If you sell something – a product, a service, yourself, whatever – there are inevitably going to be times when you lose to a competitor, your customer finds an alternative solution to his/her problem or he/she simply decides to do nothing. When your selling process doesn’t involve much direct contact with your customer (selling indirectly through dealers, distributors or VARs or directly via the Web) it’s difficult to determine if you’ve lost a deal because you were never interactively engaged in closing one. If you sell directly, though, the painful reality of the loss is not only immediately experienced, but is completely actionable.
More often than not, when a direct salesperson loses a deal, they quickly move onto the next deal, licking their wounds and fretting over the time they wasted on the lost sale. When they do this, they pass up on a huge opportunity for future sales to that “lost” customer. This opportunity presents itself because of a variety of reasons, but the two primary ones are:
- People are uncomfortable saying “no” and, for the most part, feel bad about telling you that you lost to the competition. When this happens, they are easily convinced into doing something for you in return for your acceptance of their rejection.
- The honeymoon is over once the sale is closed. The support and focus offered by the winning company will decline and problems with the product/service will be uncovered. The customer will almost assuredly question if they made the right choice during this period.
Aside from the hard-ass purchasing agents that you may have to deal with in closing a sale once in a while, buyers of your products or services are generally reasonable people that have trouble dishing out rejection. Even if it’s not outwardly apparent, most people struggle with it. So, when they tell you that you’ve lost on your bid to sell to them, they will likely be open to granting any reasonable request that you make in order to allay the bad feelings they have about conveying the negative news they’ve just delivered.
Of course, the request has to be reasonable, but you should feel comfortable asking for their evaluation documentation, final decision criteria, access to the person or team that made the decision, even phone numbers of high-level executives in the company that might have only heard about the final decision as opposed to being involved in making it. The goal of what you get should be to positively set you up for the next time around. By using the opportunity you gained by losing the sale, you can get access to information and people that will help you form a relationship that you can base future sales on.
While you are using your recently created leverage to build a solid and positive relationship with your newest best friend – your lost customer – your competition will likely be struggling to meet all the promises made during the selling process. During this time, you should be using the good will you have developed to lock-in you role as the clear alternative to the winner of the initial sale. If you work the situation well, you may get some strong advocates inside the customer to start to lean your way and eventually, may set up another opportunity for you to sell your wares to them again.
None of this effort need get in the way of working other deals at the same time. It’s surprising how little time it takes to leverage your loss. In fact, the opportunities are actually put on the table by the customer. All you have to do is take advantage of them. A few phone calls, several emails and a lunch or two and you’re well on your way. The trick is that you have to keep after it. As it is with any selling process, no news is almost always bad news. Keep the lines of communication open and active and you’ll be amazed at how far you’ll get.
Two important factors to consider in your effort to be your lost customer’s best alternative are whether or not they are an experienced buyer of the type of solution that you and your competitors offer and, if they have been a user of a particular product or service for a long period of time. If, for example, they are buying a solution in your space for the nth time, they are likely to have developed some expertise in the area and will be relatively knowledgeable about their own needs and how the offered products and services are differentiated. A similar situation exists when they have used one competing product/service for a long period of time. They will be experts in that product/service and will have developed internal processes around it. In both these cases, making yourself the best alternative is still valuable, but it is less likely that you will replace the chosen solution in the short-term. As such, you should balance your efforts in these accounts with the likelihood that you can make headway in them.
Good salespeople never pass up on the opportunity to capitalize on a loss – a second (even third, fourth or fifth) place finish. Since they’ve already done most of the selling work required, the effort in a loss is to build a strong relationship so they are the first people contacted when the customer runs into problems with their first choice. Since a reasonably high percentage of first sales fail, the salesperson positioned as the likely alternative often finds themselves in the position of losing the battle, but winning the war.