How do I sell to an account that is firmly in the hands of a competitor – an impenetrable account?

In one form or another, I hear that question at almost every sales seminar I teach.  It’s a great question, reflecting one of the most perplexing and frustrating situations every sales person faces.  If you haven’t yet been faced with this problem, be patient, you will soon be.

Here’s how this usually develops:  You’ve called on a high-potential account a number of times, but can’t seem to get anywhere.  The more time you spend in the account, the more apparent it is that one or more of your competitors are deeply ingrained as suppliers to that account.  You may even have had someone say to you, “We do all our business with XYZ competitor.”

And that leaves you on the outside looking in.  If the account has some real potential, you want to be seriously considered as a supplier.  But if looks like this account is not really interested in you – not because of you or your company, but because of a previously established strong relationship with a competitor.

So, how do you manage this account?  What should you do?

Let’s start with what not to do.

Don’t vent your frustration by speaking poorly about the competition.  And don’t attack the competitor’s products, company, practices or sales people. Someone who works for this customer – or more likely, several people who work there – chose to do business with that competitor.  They have chosen to buy the competitor’s products, have developed a close working relationship, and may be good friends outside of work.  When you speak badly about the competition, you insult all those decisions made by the customer to work with that particular competitor.  Trying to penetrate an account by insulting your customer’s judgment is not a particularly effective technique.

Realize, also, that you have only a tiny glimpse of what your competitor is really like.  You may have found some evidence in another account of their ineptness, or what you perceive as unethical behavior.  And on the basis of this tiny experience, you’re ready to launch a holy crusade to reveal their deep flaws and expose the risks of doing business with them.

That is almost never the truth.  Almost always, your competitor is a company with the products, ethics, business systems, people and goals that are very similar to yours.  Very few companies survive in this highly competitive market place if they have shoddy products, lax business morals, incompetent people, and poor operating systems.  When you criticize these things in your competitor, you show yourself to be ignorant and inexperienced.

But what should you do?

Here are two proven techniques to penetrate these kinds of accounts.

  • Go around the competition, not through them.

This customer is probably not buying everything from your primary competitor.  There likely is a handful of other suppliers selling items that you could supply.  Focus on those.  Find items that are being purchased from someone other than the main vendor, and present your company’s options on those.  Often these could be small quantities of relatively inconspicuous items that don’t appear on the radar screen of your competitor.

When you put together attractive programs and proposals for those kinds of items, you don’t threaten your customer’s relationship with your competitor, and you begin to show them the value of a relationship with you.

Be careful to keep a relatively low profile in the account.  You don’t want to draw your competitor’s attention.  At first, as you try to pick off some of these miscellaneous items, you are very vulnerable to your primary competitor finding and squashing you.  As time goes by and you’re successful at becoming the supplier of a number of miscellaneous items, you’ll gain power and position within the account, and in so doing, build some defenses against the ire of your competitor.  You’re always safer if your competitor underestimates your activity and success within an account.  So, at least until you’re well established, be as discreet and inconspicuous as possible.

Here’s a number of ways to implement this strategy of “going around the competition.”

  1. Find some area within the customer’s business where the competition is very weak. For example, when I was selling hospital supplies, I discovered that one of my major competitors was very strong in the operating room.  The competitor had a wide range of products, well-respected lines, a history of being active and interested in that area of the hospital, and significant expertise in operating room procedures and problems.  So, I didn’t bother with the operating room, and spent my time in respiratory therapy and ICU.  The competition never bothered to visit those departments.  I went around my competition by finding a department on which to focus where the competition was weak.
  2. Find someone who doesn’t like dealing with your competitor. This may take longer.  In a large organization, there are often dozens of decision-makers and influencers.  It’s likely that one or more of them may not like dealing with your competitor.  Maybe personalities clashed sometime in the past, or someone felt slighted or treated rudely.  Regardless, someone inside that organization may not be your competitor’s biggest fan.  Find that person(s).

