Sales Clinic: Who Are Our Competitors, And What Do We Do About It?

In today’s changing communications environment, it is often not easy for printing salespeople to know who and what they are competing against.

Sun Tzu in The Art of War summed up the battles taking place in today’s marketplace nicely:

“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”

Story of a Lost Customer

Recently, we interviewed the president of a large nonprofit organization who, though he worked with multiple commercial print providers, gave more than 50 percent of his organization’s business to one large regional commercial printer. In an interesting discussion about the future of graphic communications, it came out that the large commercial printer had not made a sales call on the leadership team of the nonprofit to discuss the impact of digital media on the organization’s business.

It is a mystery to us why salespeople and management from any commercial printer would not be in front of ALL their customers on a regular basis. They should be discussing and explaining new technology and ideas, on how to use print, to grow their customers’ business. It turned out, that this particular customer was very interested in all of the above and more.

Was it that the printer didn’t offer digital media services? Or, that they didn’t know how to demonstrate that they were more than a printing company, that they were, in fact, communication experts? Or, was it simply due to a salesperson or manager who was just so comfortable, they did not see the competition coming.

That printer lost all the business to two different competitors: a rival printing company that articulated its services well, and a marketing services firm that already managed the customer’s Web store. This competitor transferred some of the customer’s traditional printed books and manuals to digital media and distribution.

Who Are Potential Print Competitors?

Not too many years ago, a traditional printing person knew their competitors and knew them well. The advantages and weaknesses of competitors could be easily obtained by talking to customers, friends, and colleagues. Capabilities and equipment lists could also be obtained very easily.

Fast forward to today’s marketplace where printers are now facing unparalleled competition-driven technology, unrelenting cost pressures, and a very different set of rules of engagement.

Competition can come from a variety of sources:

  • Other printers selling similar products and services
  • Print consultants or print brokers
  • Agencies and public relations firms
  • Print-based marketing services providers
  • Printers that sell extended services, i.e. creative, project management, fulfillment
  • Managed services firms who convince customers to outsource or insource all their printing needs
  • Performing printing work in house
  • Digital media services providers, i.e. social media, Web marketing
  • Reduced (or no) budgets: To cut costs, many companies have significantly reduced their spending on communications directly affecting print.

Knowing the Customer and Their Customer Is Important, but Not Enough

We recommend a simple strategy when making sales calls. Constantly educate your customers; ask open ended questions and listen. Great printing sales people always keep clients apprised of changes in the marketplace, and take pride in bringing this information to their customers, before they hear it from somewhere else. This is important because if you don’t take the lead in educating customers, they will learn about these things themselves from conferences, trade shows, colleagues, the Web, and your competitors.

It is essential that your customer knows how you and your company are keeping up with market changes and innovation. In the new economy, those salespeople, who consistently offer new ideas and services, will outperform those that who stay with the same products and services. Let them know what you are planning for both your company’s and their company’s future communication services.

Best Ways to Meet, Beat the


Our research shows that when most salespeople lose a deal, they simply say their prices were too high. Rarely have we heard that they were “outsold” by a competitor or outmaneuvered by a Web communications provider. Great salespeople minimize the product and company deficiencies of their products and services by using great selling skills and competitive strategies. Here are the steps that great salespeople use to meet and beat competitors:

  • Know the customer and their customers

Sales always starts with what is important to the customer, how they define success, what value can the print services provider provide and who really makes the decisions

  • Identify current and potential competitors

Research the industry, look for signs, look for competitors in disguise, and talk to customers to know all potential competitors. Understand how they will position themselves and what you must do to overcome or minimize their advantages

  • Create your solutions, your company, and your personal value propositions

Determine and effectively convey, for each and every customer, what value your offerings, your company, and you bring to that customer. Make sure your solutions and value proposition are specifically tailored to each customer

  • Be ready and prepared for everything

Be prepared with statements, proof sources, samples, references, and industry data to combat traditional and nontraditional communications competition

  • Never criticize or trash the competition

Avoid direct conflict. Never knock the competitor’s product or service. If you knock the competitor, you are knocking the customer’s judgment. Focus on issues and not people.

If and when you are confronted unexpectedly with a competitive challenge, the best strategy is to remain calm and confident. Do not get flustered. Simply acknowledge the competition and use open-ended questions to gain as much information as you can. If it becomes clear you will lose to a competitor, be gracious and leave the door open for the future.

Knowing strengths and weaknesses of the current and potential competition, in all accounts, is a major predictor of success for printing salespeople. Building deeper relationships with customers and keeping informed on communication trends and technology is vital.

Selling in today’s environment against competition can be a battle. Another passage from Sun Tzu in The Art of War makes the process perfectly clear:

“Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so that you may know where strength is super abundant and where it is deficient.”