Pick the Field and Time

Quick Summary: You may not be able to control the sales opportunity, but you can choose how to compete.


Every experienced sales rep understands that if they are only involved after a prospect has issued a request for proposal, the competitive battle has probably already been lost.  Determine how you can tip the scales on the battle field long before the actual engagement.

Starting with Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military strategist and the author of The Art of War (circa 500 B.C.) to today, the importance of timing and position are probably the two most important factors in determining the outcome of a battle.  Today’s highly competitive, commercial environment is no different, but both factors are often overlooked.  Instead, knee-jerk reactionary tactics are pursued with an attitude of “let’s do whatever it takes” to get an order occurs.

Many of the articles in the sales, marketing, customers, and strategy chapters in this volume discuss different aspects of timing and positioning vis-à-vis competitors.  The two articles, “Avoid Fair Fights” and “Disarm Them” are particularly applicable.  Additionally, a few other factors, as described below, should be considered in picking when and how to compete.

Always Overestimate Your Competition
Unfortunately, during internal discussions, the tendency is to disparage competitors and tout your company’s superior list of features and benefits often discounting factors in which competitors may excel.  In fact, pointing out weaknesses in your offering is often viewed as exhibiting a “bad attitude” or the person not being a “team player”.  Instead of just stating weaknesses, switch roles and develop responses to the statement “If I were a competitor, this is what I would do”.  Give them the benefit of doubt.  Think how they may extend or change their offering by doing the unexpected.

Choose Not to Fight
Follow Sun Tzu’s advice of “When outnumbered avoid the enemy”.  Outnumbered can take on many forms including the size and reach of your organization.  It makes no sense to fight a battle that you cannot win.  While you are expending time and energy resources on the losing cause, other opportunities may not be addressed properly.  A common trap occurs when individuals or organization that do not have to directly commit resources insist on pursuing all battles, independent of the realistic odds of being successful.  Often, you will hear their battle cry of “It’s strategic” as their justification of committing your resources to the “opportunity” while they sit on the sidelines watching the battle.

When Elephants Fight, Ants Die First

There are a number of variations of the African proverb used as the title of this issue.  Often, new companies, or companies that are entering new markets, are confronted with large, well-established, aggressive competitors that are already engaged in competitive warfare.  They will have set the rules of engagement.  Even if you have some significant advantages, you will be expected to be able to “check the boxes” and do what they do too.  Often the rounding error in their marketing expense allocations will exceed your entire budget.  Find another place to compete where the elephants dare not tread.  Perhaps it is “thin ice” that simply cannot support their weight.  For example, it could be in new regions or with smaller customers, or customers that simply cannot afford the prices required by their overhead structure.

Avoid Head to Head Confrontations

The stories of smaller armies defeating larger armies are legend.  Alexander the Great was famous for constantly winning battles when his army was outnumbered by a factor of ten, twenty, and even fifty times. He found ways of avoiding direct confrontations with his enemies’ strongest forces.  He outflanked them.  Your challenge is to understand and then exploit a competitor's vulnerabilities.  They are always present but may not be obvious.  The article in this collection “Disarm Them” discusses this tactic in more detail.  Although it may sound noble to “fight the good fight” and lose, that outcome does not pay the bills!

Understand a Competitor’s Goals

Of course, a competitor wants to receive an order just as you do.  However, is their underlying goal to increase their market share at any cost, to protect a customer relationship, to increase their profitability, or perhaps to stop you from gaining any type of foothold?  Develop your competitive strategy accordingly.  It could be very different based on what they hope to accomplish.  Carefully considered what you should emphasize or minimize.

Set the Stage Early

Work with a prospect early and often, “helping” them to define the rules and timing of the engagement can dramatically shift the tide in your favor.  Helping them write a request for proposal, setting delivery expectations, providing estimates to help them set their budgets, offering suggested terms and conditions, and other similar activities can help set the stage for victory.  Think how you can help position your competitors so that they are facing the sun and blinded by it.  Get to the battleground first and pick the high ground.


The above competitive tactics may seem naive and impractical.  The common criticism is that the prospect (or the competitor) has set the time and place and your company has no choice but to compete.  This assessment is typically followed by the claim of your company does not have control. This, in fact, may be true.  However, even without control you have the ability to choose how to respond.  Developing competitive time and place strategies early in the sales process, perhaps shortly after a prospect has been identified, can allow you to choose how to compete.  Understanding this issue up front may help to decide when not to even entertain the thought of a later battle.  Be ready to move on before you even start.

Article Number : 5.070401   

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