Play for all the marbles

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Getting new business in a flat market

The companies that are gaining market share these days have one important lesson to share: Focus on where the business is — in your competitors’ backyards.
The ninety-some companies I’ve talked to over the past three months say it’s true: Today’s market-share gainers are selling to their competitors’ customers, and adding them to their own customer base. They’re getting their shares and more. The most successful companies can’t be content with getting some of the marbles in the game; they’re now playing for all the marbles.
It’s about focus. The bulk of people buying right now are your current customers and your competition’s current customers. In fact, your competition has made this tough market easier for you by identifying most of the other buyers out there. What an opportunity!
But if there are marbles to be stolen — and stealing them is the best and simplest way to increase share — why aren’t more companies doing it? The problem isn’t lack of resources or lack of time. It’s lack of focus. Help your sales force go where all the marbles are.

One company’s share-stealing bull’s-eye
In contrast, the market-share gainers have no doubt whatsoever that competitors’ buyers represent today’s sales bull’s-eye. They aim their selling efforts right into the competition, right into the greatest return right now.
One Milwaukee-based manufacturing company I talked with committed to playing for all the marbles. In fact, it developed a sales incentive program with "All the Marbles" as its title; the firm is projecting a $10-million gain in market share. Even though sales declined, the company saw growth of slightly more than $4-million in six months, and expects roughly an eight percent gain in market share.
And trust me: The company is dealing with as many challenges as anyone else right now. Its capacity has dropped to nearly 76%. It has even had to reduce its sales force by 20% in the last eight months. You’d think that’d be a recipe for despair.
Yet it has increased market share in some of its markets by 10%. How?

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Dead-on-target tactics help you stand up and fight
Some of the most successful companies right now are amazingly focused on stealing market share. And — universally — they employed company-specific versions of the following dead-on-target tactics.
First off, its sales and marketing VPs refused to bow down to the down market. They realized their prospects were still buying — just buying from someone else at the moment. Their competitors’ customers needed a reason to buy from them. They needed a lure.
Second, they found the lure by tweaking what they already had and already knew. They began by brainstorming what they could do just a little differently. One company created a smaller, simpler version of its top seller. That scaled-down off-shoot was easier to sell and great for getting a foot in the door.
Another company re-positioned existing products and services so it could talk to prospects (and existing customers too, of course) about something new, something different, something that meets needs in a way the company hasn’t been met before.
Differentiation is particularly important when you’re trying to increase market share because those prospects are going to compare you to the companies they’re currently doing business with. They’ll need a good reason to change. So be prepared to sell them on results. The implicit message behind all of those efforts is that your company meets the prospect’s needs in a way a current supplier doesn’t.
That means that you’ve got to know what your competition is doing — so you can do something smarter. It means knowing what your prospects are doing — so you can enable them to do it better.
It’s not about just "being a sponge." That’s too general. Instead develop an espionage-style high-powered listening system that is tuned to very select signals, and keep it turned on all the time. And make sure your sales reps have a chance to tell each other what they’re hearing. If I had a dollar for every deal that was won because of what one sales person knew and the competition didn’t, I’d be writing this column from my house in the Cayman Islands.

High expectations
The third tactic involves creating an environment where superior performance is expected. Again, this goes along with not bowing down to a down market. Management should have high expectations. Expectations should be communicated and people held accountable. Experience demonstrates that, time after time, people perform up to what is expected of them. Remember that most people are already operating at less than 50% of their potential.
Help your sales force focus on what’s important. Incentivise them specifically around their best possible wins. In this case the competitors’ customers as a target market. That’s what the Milwaukee company’s "All the Marbles" program did. When your goal is to win in a flat market, always remember: What you focus on happens. Give your self and your sales force the right things to focus on.

Bruce Webster is the president of Business Development Partners, Inc., a Milwaukee-based sales training, executive search and management-consulting firm. He is the author and presenter of StopSelling Sales Training and Performance Management. He can be reached at 414-476-3161 or

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Jan. 10, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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