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The Impenetrable Account

By Dave Kahle

Dave KahleHow do I sell to an account that is firmly in the hands of a competitor?

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 be soon.

Here's how this usually develops: You've called on a large, 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 is deeply ingrained in 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 it 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 a bad idea.

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 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.

1) 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.”

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.

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).

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

2) 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.

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.

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.

Dave Kahle is one of the world's leading sales authorities. He's written 10 books, presented in 47 states and 10 countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of sales people and transform hundreds of sales organizations. Sign up for his free weeklyEzine. Check out his Sales Resource Center for 455 sales training programs for every sales person at every level. You may contact Dave at 800-331-1287, ordave@davekahle.com.

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