But don’t be too quick to bet your future on that relationship.  Before you begin to work with that person, access that person’s political power within the account.  It may be that the champion you selected is viewed as a perpetual complainer who never has any constructive opinions to offer.  If that’s the case, you’ll hurt yourself in the account by aligning with him/her.

If you come to the conclusion that your champion is a strong and respected player within the account, then focus on building a relationship and equipping that person to pursue his or her own agenda with your assistance.

Here’s the second major strategy for penetrating the impenetrable account.

  • Make a persistent, strong appeal to be the secondary supplier for that account.

Here’s one important thing you know about this customer:  They are loyal to their key supplier.  That indicates a philosophical position this customer holds – these are people who believe in loyalty to suppliers who do a good job in their account.  That’s why they continue to buy from your competitor.

So, use that position to your own advantage.  Make a consistent appeal to the customer that they ought to have the same kind of relationship with a back-up supplier – you.  You’re not implying criticism of the primary supplier, but things that are out of their control can happen, and the continuity of supplies can be interrupted.  In that case, it’s to the customer’s advantage to have a good relationship with a secondary supplier.  That’s an argument that often resonates effectively within this kind of account.  If they agree with that position, then it follows that they need to be doing some business with you in order to keep you interested and active within the account.  And that should lead to a discussion of what you can be selling to them.

Both of these strategies require you to be persistent in visiting the account and staying visible to them, even in the face of little success or encouragement from them.  Assuming that the potential of the account is worth the investment, this persistency may be your key strategy.

A personal story

I was faced with this exact situation on more than one occasion.  As I was venting my frustration over a particularly difficult account, my manager counseled me like this:

“The only thing you can count on,” he said, “is that things will change.  We don’t know how, and we don’t know when, but we do know that things will change.  Your job is to stay in front of the customer and position yourself to be the customer’s easiest, lowest risk choice when things finally do change with the competition.”

What great advice that turned out to be.  The best example was a medium-sized account not far from my home.  On my first call there, I met with the head of purchasing.  After listening politely to my presentation, he said, “Young man, we already have too many vendors.  We don’t want to add new ones; we want to eliminate some we already have.  Secondly, we don’t know much about your company, but what we do know we don’t like.  So, I’d advise you not to waste your time here.”

I considered that a real challenge.

So, about six weeks later, I returned with my strongest product.  This was a product called suction tubing, which is a staple item in a hospital.  Every hospital uses it in all sorts of ways and places throughout their operations.  We had an exclusive with the country’s largest and best manufacturer of suction tubing, coupled with excellent pricing.  He couldn’t say no to my deal on suction tubing.

Again, he listened patiently to my presentation.  When I had finished, he said, “We don’t use any.”  I looked through the open door of his office, and saw a supply cart in the hall outside, with suction tubing hanging from it.  He was lying to me.  I knew it, and he knew that I knew it.

“This really is going to be a challenge,” I thought to myself.  As I reflected on the account, it became apparent that he was protecting a relationship with my arch competitor.  I decided on two lines of attack:  Find someone to sell to who wasn’t enamored with the competitor, and hang in there as an easy choice if, and when, the competitor stumbled.

That’s exactly what happened.  I found one of the purchasing agents who was interested in what my company had to offer.  When the competitor was backordered on an item, the customer turned to us.  We were able to deliver.  That eventually lead to our obtaining the contract for that item.  And that opened the door, gave me a foothold in the account, and allowed me an opportunity to begin working within it.

Three years later, that account had become one of my best.  I had penetrated it to a greater degree than any others.  And, the head of purchasing that had previously so ardently protected the relationship with my competitor, now just as ardently protected the relationship with me.

That is what makes it all worthwhile.  Almost always, those accounts that protect a relationship with your competitor will just as fervently protect the relationship with you when you become their primary supplier.  The payoff is well worth the investment.


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