Selling Against a Strong Incumbent? Change the Game. – by Bob Rickert

Bob Rickert

On Monday morning you are enjoying your first cup of coffee when an email comes through letting you know that a major prospect on your target list has requested information for a very high profile, big dollar project. Awesome, a bluebird as they say, something that could close in weeks with little effort. Of course, you temper your enthusiasm since most bluebirds tend to vaporize before they start.

What do you need to know? Who is the customer? Have we done business with them before? Who’s the competitor? Who do they know at the company? What is the project, scope and is it budgeted (chasing underfunded or unbudgeted opportunities is painful!). Most likely, every prospect you target has an incumbent, someone who has built relationships, earned credibility by delivering value and who has access to all the key players that channel the information needed to identify new opportunities. Of course, too often, incumbents lose their peripheral vision. They tend to get relaxed, over-confident and lose touch with the changing priorities before they manifest into new strategies and the need for new solutions. Such is the case with our “bluebird” account.

Winning a new account where you lack relationships, data, leverage and proven results is extremely challenging, especially today where competitors are stronger, wiser and perhaps more resources. Chances are the Bluebird Company’s project is defined in operational terms. Their specifications are well spelled out. Installation dates are projected, and the decision process is clearly articulated. Let’s say that Bluebird Company is a manufacturer looking to install software that will reduce administration, speed-to-market, provide just-in-time data for better decision support. Let’s assume the technology group has made the case for an application that will solve the business owner’s key operational and business issues.

The project and the budget have been approved and now it’s up to the functional leaders with the expertise to sort out the options, analyze the vendors and their offers, and to make a decision. Unfortunately, the incumbent is number one on the list and is in the driver’s seat. No problem, your solution is better and given the right information, it can be proven to outperform the incumbents’. Cool: a need, great fit, a budget, a short turnaround decision and an inferior competitor.

If only it were that simple. The fact is, you are on the outside looking in and time is not on your side. Gaining the access, building relationships and getting the traction needed to equalize the playing field with your competitor is a huge challenge. What do you do if the deck is stacked against you?

It’s easy to become shortsighted in a situation like this. Because speed is of the essence, shortcuts are sought. Get enough information to drop into your proposal template; slap on some recognizable references; hammer sales management for a lower price “to increase probability” of success, and away you go. Unfortunately, if you have been selling long enough, you know that these high possibility opportunities usually lead to low probability outcomes.

Change the Game

To be honest, I embrace these kinds of opportunities. If you know you are up against a strong incumbent then you really have little to lose. It is like a sports team that has no chance of winning, playing loose and easy, swinging for the fence, and hitting it! Here are five ways you can change the game:

  1. Think Big!

You are not in business to provide short term solutions, partial answers to bigger business problems. You are in business to make a difference, a big difference. Often customers define their needs too narrowly, they address a specific or short-term problem. You know from experience in almost every case, there are many other factors that go into any solution. Though the incumbent has the inside track, they are also handcuffed by the specificity of the project parameters.

If you want to get the customer’s attention, and if you want to differentiate as someone who is looking out for customer’s long-term benefit, then you MUST think big. Start with the end in mind. Envision your total solution being deployed, see the all the ways you have proven that it can lower costs, drive new revenues, create efficiencies that all lead to significant profit improvement. While the incumbent and the “specifiers” are dwelling on features and functions, you are the business consultant that is helping the customer achieve their strategic goals.

  1. Go to the Top

I know that getting to an executive level decision maker sounds easier than it is, but you really don’t have anything to lose. The only person who is at risk by going over the heads of the functional buyers and “specifiers” is the incumbent. The incumbent can’t run the risk offending their key relationships, in short, they must play by the rules. You don’t have to.

If you are going to get a decision in your favor, and beat a strong incumbent, then you need to do it on your terms. The only terms that matter are those of the executive level decision makers. The CEO or CFO won’t typically care about an individual software purchase, unless it’s huge investment. However, if you think big, if you have a significant profit improvement story, you will get their attention. Change the conversation from what they are trying to buy, to a business investment aimed at moving their financial dials.

  1. Make it About Profitability

Too many salespeople confine themselves to an established budget. Think return-on-investment, make it a financial decision and not a product decision. That’s how the CEO or CFO view their decision. If you have a profit angle, they want to hear it. If you have a product story, they will defer to others.

There is a good chance that a fat, dumb and happy incumbent is not paying attention to the economics of their customer’s business. What is happening with their topline growth? What are the trends? What are the keys to their growth strategies? Are they growing their business profitably? Are they efficient and growing operating margins at desired levels? How would your total solution drive revenue growth so critical to executive management? The more you know about these issues, the stronger your message will be as you gain the attention of the economic decision makers. If you answer these questions, you will positon yourself as a salesperson there to solve problems, someone who is focused on profitability.

Of course, you need to understand how your “total solution” will impact profitability. For example, will your solution drive new revenue growth through new customer acquisition, or speed-to-market? Quantify it based on industry standards, or your proven successes at similar customers. Every dollar of cost you can take out of the customer’s operation, drops directly to operating profit. The incumbent is talking product, you are talking financial return.

  1. Be Bold!

What’s the worse the thing the customer can say, no? Chances were that was going to happen anyway. Now’s your chance to make a difference. Get outside of your comfort zone. Don’t fear proposing solutions that completely change the way a customer is approaching a business problem or opportunity. Being bold is asking for a meeting with a C-Level executive. Being bold means asking for information that may be closely held, or often not provided. Being bold is communicating a strong point-of-view even when you know conventional wisdom is against you. Being bold is a willingness to guarantee a financial outcome your competitor will not. Being bold is stating your desire and your ability to deliver profit improvement and then delivering on it.

  1. Believe

Know that you can change the game for your customer and for your company. Know that if you invest the time to become a profit-centered salesperson and succeed in delivering profit improvement, you will differentiate yourself from the incumbent and 95% of all salespeople selling to the executives you sell to. Believe in your company, confident that if they experience the profit improvement that comes with selling an ROI, they too will invest in you and your business. Finally, believe in your customer. Know that they will reward you for your innovation, perseverance and commitment to improve their profitability.

That’s how you beat an incumbent, change the game!


Bob is Managing Director at Patina Solutions and resides in Chicago. He’s the author of one of the best sales books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading–Profit Heroes: Breakthrough Strategies for Winning Customers and Building Profits. You can order it here.

You can reach Bob at 847-971-8259 or, and connect with him at LinkedIn and Twitter.


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