Competitors: out for the count

You wouldn’t put your best prize fighter in a pinafore and send him into the ring with the words ‘Report back when you’ve won!’ So why put your rainmakers in the same position?

Many professionals have limited success attracting new business, even though their sales techniques are adequate or even excellent. They tend to win small commissions from small prospects but have a poor track record in securing the big new clients that will significantly improve their business or help to make their name in the firm. Common complaints include:

  • ‘It’s not fair, I lost because of “politics”.’
  • ‘They say they like our proposals but we always come second.’
  • ‘The clients don’t seem to recognise the best solutions when they see them – we had far more to offer than the firm they chose.’
  • ‘She said she would have chosen us but her boss, who wasn’t supposed to be involved, overrode her decision.’
  • ‘They are happy with their existing advisers – how can we overcome that?’

A major cause of these frustrations lies in the professionals’ natural inclination to act rather than think; to pursue the obvious path rather than to plan the approach that will win the client.

Excellent selling skills are not enough with major clients. These skills must be focused in the right way, on the right people and at the right time to secure a competitive advantage that will ensure the decision goes your way. There are three elements to consider: strategic considerations, managing the decision making process and planning and carrying out the best tactics. Here we will concentrate on the first of these.

Many textbooks draw parallels between sales and marketing strategies and military strategy. This is sometimes taken too far: however, we have seen that those firms who understand the principles of winning in war and can apply them to winning clients have enjoyed tremendous success.

A successful attack strategy will be based on three concepts:

  • concentration of firepower
  • attacking the competitor where he is weakest
  • timely, comprehensive and accurate intelligence. 

Concentration of firepower

Imagine a battle in which a heavily defended fortress sits on the top of a hill surrounded by treacherous terrain for which the attacking army has no maps. This fortress is a very important prize and needs to be taken for the attackers to achieve their ultimate objective. It would be stupid of the army commander to select one soldier, arm him with a pop gun and send him off to storm the castle with the words ‘Report back when you’ve done it!’ The soldier would feel somewhat exposed. He may try because he has been told to, he may bang his head against a brick wall several times but eventually he will give up and do something more productive. (However, the reports will probably keep coming back that: ‘I’m getting there – should have some results in another day/week/month/year.’)

This is exactly how a partner we know in a substantial law firm felt when he found out that he had been allocated half an dozen ‘blue chip’ prospects as part of the firm’s ‘marketing strategy’. He was able to secure an initial meeting with a fairly senior executive at three of the six targets. However, as well as being very busy with fee-paying work, he found that, in each of the prospects where he managed to carry out a meeting, the incumbent legal advisers had a good reputation and a strong relationship. He felt at a loss as to how to proceed in his ‘campaign’.

He was given the six targets because his firm was ‘too reliant on existing clients’ and had ‘too few prospects’. This led to each partner being awarded six large prospects and told to get on with it. The firm had 120 well-defined fortresses in its sights and twenty partners with twenty pop guns and no time. Unsurprisingly none of these fortresses fell. The key to success is to concentrate effort and not spread resources too thinly even if the latter achieves the false comfort of a large prospect bank.

The principle of force

Each of all the fortresses should be attacked with all available firepower one at a time. They can be quickly overwhelmed if the attacking force is sufficiently powerful. With regard to the law practice mentioned above this means attacking, say, twelve prospects (not 120) with the right combination of partners and legal staff. This will help to ensure that a large proportion of those twelve become clients. This is especially important where the incumbent advisers are strong or have been in place a long time. The defenders will almost always retain control unless those looking to win the client are able to create a competitive advantage.

To create a competitive selling advantage in a professional environment, where the firm is selling its expertise and its people, requires the attacking organisation to focus the right quantity and an overwhelming quality of resource at the point in the client relationship where the incumbent competitor is weakest.

Competitors’ weak spots

There are at least two strategies you could choose from when attacking a new client. They are:

  • Frontal attack – go in with all guns blazing and try to knock the competitors out by having the best ‘product’, the cheapest price or being better at selling.
  • Flanking attack – identify areas of weakness in the competitor’s situation, service or relationship and focus all efforts on winning in that area. This establishes a bridgehead from which to compete at a later date on more advantageous terms with the incumbent. 

