Read an Excerpt
How to Gain an Advantage in Sales
Excerpted from Hardball Selling by Robert L. Shook © 2003
The doctrine of democracy extols the virtue of equality, but equality is not relevant in the world of selling. A hardball salesperson strives to obtain a disproportionately large piece of the pie; his quest for an edge over the competition never ceases. In every sales situation each salesperson possesses certain qualities unlike those of the competition. It is not always possible to compare apples with apples; many variables exist that make comparisons difficult. While one salesperson scores high marks in one area, another beats him somewhere else. A hardball salesperson is continually striving to maximize his competitive edge; the attainment of success rests on attaining this advantage.
When You Got It, Flaunt It
Selling is a profession in which one can ill afford false modesty. Every advantage you possess should be promoted at every opportunity.
To sell the hardball way, you can't be bashful about telling others about the extraordinary qualities of your merchandise, the high-principled company you represent, or that you are service driven and excel in your field. If you sell the best, never hesitate to tell it to others. And even if your product doesn't knock the socks off the competition in every aspect, emphasize those advantages that illustrate your superiority. Remember, there are few products that ever dominate an industry across the board, so sell whatever quality you have that the competition doesn't have.
A thin line exists between a superseller and a blowhard. While you don't want to omit a strong sales point where you have an important edge over the competition, neither do you want to come across as a boaster. An automobile salesperson, for example, might explain:
"Many of our customers tell us how courteous and thoughtful our service department people are. Customers rave about how our firm does backbends to satisfy their needs." By putting it this way, the salesman doesn't sound as if he is making an idle boast; instead, he sounds humble and sincere. This subtle technique is more effective than saying: "We have the best service department in town." Likewise, an insurance agent might say: "Our net cost is rated the best value in the life insurance industry." This is more gentle than to brag: "No other insurer comes close to our net cost." Nor should a real estate broker boast: "I have the best listings of homes in town." Instead, the broker should say: "I have a wide selection of homes in your price range; and, in fact, some other brokers say I have the best selection of homes in town." As you can see, there is a subtle way to flavor what you offer that tells the same message but, at the same time, doesn't come across as too strong to put people on guard.
Turning a Disadvantage into an Advantage
Practically every disadvantage can be converted into an advantage. A classic example is when Avis did its "We're-number-two-so-we-try-harder campaign." The company promoted its second-place position as an advantage over Hertz, the number one firm in the car rental business. To my knowledge, nobody had ever previously presented its number two position as an advantage over its leading competition. But it worked.
Often described as the most powerful personal manager in show business, Jay Bernstein is a man who well understands how to turn disadvantages into advantages. Bernstein has represented more than six hundred stars including Susan Hayward, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra. Yet early in his career, when Bernstein operated a tiny office out of his girlfriend's apartment, his refrigerator and stove were used as his filing cabinets, and an old ironing board held his typewriter.
"Practically every disadvantage can be converted into an advantage."
His first major client, actor Joel Grey, had been referred to Bernstein by a mutual friend. Grey needed a lot of convincing to drop his established firm, a nationally known PR company. The fledgling agent had his work cut out for him.
"Sure, I'm a new PR firm," Bernstein explained, "so I've got to prove myself by the work I do for you. You can go with somebody else and pay two and three times as much, but you won't get two and three times the work." Bernstein even used his hole-in-the-wall offices as a selling point. "The big firms have a tremendous overhead, and their clients are the ones who ultimately pay for it. What's more, they assign some new kid in the business to handle your account. With me, you're dealing with senior management. At the fees I charge, I'm the best bargain in town."
Bernstein turned every disadvantage into a selling point. "I'm hungry and aggressive, so you're going to get a lot more for a lot less with me as your agent. I'm on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Whenever you need me, I'm as near as your telephone. I promise you that you'll never find anyone else who will work as hard for you."
Bernstein realized that being unmarried could work against him. Many prospects preferred an older married man who would be more settled and therefore perceived as more reliable. Some also thought that a married man had more responsibilities so he would be more motivated. Being a bachelor on the Hollywood scene carried with it a playboy image, hardly one to promote reliability and stability. Again, Bernstein used his single status to his advantage: "I don't have a wife and kids to rush home to, and I don't have a family to take skiing over the weekend." It's no wonder Jay Bernstein is immensely successful. He sees every circumstance as an advantage.
