It’s tempting. Can you just come out and say you’re the best, without look self-serving? Can you point out a weakness in your competitor without it looking like bragging or mud-slinging? And if the client really needs to know something less-than-perfect about the competitor: can you point it out?
I rarely cite politicians in this blog, but one piece of received political wisdom works in business too: if you’re in the lead, don’t debate the challenger.
Politics offers another lesson too: mud-slinging poisons the well. Negative campaigning works–in the short run. In the not-very long run, it doesn’t work for anybody, including the slinger and the public. No wonder politicians rank so low in trust.
Business has focused in recent decades heavily on competition. Try completing this sentence: “The purpose of a company is to…” Way too many people are channeling Ayn Rand these days, by saying “…make money.”
Peter Drucker, esteemed business guru, finished it this way: “…create and serve customers.” Drucker is still respected, but more quoted than acted upon.
In selling, there has always been this tension between a focus on competition and on customers. Is winning a byproduct of customer focus? Or is winning the goal, and customer focus simply a means to the greater end of winning?
Consider romantic relationships: is the best strategy for seeking a partner to disparage his/her other suitors? Or to focus on your intended? I vote for number 2.
True Client Focus
You may be thinking, “Don’t I have an obligation to politely show my client how we’re right and they’re wrong?”
Well, what does the client hear when you disparage a competitor? Of course, they may hear what you intend—that on some important dimension, you are better. But there is collateral damage.
They will also hear “These folks are focused on winning, not on helping me. How do I know I can trust their critique? What are they not telling me? It’s my job, not theirs, to make the judgment. Should I give the competitor a second chance to explain? Why are they sticking me in the middle of a technical dispute?
Be careful also of thinking, “I’m not mud-slinging. I’m being professional, objectively pointing out important risks. I’m helping them.”
Too bad motives aren’t everything. Motives won’t change those unspoken client questions. The more you insist how clean your motives are, the more they’re suspect.
The Long Term is Not So Long Anymore
Reputations spread like wildfire on the web. Worse yet, reputations are no longer based on carefully crafted positioning statements, but on suddenly-public daily corporate life.
Non-marketing actions issues like customer service, lead screening, purchasing processes–and comments about competitors–are suddenly driving brand image.
He who tells a lie gets known as a liar. He who slings mud gets known as a mud-slinger—much faster, and much more broadly, than ever before. What goes around comes around—just a lot faster.
Be careful what you wish for: you may (or may not) win the particular argument, but you will definitely create a lasting impression—and not a good one.
The Good News in Leaving Competitors Alone
The good news is the ‘right’ thing to do is increasingly looking like the smart thing to do. Focusing on your client, that is. When trust in businesses is declining, those who act in a trustworthy manner differentiate themselves. And isn’t that what you wanted?
So how do you differentiate yourself in a sales presentation? Stop asking that question: focus on the client in front of you.
Differentiation is not about what you say about others: it’s about who you reveal yourself to be.