It’s the beginning of Q4 and the heat is on for most B2B sales teams around the world to bag competitive deals before the calendar year ends. It’s crunch time for most sales teams because if they don’t achieve the forecasted sales numbers—they will either get the PIP (performance improvement plan) or the pink slip.
The last quarter of the year is also crucial for B2B buyers because they are at the tail end of the fiscal year to rush through their use-it-or-lose-it procurement budget. As a result, this is a peak season for sales teams operating in overlapping B2B niches to compete tooth and nail with each other to win deals that can improve their bottom line.
In this blog, I’ll share some tips from my 20+ years of sales experience on winning competitive deals, how to set yourself up for it, how to prepare and put your teams in a better position to control the narrative, and more.
How to approach competitive deals
Competitive deals work a little differently from the way a regular deal works. Most sales teams always have two types of deals land in their pipeline:
a) Deals where the prospect is learning about your space for the first time
b) Deals where the prospect is aware of your space and has done a lot of research
The first kind of prospects make it to your pipeline if you have done cold prospecting or extensive outbounding. For such deals, you take a consultative approach. A consultative approach is one where you try to understand what they are trying to solve for, understand why it’s important for them, and then educate them about your product and how it solves their problem.
On the contrary, competitive deals are different. These are deals where the prospect comes into your ecosystem well educated about your product and your competitors. They’ve typically shortlisted 2-3 products including yours for final levels of evaluation.
In such cases, your primary goal is to understand whom you’re competing against, what’s important for your prospect, the rules of the competition, and more.
Let’s look at each of these in detail.
1. Competitive deals are won in the discovery stage
Ask any sales leaders worth their salt and they will tell you—competitive deals are won (or lost) in the discovery stage.
Personalize the discovery call to share and gather as much information as you can to understand what the prospect’s key business metrics are and what success looks like to them.
Once you have a solid understanding of their business environment, align your product—and its value proposition—to what they are looking to accomplish. This basically means establishing the success metrics from the point of view of the prospects, something we will cover at length in the upcoming sections.
For the inbound competitive deals, it’s a little different because their buying intent is proactive. One of the questions you have to find the answer to is: why haven’t the prospects already selected a vendor?
Here’s why asking that question is important.
Every software category has an 800-pound-gorilla software and a lot of other really strong players who might be doing relatively well in that space. The also-ran players in the second category rarely win deals because they are never the prospects’ top picks. In sales, such vendors are known as ‘column fodder’—expendable options that prospects are evaluating for the sake of it, but they aren’t the ideal picks.
You obviously don’t want to be seen as a column fodder if you are trying to bag competitive deals.
To avoid being a dispensable option, you have to understand your prospects’ perception of you. And you do that by asking them, “What’s keeping you from purchasing the software?”
Their answer will help you understand:
a) if you are just a column fodder to the 800-pound-gorilla in the room
b) if there is something that they legitimately like about your product
If their answer hints that they are just looking at you as a column fodder, you need to tweak your demo to make sure you position yourself on par—if not better than—with the category leaders. We will talk about how to do that by humanizing your sales conversation in just a bit. But that’s a topic for another day.
Assuming that your prospect is seriously considering your product, you should be prepared to ask them a couple of more questions.
Here are the questions you might want to ask to understand them better:
- Why do you want to evaluate our product?
- Why us vs. other competing solutions?
- What has changed in your business?
- Who is pushing this initiative in your business that “it has to happen now”?
- What does your evaluation process look like?
Think of this entire process like a sports competition. If you’re going into a sports competition where you will compete against a bunch of other teams, you would want to know the rules of the game, and ensure that the competing teams are playing by the same rules, so that it’s fair and you can put up a good fight.
It’s the exact same thing in software too. You need to understand who the decision-makers are that are going to attend your sales calls.
Make sure that the decision-makers who are attending the software demo for the 800-pound gorilla company, get on your demo call too. This ensures that all players are following the same rules of engagement and that no one has an unfair advantage over you.
2. Controlling the narrative
Controlling the narrative is an art. It’s about taking control of the conversation without making it obvious to the prospects that you’re controlling the conversation.
If you don’t control the narrative from the get-go, you will run into what I call the “fetch mode”—a game where a prospect throws a question at you and you come back with an answer.
The fetching game is a waste of your valuable time because it keeps happening over and over again, you don’t know how long it will last, or if it’s going to give you the outcome you want.
It doesn’t matter what type of deal it is, the last thing you want to do is to play the fetching game with your prospects. Instead, you should try to control the sales process in a way where you know the stakes involved—or the direction the deal is going to take.
