Q: In regards to working on a big new project with a prospect, we showed huge savings and better operation. The customer gave all our information to the current supplier and they matched it.  Is it ok to go above the buyer’s head?

Q: One of my salespeople just spent a great deal of time convincing a prospective school system to change the way they used the product we sell. The buyer decided to make those changes, and ask the current vendor for a price.  All my sales person’s efforts went for nothing, as the customer, instead of rewarding him for his efforts with a purchase order, took the program out to bid.  Is there anything he could have done differently to prevent this?

A: I’m going to make a lot of sales managers uncomfortable with this answer. This is not going to be what you expect to hear.

First, it is important to note some of the common, and important, factors in these two situations.  In both of these examples, the account in question was a prospect – someone who has not bought from you in the past.  The deal was a “big deal.”  Not some small routine order – the deal required new behaviors and a new order of things on the part of the account.  In both cases, there was an established vendor who had an existing relationship with the account.   And, in both cases, the salespeople were selling basically the same thing that the established vendor was selling.  Every single one of these factors is important.

Prospects and Predictability

I think every salesperson who has more than a year or so of B2B experience under his belt has a similar story to tell – you put in a lot of time on a “prospect,” showing them a better way to do something, and when it came time to make the decision, instead of being rewarded for your efforts,  the established vendor was given preferential treatment.  In some cases, they are provided with a copy of your work, in others, they are just asked to deliver something similar, or match your price.  It just doesn’t seem fair.  And, yet, it is so common as to be predictable.

When all four of those factors are at play in a situation, you almost never get an equal chance at the business.

The Customer’s Perspective

Let’s look at the situation from the customer’s point of view.  From his perspective, giving your information to the established vendor is a wise choice.  They don’t have any real experience with you, so deciding to do business with you is always a higher risk.  They know the current vendor.  They have a history together.  They know how that vendor will react if something goes wrong.

Think about what happens to that purchasing agent or decision-maker if he decides to take a chance with a company he doesn’t know, with whom he has no personal experience, and you don’t perform?  It could mean his job.  So, while your work may have been helpful, and your proposal creative and insightful, you are still the high-risk choice.  This is particularly true if it is a big deal.  The bigger and more complex the deal, the more likely it is that the current supplier will be brought in to match it.  From the customer’s point of view, it is always better to work with someone they know, than to take the risk with an unknown entity like you.

Don’t Be Foolish

Now, directly to your point.  Should you go above the contact person’s head?  Absolutely not.  He or she is going to side with the person who made the decision for exactly the same reason.  You’ll end up looking foolish and naive in that account, and burning your bridges with both the decision-maker and his higher-up.

I know it is difficult, I know it hurts, and I know you don’t want to let this injustice go, but my advice is to get over it.  Chalk it up to experience.  You shouldn’t have spent the time in this account, to begin with.  The mistake isn’t the account’s; it’s yours.

Learn From the Situation

But now you know better.  When all four factors are in play in an account, it is going to be a waste of your time.  Don’t let it happen again.

Change It Up!

Instead, do this.  Work on changing two of the four factors.  If you have a prospect account, with an established vendor, never present a “big deal” on something the established vendor can match.  You will invariably lose.  Instead, find some small, inconspicuous piece of business that no one cares about, and make a great proposal on that.  Pick off a couple of small pieces of business to give yourself visibility and history in the account.  Leverage that visibility and relationship to the point that a year or two from now you will no longer be seen as the “high risk” choice.

Or, take your product or service out of the “commodity” perception on the part of the customer.  That means that you need to have a product or service that the current established vendor can not match or duplicate.  It could be a product or service, or a combination of products.  If the existing competitor can not possibly match or come close to matching your offer, you have changed the dynamics of the equation.

Unfortunately, some of the lessons we learn in our sales careers are painful to learn.  This is one of them.

Now, before you rush to email me your story of a situation where you were successful, re-read my comments above.  Make sure your situation meets all four of the factors mentioned.  Then, please feel free to tell me about your exception to the rule.

Great question.  Thanks for asking.