How to Knock the Competition without Ever Having to Say You’re Sorry

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“Never knock the competition!”

This popular admonishment emerged in the early stone age, and it has enjoyed a long life, immune to skepticism and philosophical challenge. Today, the aphorism is stultifying, causing salespeople to keep an important rhetorical arrow in the quiver, so to speak. In these hyper-competitive times, I recommend not an overhaul, but a tweak. Just add a single word at 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 associations people make with knocking. Among them, unfairness, rule breaking, dishonesty, and disrespect. That’s wrong. It's all in the execution.

Some overcome their dissonance by saying that when facts are being presented, it’s not knocking. Ahhh. But let’s not quibble over semantics. I have an article to finish. We can discuss the finer points over beers, after everyone has been vaccinated. In the meantime, I’m sticking with my definition. When performed thoughtfully and carefully, 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 patent mendacity to speculation to unassailable fact.

Do salespeople even need to knock their competitors? Some already do – and they do a damn good job of it!  In virtually every opportunity, salespeople must showcase their company’s strengths and advantages. Some simply “throw spaghetti at the wall” in search of what sticks. But experienced salespeople promote benefits more strategically, juxtaposing them to a competitor’s known flaws, shortcomings, weaknesses, and yes, skeletons wanting out of 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.”
  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 about the competitor that 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 fact check your assertions, and stick to unassailable information, 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 discredit you. Therefore, make sure your customer knock stands on its own.

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

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