At Avoma, we train our reps to address three things the minute they get on a call with a prospect:
- Explain the purpose of the call
- Walk them through the call’s agenda
- Establish the next steps if the call goes well
Once they outline these three things, the reps pause for a second for the prospects to acknowledge the purpose, agenda, and the next steps. Of course, they can ask us to add anything else they want to cover in the call.
The thought process behind controlling the narrative is to steer the conversation in the right direction, set the right expectations, and help the prospects make a decision, rather than just answering the prospects' questions one after another.
In many ways, the idea of controlling the narrative is borrowed from Challenger sales where you understand their prospects' problems based on your discovery, but you also present them with data and facts that they are not aware of, and sometimes be open enough to push back to set the right expectations.
The next step from here is to understand what their evaluation process looks like.
3. Understand the evaluation process
It’s important to figure out their evaluation process to get an understanding of how they think about software evaluation. As a sales rep, one of your jobs is to figure out how the prospect is planning to arrive at their buying decisions.
Most deals fall into two categories:
- Price shoppers who get quotes from different vendors to make a purchase decision
- Prospects who have a defined evaluation process within their organization
When you encounter prospects who fall in the first category—and ask them about their evaluation process—they will usually draw a blank or respond with something along the lines of “I’m here to demo your product.”
And that’s actually a good opportunity for you to control the sales narrative. You can be their guide and walk them through what the evaluation process should look like, how they should arrive at a buying decision, and who they should involve in the process. You should give them the vendor evaluation framework that they can apply to evaluate other vendors.
If you can handhold prospects who don’t have a pre-defined evaluation process, they will view you as a trusted advisor because you are helping them build out an appropriate (and useful) process that they didn’t have. Earning trust goes a long way in closing competitive deals.
Ask yourself: how are they going to look internally in their organization if they buy your software? What will make them look like a hero versus what will make them a failure?
Now what about prospects that have a thought-through evaluation process? Most companies have an evaluation process that roughly looks like this:
- Get demos from different vendors they have shortlisted
- Meet internally to discuss the pros and cons of the products they have demoed
- Narrow the evaluation down to two vendors
- Involve more stakeholders in the evaluation process
- Request another round of deep-dive demos with the two vendors
- Select the product that checks most boxes for them
For such prospects, figuring out the commercials and other terms of engagement may not be a top priority because they are evaluating a solution from an ROI perspective.
When you face such prospects, you should be in a position to stop and think about it and strategically approach each stage of the sales process to ensure a win.
Remember—closing competitive deals is all about getting to the next steps and winning one battle after another to eventually win the war.
4. Align your sales process to their success metrics
At Avoma, we believe that product companies should have a product-led sales-assisted go-to-market motion—especially if you offer a free trial of your product. Our observation is that if you let customers start their trial and play with it, they will follow an unstructured path and may not always make the most out of the free trial.
They will spend most of their time pointing and clicking at everything—wondering how the product works. It’s a wasted opportunity for both you and the prospects.
But if you help the prospects identify and establish clear success metrics, it becomes a lot better for you to communicate and for them to measure the value they can get out of the product. And that’s where the sales-assisted motion comes really handy.
As a sales team, the idea is to reduce friction in the buyer journey. Reaching out to these prospects and understanding what they are trying to achieve is a great place to start. You want to educate them on your product, support them on their questions, and gather feedback on what they’re trying to achieve using your product.
Identify 3–5 metrics that they define as success for them—something that really moves the needle inside their business.
Your objective here is to figure out the problems they are trying to solve and what pieces of the software impact them the most so that you can adjust your sales process to meet their expectations.
For example, let’s say a prospect is interested in Avoma’s coaching capabilities, instead of jumping into the demo and showing them, we ask them a couple of more clarifying questions like:
- How do you define coaching in your organization?
- How are you coaching your reps right now?
- How do you hold your reps accountable?
- What’s your coaching methodology?
Asking such questions helps us dig deep into our prospects’ specific requirements and understand the gaps they currently have in their coaching process.
It tells us in unambiguous terms what’s the ideal state of coaching for them and how they define success with regard to using a coaching software.
You can help your prospects succeed in their trial experience and implement the right product functionality to get the results they want only if they clearly articulate the success metrics toward the beginning of the trial.
Most sales teams overlook this aspect because they think it’s basic. So when I coach our reps at Avoma, I reason them by a personal analogy to drive the point home.
Before switching to the iPhone, I was using a Blackberry that had a trackball button in the middle that I could press to make a phone call. When I bought my first iPhone, it took me a while to figure out how to make a call because the green call button was part of the touchscreen. I didn’t have anyone who could show me how to use the iPhone that had a new interface I wasn’t familiar with.
