Change the ground rules

How often do you have sheer dominance over your competition? Unless your solution is three times as compelling as the competitor’s, the answer is just about never!

Let’s face it: few companies are lucky enough to command such superiority. That’s why most sales campaigns end up as price battles.

If we don’t dominate the competition, then we have to change the ground rules of the sale to work in our favor.

You say you want a revolution

The soldiers who fought in the American Revolution did just that. Rather than march down the middle of the street wearing their uniforms, the revolutionaries dressed in their everyday clothes and hid behind rocks, trees and piles of hay to fight the British troops. They didn’t fight the way the British wanted them to fight.

Or recall a famous scene from the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Indiana Jones has just used a whip with considerable skill to fend off a few villains when he comes face to face with a man equally skilled but with a three-foot sword, which he twirls in front of Jones.

The audience watches in eager anticipation of an interesting but apparently fair battle: sword against whip. Instead, Jones suddenly pulls out his revolver and shoots his opponent. Jones changed the ground rules.


Avoid the feature trap

Mel, a salesperson for a client of mine, was selling inventory control software to a large feed mill company. Mel’s competitor’s product was clearly superior to his on a feature-by-feature comparison. They – not Mel – had sheer dominance.

But Mel’s company had one feed mill installation already under its belt; his competitor had none. So Mel changed the ground rules of the sale from technical features to feed mill expertise.

Mel never let his competitor suck him into a feature battle – which would have killed his chances. By staying “on message,” Mel won the deal.


Fight the battle on your terms

Here’s a superb illustration of a change-the-ground-rules strategy from the world of management consulting. Several years ago, the then consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand placed a series of print ads that showed a large picture of an ancient Chinese sword.

The ad’s caption read, “Does your consultant quote ‘The Art of War’ but shy away from battle?” (“The Art of War” is a popular ancient book about warfare that is commonly referenced, even today, in business settings).

Coopers & Lybrand was attempting to change the ground rules for the purchase of management consulting services from “providing theoretical strategic advice” (this is the quote “The Art of War” reference) to “facilitating the implementation of strategy” (the “shy away from battle” reference), something its competitors are not particularly strong at doing.

Take the RFP…please!

One can even change the ground rules when responding to a request for proposal (RFP). Another client salesperson did just that.

Julie had received a highly structured “sealed bid” RFP from a very large industrial company soliciting proposals for its natural gas supply. As is true with most such RFPs, the requesting company in this case planned to compare proposals from multiple gas suppliers and select the lowest price offering.

But Julie had different plans for her response to the RFP. She changed the ground rules from quoting the “lowest wellhead price” – the commodity measure typically used to compare natural gas prices that the request for proposal contained – to quoting “total energy cost,” more of a total cost of ownership kind of approach, and she won the deal. Julie’s last-minute timing was essential to prevent her competitors from attempting the same approach.

Don’t let yourself get sucked into head-to-head engagements unless you have that elusive dominance. As you size up your own selling situation, ask yourself how you can lead with a perceived strength of your own against a perceived weakness of your competition.

Occasionally, that difference will be obvious, as in the examples above. Most other times, it’ll take some work, but it is well worth the effort. 


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