Unseen Competitor in Tech Sale
Feb/Mar 2014
Tim Lindner

Selling a B2B technology solution is hard work. The more complex the mix of its integrated components (hardware, software, and infrastructure services), the harder it is to position it against known competitors. The sales cycle can become very long and arduous. The last thing a sales executive wants is for "the hidden competitor" to emerge late in the cycle to sabotage the deal.

B2B companies approach technology acquisition as a deliberative process, which is very different from how consumers make purchasing decisions, many of which can be based on an emotional impulse.

B2B technology solutions are costly, requiring financial justification. They are complex because their components must function within an infrastructural "ecosystem" that can accommodate them.

If that ecosystem does not exist or is incomplete, then it must be created or extended, driving up the cost of the solution. That is why most B2B technology solutions are incremental, meaning they build upon and extensively use existing infrastructure to minimize cost.

Good sales executives position their solution to the prospect with an eye to its advantages against the competition's solution, and while doing so lay "traps" for the competition in the mind of the prospect's teams. An example is to tell the prospect how a competitor will address a functional issue, and how their solution does it better. Or, suggest the prospect ask how the competitor will solve a problem they know their solution handles poorly.

Good sales executives seek out and nurture a "coach" on the prospect's evaluation team to understand how best to address team issues. Positioning a solution, informed by an "insider's" view is a competitive advantage.

The best sales executives (like you) do all of this to position against the known competition, but are aware the hidden competitor may emerge at some point during the sales cycle. They use tactics and tools to smoke out that threat early in the process. It is the hidden competitor that, if not caught and neutralized early on, can kill the deal.

After a long, expensive sales cycle, death by hidden competitor is a hard knock to the sales pipeline, and the company's revenue forecast.

During a recent interview in Inc., Dharmesh Shah, cofounder of HubSpot, commented given today's Internet research resources readily available, buyers are halfway through the buying process before they start talking with a sales person. In my experience, this is a very valid observation. Evaluation team members have become adept at doing Google searches around keywords and phrases that represent the technology, the business problem, and the experience of companies that have tried to solve the same issues with the same technology you offer.

The buying team is usually a cross-functional one. Because B2B technology solutions are heavily dependent upon information technology, must address specific strategic business objectives, have an impact on workers through process change, and come with a higher price tag, sales executives typically address an audience that includes operations, engineering, IT, and finance members.

Since evaluation teams have done research, and possibly outreach to other companies to understand the issues and outcomes of the technology solution they've encountered before they called you in, the team may have developed an initial "view" of the solution and its providers.

It is in a team with a collective initial view, or collection of possibly competing views, that the hidden competitor can be found.

To my knowledge, there isn't a technology solution provider that does not have at least one competitor, especially in the three macro-technology venues of the early 21st century: touch, vision, and voice. A good example would be Google Glass, which appears to be the only augmented reality game in town for both B2C and B2B applications. However, some Internet research will reveal a different story.

Take a look at Vuzix, which recently partnered with SAP to develop "augmented reality" (vision plus voice) applications for logistics, a non-consumer B2B industry.

Using a combination of Vuzix' glasses and SAP software, guided visual pathways to finding and picking products and taking them to the loading area are displayed to the worker, and audio directions and instructions complement the visual information as well.

If you were offering an augmented reality solution for process improvement in the prospect's distribution center, you should expect the evaluation team would have discovered there were options. They would also see "name brands" such as SAP pop up in conjunction with partner companies. SAP is a significant provider of logistics solutions, and is well known within the industry.

While SAP itself is possibly a known competitor or ally to you, it is also a potential "trigger" to an emotion-based bias in one or more of the evaluating team's members. If you know that SAP is either a friend of foe to your proposed solution, testing the reactions of each team member to SAP is very important. Did someone have a good or bad SAP implementation experience? Is SAP installed in the company? Does IT in particular have a view about working with SAP?

The answers to these questions are used by the best sales executives to develop a relationship map. This is a formal value selling tool, with a number of software providers offering relationship mapping applications. I use one called Revegy. You create a profile of each known decision-maker or influencer in the prospect's company. This map must include profiles for the higher-level executives of the company that will finalize the "buy" decision, and third-party consultants who may have been engaged by the prospect for the project. Two important requirements of relationship mapping are the provisional determination of a person's orientation to the technology solution, and to the solution provider. Typically, there are three orientations: Favorable, neutral (stated or implied), and negative.

When the orientation to the solution and the provider are negative, you have uncovered the presence of a team member who is unambiguously positioned against you and the technology. This is not the hidden competitor, however. Rather, he or she poses a different concern to you: Does this person have sufficient power to sink the project because he does not think the technology will provide a benefit? Your strategy then depends more on positioning the solution's benefits in a financial value case, where the savings over the investment term are demonstrable, and the payback time is favorable.

Where then is the hidden competitor? Look for him or her in either the "neutral" zone or where they are favorable to the technology, and not to the solution provider. The most dangerous is the "neutral" team member. Neutrality is usually a mask put on to hide bias. We are dealing with people, and the human condition does not get put on hold during a sales cycle. It must be understood that at some point in the process, neutral team members must vote up or down on the solution and the provider. Use your coach, direct conversation, and other sources of information about a neutral team member (like LinkedIn—where did they work before and did that experience include participation in a similar process or ties to a competitor?) to crack the mask of neutrality. Until you do, you must treat the neutral person as the potential hidden competitor.

Earlier, I mentioned that finding and cultivating your "coach" is important. A coach can provide a better understanding of the neutral team member's function, his biases, and how much power he has to make or influence the decision. With whom is this person aligned on your value map? Who opposes him? Carefully handled, the coach is a source of significant insight to both the players and the process as it evolves through the sales cycle. The risk of working closely with a coach is that less seasoned sales executives become so dependent upon their "friend" that they ignore the need to balance the coach's perspective with direct conversation with all of the other players on the map. When this happens, the sales executive and the coach can be blindsided by the action of another team member.

Relationship maps are always a work in progress throughout the sales cycle; changes in the team occur, new executives arrive, and with change, influence and power shifts. Continuous conversational outreach with all players gives you the best chance to anticipate reaction to your next move, and to more quickly validate or qualify out of the opportunity.

Smoking out the hidden competitor early in the sales cycle is essential to how you position your solution and overcome the traps that he may set for you. Too much is at stake—for both you and your organization—not to devote the time and effort to neutralizing this threat.

Tim Lindner is senior business consultant at Voxware, a company focused on voice-picking software. He can be reached at tlindner@voxware.com

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