It’s the same thing when prospects are trialing a new software that comes with features, functionalities, and an interface they haven’t seen before.
When prospects trial your software, they are going to spend a couple of weeks on it. Don’t create risks to the deal by letting prospects figure it out on their own. Instead, understand what their success metrics are and show them how to get there.
5. Humanize the sales conversation
I am a big believer that if we were to remove all the features from a software and take out the personal influence that some sellers have on their buyers—people buy from people they like and trust.
In most cases, salespeople are just representatives of the product or the company they work for. Their main job is to facilitate brand trust and make prospects feel comfortable with their buying decision. And the best way for them to do that is to become a trusted advisor, in contrast to becoming just another salesperson.
If you are selling in a highly competitive dog-eat-dog space—such as CRM, for instance—you are likely competing on deals against rivals who offer the exact same features, functionalities, and pricing like yours.
In such competitive situations, there are a couple of different layers that you have to think through beyond just the features and functionalities that your product offers.
You have to find answers to a very important question: How will you earn the trust and respect of your prospects and bring value to every conversation you have with them?
Your best bet is to humanize the sales conversations—to become their trusted advisor by being honest and transparent in your communication.
One of the things we at Avoma keep talking about internally is the importance of adding more value to each interaction that we establish with our prospects. Since we are a product-led business, prospects have multiple ways to test our platform—by signing up for a free trial, evaluating our product and solution pages, or going through our customer stories.
Every time the sales team gets in touch with a new prospect, we ensure that there’s something of value in that conversation that they can’t possibly receive from the free trial or our website. It has to have additional relevance and value for prospects to broaden their knowledge about Avoma and what it can do for them.
This helps you differentiate your brand from other rivals who are selling their solution primarily based on the features, functionalities, and pricing. The more human your sales touches are, the better your chances of “landing the whale”.
Another way for you to humanize your sales process is to be open and honest in your interactions with prospects.
I can’t tell you how many six or seven-figure deals I have personally won as an enterprise sales rep early in my career just because I honestly told the prospects what our product could and couldn’t do. When you tell prospects that your product can’t do x, y, or z—you make yourself look vulnerable and create a feeling of trust. Most people appreciate that.
An example I keep sharing with the sales teams at Avoma is that of the products we buy off of Amazon. When you’re looking to buy a product from Amazon, one of the things that we do is go through the buyer reviews. But in our minds, we somehow discount the 5-star reviews because we suspect that they are planted testimonials. We also discount the 1-star reviews because we think that those people are just trying to slander the product.
Instead, we look at the reviews that have a 2.5 or 3 stars rating. And the reason we do that is because we feel like those user reviews are the most accurate and honest assessment of the product.
It’s the same thing in the software world. When you tell your prospects that your product is perfect and does everything that they want to accomplish, it raises a flag in their minds and they start doubting your claims. That’s just not realistic.
But if you tell them about your product’s most powerful offerings—and admit that there are a few things that your product can’t do—you are giving them the right portrayal of your product. Of course, you must also try and suggest workarounds for prospects to overcompensate for the gaps in your product.
Back to our main point—if you are faced with prospects who are comparing you in an apples-to-apples situation, humanize the conversation by being upfront and trustworthy.
Give them solutions on how you can help them fill the gaps in your product’s offerings.
When you are competing with other vendors neck and neck, it becomes a matter of who can extract the most information from the prospects so that you can provide them with the most value. More often than not, information is power in sales. It’s what helps you win deals.
Instill trust, position yourself as a partner they can trust, and invite collaboration to humanize the conversation to get them to share as much information as they can to move the deal forward. If you can’t pull relevant information from prospects and fail to reciprocate with valuable information, you are creating risks of letting deals slip through the cracks.
Sales isn’t just business, it’s personal
Sales in the modern SaaS world is all about building relationships with customers who will continue to work with you throughout your career if you are honest and transparent with them. Transparency builds the best kind of credibility in sales.
If you are a new SDR or an AE, my parting advice to you is this: don’t be a ninja bullet seller. Don’t try to sell the world. Educate yourself on your software, customers, how they use it, and what they like or dislike about it. And when you’re talking to your prospects, be honest with them about your product’s potential and limitations.
In any competitive deal cycle, there are lots of variables that come into play—some you can control and some you can’t. The ideas I have shared with you in this blog are just some of the things that I have seen over and over again in my 20+ years of sales career. And I hope that these tips will help you put yourself in a better position to strategically control and potentially win more competitive deals.
All the best for winning your next big deal!