When my own company was in its beginning stages, I told prospects: "We're a budding company, but I promise you that we will someday be the leader in our industry. You have an opportunity to join us while we are still on the ground floor. And because we are small, we're light on our feet, and we'll do things for you that the giant bureaucratic companies can't do. Besides, you are a very important client to us. With the big companies, your business will be viewed as insignificant, and you'll be given little attention." The emphasis was placed on why it was an advantage to be small.
Later, when we became a larger company, my rationale changed: "We're the leader in our industry. And there is a reason why we are. We became big because we give the best value, the best service, and we care about each customer. We deserve to be the leader in our field because we've earned it with superior service. We have no intention of ever relinquishing our top position. As a large company, we have the resources and the backup people to serve you in a way that a small company simply cannot. And even though we are a big company, we take pride in being light on our feet; we still operate with a small-company mentality. We are number one, and we will stay on top because we are very good at what we do."
It's a simple formula. When we were small, we promoted smallness as an advantage. We had the ability to give personal attention and maintain lightness of foot. When we were big, we demonstrated why it was advantageous to do business with a big company; we had an enormous wealth of resources and backup service people. If you think it through, most disadvantages can be presented as advantages. Be creative.
Never Knock the Competition...and Be Obvious about It!
It is an exhibition of poor taste to knock the competition. The old adage, "If you don't have something good to say about somebody, don't say anything," is still good advice. People would rather be sold on the benefits of your product than on a competitor's shortcomings.
Magazine and television commercials that knock other companies are, in effect, promoting their competition. For instance, when a computer company makes comparisons about how its product stacks up against IBM, IBM receives free advertising. Furthermore, most people are fed up with companies that sell their products based on stated weaknesses of a competitor. This may occasionally work in politics, but it is inappropriate in business. Sometimes a buyer, as does a voter, interprets this kind of selling to be unsportsmanlike and underhanded.
Now that I've said that knocking the competition can be detrimental, let me tell you how to do it so subtly you can shed a poor light on the other guy without making yourself look bad: the most effective way I know to knock a competitor is to deliver your message through somebody else. For instance, a copier salesperson might say: "Dave White, the office manager at the law firm of Katz, Wolfe, Fox, and Baehr told me, 'It takes about three days to get ABC Copiers to respond to a service call.' I can't believe that kind of down time. Fortunately, our company has a reputation for immediate service." So here, a third person, in this case an office manager, is knocking the competition, not the salesperson.
Super car salesman Joe Girard used to collect negative articles on all automobile manufacturers. If a prospect mentioned wanting to shop around to look at, say, a Chrysler, Joe would take out several news clippings ranging from poor performance to low safety ratings on Chryslers. It didn't matter what car a prospect wanted to compare to Girard's Chevrolets; whatever the interest was, Girard had in hard print why it shouldn't be a consideration. "The negative information was conveyed, but I never personally knocked the competition," he explains.
How many times have you witnessed an auto salesman maliciously attack a competitor? For instance, he might say: "You want to shop around and look at Jaguars? What are you, a masochist? You must enjoy having your car rust out. Well, if you buy a Jag, I recommend buying a second one because the first one will always be in the garage." This kind of antagonistic attack insults the customer's intelligence. The salesman, by ridiculing the buyer's judgment, is bound to cause resentment, hostility, and a defensive stance. You can get the same message across with the application of subtlety-let somebody else make the same point. A top life insurance agent I know asks his new clients to write a letter to him stating why they dropped XYZ Company's policy and replaced it with his. By getting local people in the community to state their dissatisfaction, they do his criticizing without him having to utter a word.
Showing letters and news articles instead of verbally assaulting the competition has another advantage: the printed word carries more weight than the spoken word. A negative statement in print conveys more credibility than one stated verbally by a salesperson. This is true because as a salesperson you are suspected of having the ulterior motive of making the competition look bad. However, the letter writer is a once removed disinterested party. Plus there is the fact that many people still believe that if it is written, it is true.
A favorite way of mine to knock the opposition is by not acknowledging it as a competitor. The less said, the better. For instance, a prospect who was considering doing business with another company once asked me what I thought about them. "I don't think about them," I simply replied and continued with my sales presentation. It worked like a charm.