer to our customers.”
  • “I don’t know much about the [competitor X]. They’re new to this industry.”
  • “Someone told me their CEO was accused of bullying staff at his previous company.”
  • “Not everybody knows this, but [Competitor X] secretly builds all its products in offshore factories with child labor.”

Evident in this small sampling is that competitor-knocking can stretch from outright mendacity to speculation to unassailable fact.

Do salespeople even need to knock their competitors? Many already do – and they likely do a damn good job of it!  In virtually every opportunity, salespeople must accentuate their company’s strengths and advantages. Some simply “throw spaghetti at the wall” to test what sticks. But experienced salespeople promote benefits more strategically, by juxtaposing them with a competitor’s known flaws, shortcomings, weaknesses, and yes, skeletons in the closet. All is fair in love and selling.

Knocking competitors can be especially advantageous when:

  1. the prospect has shared that they perceive all solutions as “pretty much the same.” A fundamental mission for salespeople is to identify meaningful differences between their products, and clearly contrast them to competitive offerings.
  2. the prospect has specifically requested competitive comparisons.
  3. the prospect has provided the salesperson clear specifications about their needs, concerns, and expectations.
  4. the salesperson has information could be important to the prospect, but might not be easily discoverable. For example, a regulatory action against the competitor, or the recent loss of a key customer account.

When knocking competitors, some important do’s and don’ts:

Do stick to unassailable fact, such as independent survey findings, and benchmarking by third-party testing laboratories and government agencies.

Do share information that your customer can independently verify.

Do make sure the customer knock is relevant. Does it really matter that years ago, the competitor’s CEO was an alleged bully?

Do strategically select the appropriate situation to knock your competitors. The first meeting might not be the best time.

Do align your strengths against your competitor’s vulnerabilities.

Do demonstrate respect for competitors. That doesn’t mean don’t knock them, just make sure you’re doing it without a hint of derision.

Don’t spread rumors and hearsay. Keep scuttlebutt to yourself until it becomes fact.

Don’t give information that is restricted, to be held in confidence, or that violates a Non-disclosure agreement.

Don’t pile on. If a prospect shares negativity about a competitor, there’s no need to amplify it.

Don’t “lead with your chin.” Leave your competitor’s dirty laundry out of the conversation if your company has the same stinky clothes.

Don’t give your competitor an opening to turn the knock back on you. Assume that your competitor will get wind of your claim. If given a chance, they will make every effort to discredit you.

Knocking competitors is an invaluable selling skill. One that requires situational awareness, thought and constant practice. Done right, no apologies are needed.