Positioning against a Competitor

“It’s so much better with a strong competitor. It’s so much easier.” – Alex Dayon

[Scene, Interior, 2011: a team of 22 mid-market Salesforce sales reps in the Chicago office are hitting the phones, calling and emailing every account where we lost to Microsoft in the last 18 months. Calling every target account. Pitching each customer on the new Salesforce Advantage positioning, the 7 things only Salesforce CRM can deliver, with specific proof points for each, that Microsoft has no answer to. Meetings and demos are getting booked. Rip-and-replace opportunities are getting created. High fives. Smiles. Swagger.]

Positioning against a Competitor Creates Clarity, Focus, and Momentum

You know you’re a product marketer when you’ve been trying to figure out how to position your product and company for days/weeks/months and you finally blurt out “positioning is hard!”

PMM isn’t ‘waiting tables’ hard, or ‘digging coal’ hard, but positioning is difficult because it’s what those math folks call an under-constrained problem. “Under-constrained” problems are those in which we have too many options, so we get stymied, unable to move forward. 

The best way to break this paralysis is to pick a competitor to position against in order to add a constraint to the problem, making it easier to solve. In your positioning statement, this is a deep dive into the “unlike approach/competitor X….” piece. 

Picking a Competitor Best Practice: Just Pick

If you’ve got a clear top competitor, or a competitor you think will be the top bogey in a market you’re moving into, that’s easiest. But if you pick any competitor that you are ever up against in deals, that’s good enough. At Salesforce, Microsoft had incrementally strengthened their product over the preceding 2 years, which (whoa!) made it easier for Salesforce to position against.

We pick a competitor because it helps us move forward to build positioning that we will version on against the next competitor, or against the customer’s ‘current approach without technology.’ It’s iterative. You’ll improve by doing. Don’t spend cycles up front trying to precisely determine the best competitor to position against. Just pick a viable one and get going.

Step 1: Profile the Competitor

Your first step as a PMM is to profile the competitor. Read the competitor’s website, download/read/watch all their presentations, marketing assets, and read profiles of them on G2 and Gartner. How do they describe themselves? What are the strengths that jump out at you? What strengths are highlighted in their customer stories? How do they package and price their products? How does the structure of their website telegraph to you what they want the market to focus on? Go listen to stories from your sales people about how the competitor sells against them. The competitor’s positioning will be reflected in all of these. 

Tip: Be the competition’s PMM for a half-hour. Write a positioning statement that makes them sound valuable, different, credible, proven, exciting. Put their best foot forward. Then go do something else and come back later to read what you wrote and make it better.

Step 2: Contrast-Profile Yourself

With the competitor’s strongest positioning as your backboard, write a list of the ways in which you are different, then sort the list by the differences that matter most to your customer and put you at greatest advantage. 

Write a sentence that goes something like “Unlike WhooBeeCom, we focus on the X market, and bring expertise in R, with our product(s) that do A, B, and C, so that customers can F, G, and H, which lets our customers achieve Q.”

Step 3: Check Yourself before You…

You’re not alone. You have every other employee in your company, especially hardened sales people. You have customer success managers, customers themselves, partners, reasonably intelligent friends. Buy them coffee. Test your positioning with open-ended requests for feedback. Let’s say you get a few minutes with your smart colleague Martha.

“I want to read you the way I think we’re different than X, and then I want you to react. [Read statement]. What do you think?”

Then shut your mouth. Let silence get Martha to think and talk. Don’t talk. Don’t explain. She will start talking because silence is so socially uncomfortable. When she starts talking, let her finish a sentence, then ask “what do you mean by that?” The goal here is to avoid coaching her response/perceptions toward yours and keep pulling out more insight. Ask for an example. Then make it real: “Martha, if you said this in a customer meeting today, what do you think the reaction would be? Which parts would make you feel like you’re talking out your ass? How would you put it into your own words?”

Step 4: Build Support & Alignment

Once you’ve done this, it’s time to start getting feedback. Go to your product manager, your boss, a senior sales leader. Ask for coaching. Explain what you’re trying to achieve. Say you need help. Ask what they think. Ask who else you should bounce this off of. Including them in the guidance of your process will incline them to collaborate with you and support you.

Just a Beginning

The above approach is just a beginning. To get to the opening scene of success above, you’ll need leadership and sales to be excited to run a sales and/or marketing campaign. You’ll want sales enablement to see how this advances their own agenda. Ditto sales leadership. Ditto your competitive team. Ditto your CEO.

Competitive positioning is one of the ways PMMs deliver unique value for your company. And a good way to get promoted.

What have you done differently? Comments are open, below. 

The Front Porch
Moss Beach, California

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