Winning in a Crowded Field
In one of my earlier posts I talked about one reason why you should consider presenting last in a sales cycle: so that you can stand out in a crowded field. This is just one of the strategies that you can apply when you have lots of competition.
The biggest problem with having lots of competitors is not the competitors’ products, it’s the attention of the prospect. Most sales teams have never had the experience of sitting through multiple demonstrations, sifting through piles of RFP responses and having to put your familiar work environment aside for an extended period. But that is exactly what an evaluation team at a prospect goes through in a sales cycle, particularly one where there are lots of vendors on their preferred list.
What do I mean by a crowded field? If you have more than 3-4 competitors on a deal, the field is crowded. When I have been in deals with crowded fields, I have been amazed at just how confused prospects can get about the vendors. I remember one deal where a prospect regularly emailed me questions that were clearly intended for another vendor.
There are several strategies that can help you stand out in a crowded field:
- Have a personality
- Build trust with specific individuals at the prospect
- Focus on your product, not the competition
- Stick with the main message
- Stand out early
- Put yourself in the prospect’s shoes
Often prospects can’t keep all the salespeople from the various vendors straight. Showing a genuine personality during the sales cycle can help the prospect remember you and your product. This is especially true for Sales Engineers who are often expected to give “just the facts”.
It is inevitable that the prospect will get vendors confused in a crowded field, but if you have gone out of your way to build a relationship with a few individuals at the prospect, they can help you stand out in the evalutation. It does not matter whether the individuals are decision-makers or not, but it is helpful if they seem to be vocal. Your goal is to build an advocate or two that will speak up for your viewpoint in discussions.
In some deals it makes sense to set traps and focus on the competition, but this is not the case in a crowded field. The propsect is already confused enough about which vendor said what; you shouldn’t add to that confusion by talking about the competition even in a theoretical way. Focus on your product and how it will directly benefit the prospect.
Sales is all about flexibility and most successful sales cycles will diverge from the standard marketing message (or “brand”) of the product to win the deal. But if there are lots of competitors you should consider staying with your standard corporate message so that all your marketing materials and sales presentations are consistent. Keeping your message clear in the prospect’s mind is more important than tailoring it for that specific prospect when there are lots of competitors. You should absolutely focus on solving the prospect’s problems, but try to do so without moving too far away from your standard marketing message.
If there are many vendors early in a deal, it is tempting to just wait things out and see if you make the short list before investing in a deal. If you really believe you are column fodder then this strategy makes sense, but if you are confident you have a good shot you should come on strong and early. As a Sales Engineer you can do this by having a personality (see #1) and being willing to take risks early in the deal.
More than anything else you should think about what it is like to be the prospect when there are lots of vendors. Often individuals don’t have much choice about how many vendors they evaluate: the number might be set by upper management, company guidelines or one member of the evaluation team. Having empathy for the challenge being faced by the prospect can go a long way toward building a relationship that will help you as the field narrows.