The latter is more likely to succeed and yet the former is almost always attempted. If you can secure just one small piece of work then you have the opportunity to:

  • produce excellent work that puts the incumbent to shame
  • get to know people with influence in the subsidiary and at head office
  • be in a much better position at a later date to win larger contracts.


In any war the most important commodity is intelligence. Spies (or spy satellites) produce information on the terrain, the defences and the opposition’s movements. This intelligence dramatically influences a commander’s choice of action. With superior intelligence one can almost always ‘outwit’ the opposition.

In the same way, if you believe you know enough about a prospect after just one meeting to launch a successful attack you will be fooling yourself. And yet having this insight (in effect a map of the terrain and a knowledge of the correct paths and the dead ends) is often the difference between success and failure. This is one obvious reason why the incumbent, is he keeps an up-to-date knowledge of the client and any changes in people and priorities, is in a favoured position. He should know which buttons to press and whose support to enlist. Generally after one meeting you will have managed to train a spotlight onto a small part of the organisation with the rest remaining a dark hinterland. How do you bathe the rest of the terrain in strong floodlights?

Secure a ‘bridgehead’ assignment

As discussed above, secure a small assignment as a bridgehead and make sure the opportunity is used to talk (and more importantly listen) to anybody and everybody who may have useful information.

Consider a ‘Trojan horse’ strategy

A Trojan horse strategy offers the prospect a service of value to them – at no cost. The quid pro quo provided by the clients is the opportunity for you to penetrate parts of their organisation that would otherwise be unreachable. This project should generate superb intelligence upon which to plan the winning of substantial pieces of work that you would never have been able to recognise through any other process.

Plan information gathering

Produce a though-out, detailed plan of action that is then strictly monitored and reviewed covering:

  • what information is required
  • what are the information sources
  • who will do what to gather the information
  • when the actions will be carried out
  • how and when the information will be reported back
  • who will assemble the information
  • what review meetings need to be in place to discuss the information gained, to plan further phases of the process and ultimately decide how to use the information to win

Possible sources of information

Published information

Published information is especially valuable in situations where the words give an insight in to the culture, ethos and aims of the organisation. This might be in the form of reported interviews with the chief executive, press statements, reports, accounts and company literature. Much of this information is now easily available electronically – always check the existence and content of a prospect’s website.

Sources inside your firm

Very often much of the information you need is known by a selection of people who work alongside you. Some of your colleagues may have had dealings with key people in the prospect. Some may have personal friends or past colleagues working there. It is not a crime to tap this rich source of insight by at least making it easy for anyone to come forward and be ‘drained’ of all potentially useful information. In our experience, especially in large firms, this is a trick that is missed.

Other suppliers to the prospect

You often have contacts with people who work for complementary suppliers who have already won business from this prospect. How did they do it? Could this information be of use?

‘White knights’ within the prospect

Most importantly, you should aim to develop an intelligence network within the prospect organisation. The aim is to have as many people as possible in different positions who are able to provide an all-round view of the situation – almost a 3D map of the terrain. But why should somebody in the prospect organisation provide you with all of this information? There are two reasons:

  1. Someone on your side has a relationship with the person – This may have stemmed from an earlier business relationship of from contact at conferences, seminars, institution meeting etc. These relationships are the most important because they are in place before the campaign to win this client begins. The information can therefore be used at an early stage of planning and can help ensure that you follow the right track from the start.
  2. He or she wants you to win – This may also be in place before the start of the selling campaign. Alternatively, as the campaign progresses, you convince people that your approach, expertise or solution will be the one that benefits them. In doing so you enlist them to your cause. It is sufficient to say that if many people want you to succeed and you make use of that motivation in a professional manner, you should have a wonderful source of accurate information about both the ‘hard’ facts and the ‘soft’ issues in the prospective client’s organisation.

At this point the terrain becomes floodlit, the best paths become clear, the competitor’s strengths and weaknesses are obvious and you can:

  • decide on the best strategy
  • plan the correct tactics
  • concentrate out firepower
  • go on to win the prospect!

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