Who’s your competition?  Ask a newly minted sales rep that question and they’re likely to pull out a chart with a list of several products and features neatly organized into columns with checks and circles.  Of course there will be checks next to their product and lots of blank boxes next to the other options.  When you control the points of comparison, it’s relatively easy to look good.  “We’ve got it and they don’t.  You ready to sign a PO?”

But a sheet with check boxes and columns misses one of the key points of sales:  your primary competition isn’t other companies.  It’s convincing people to do something rather than nothing.  Doing something involves risk and people are inherently risk averse.

For an illustration of how hard it can be to effect change, take a look at our government.  We elect people to represent us in Congress and hope they make decisions that will improve the country. It’s their job to “buy” new ideas that have a tangible return on investment — and, in turn, win the approval of their constituents.  Here’s a rather sobering stat from (discovered via @bensaren and his blog)

There are 5,235 bills and resolutions currently before the United States Congress. Of those, only about 5% will become law.

Yikes.  That’s bleak.  Imagine this same sentence restated in the context of a business:  “There are currently 5,235 ideas that someone in this company thinks will help us become more competitive.  We’ll shuffle our feet and debate the merits of each and eventually choose to pursue only 5%.”

Luckily business isn’t government and managers are typically better at making quicker decisions.  But in many ways, the comparison is appropriate.  Business leaders care about pleasing their constituents. Lack of action is often easier than taking action and then getting criticized for it.

So what do you do?  The key is to make the fear of doing nothing greater than the fear of doing the wrong thing.  Stated another way, your prospect needs to believe that what you’re offering is a sure bet.  They also need to believe that it’s the direction everyone else is going.  Without doing something their company will be left behind.
The first step is to show ROI — how does buying your product either save or make more money?  With this well understood and presented with enough real-world examples, it shows the risk of doing the wrong thing is low. The next step is to prove now is the time to make this decision.  That’s a bit tougher.  It requires you to illustrate a growing trend that is changing the way ALL people are doing business and you’re there to help.  One sales consultant used a great illustration:  Imagine if you’re fast asleep and your spouse woke you up at 2am and said “honey, someone just dropped off a tire in our driveway.”  The natural reaction would be “That’s odd.  I’ll take a look in the morning.”  On the other hand if you spouse woke you up and said “honey, someone is in the driveway and they’re steeling the tire off your car.”  You’d spring out of bed to call the police.  The lesson:  the fear of losing something is more powerful than the pleasure of getting something.

This isn’t to say you need to be heavy handed.  You can say “act now or we’ll shoot this dog” but that’s unlikely to build a strong long-term relationship with your prospect.   The threat needs to be real and it needs to be supported by third-party information. Share a report with them.  Provide links to related articles and studies. Help them see that they aren’t going out on a limb, and in fact, they’re moving in the logical direction.

Take a look at Hubspot as a good example of this type of selling.  They constantly beat the drum about the broader trend of a shift from outbound marketing to inbound marketing.  Inbound may be a term that Hubspot helped coin, but the examples they use aren’t all Hubspot specific.  They show how a coordinated effort of content creation, social media sharing can bring customers to you.  Once you understand this shift is taking place, you’ll be ready to compare Hubspot to competitors.

To summarize, there are two key questions you need to answer when selling:  “Why now?” and “Why you?”  Don’t underestimate the power of the first question. If you can’t convey why your product is needed now, you won’t get the chance to pull out your nifty chart with checks and circles.  You’ll will have already lost the battle with your biggest foe, the status quo.


"Fat Guy doing nothing" image via Wikicommons.