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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  May 01, 2009

Competing in Crowded Markets: Three Criteria All Busy Buyers Use

Originally published for RainToday.com

I get too many calls from professional service experts who are brilliant, who are talented, who do good work…and they are stuck. They are restless with the projects they have, or they want more clients at higher price points. They feel that there is something “bigger” out there. They want to get to the “next level,” but everything they try doesn’t seem to work.

There are bigger opportunities out there for us if we are willing to do one thing: reach out to buyers who don’t see us as the only option — yet. And this is much easier said than done.

Decision makers with many options are a very different animal. They don’t assume our value. They are hard to pin down. Crowded markets are chaotic and frankly, can be daunting. It’s like walking into a crowded room without knowing a soul. You need to be there; business growth depends on it. But because these buyers have so many other options, it feels like you don’t have an advantage. It can feel vulnerable; and for those of us who like to be in control, that rarely feels good.

When buyers have lots of choices, they behave in very illogical, but predictable, ways. When we get a bead on how they decide, we can turn turmoil into opportunity. Below are three things all buyers do in competitive environments.

Are you really competing?

Competition is another one of those big words that can mean anything we want. My definition: competition is all about comparisons. Competition is a situation where a decision maker choose to consider a variety of options. There is not a sole source provider. The buyers sees many alternatives and weighs those options to make the best choice. Whoever controls the criteria controls the comparisons. Whoever controls the comparisons controls the competition.

The key words here are “chooses to consider.” Not every buyer looks at all their options. Sometimes, they take the path of least resistance for several reasons, such as political expediency. We’ve all had situations where we are the sole source provider. We’ve become known in a few companies, and get hired time and time again. Especially in the beginning, we build our business with what I call “here’s my check” situations. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s our reward for doing good work. It’s just not competition.

Taking those assignments will only grow our business so far. When that’s not enough, we have to compete in a completely different environment, where the sale isn’t a given. Where buyers are overwhelmed with choices. Where we are being compared to criteria we don’t control.

How buyers decide

When faced with options from all directions, buyers feel under siege. To manage the situation and make the best choice, many decision makers base their criteria on three things — their need for control, their past experiences, and current situation. Here’s how it works:

First thing buyers do when they have a lot of options is to simplify the decision. The more options they have, the easier it is to become overwhelmed. The choices have to be cut down to a more manageable level quickly and easily.

I’ll never forget the years I chaired the program committee for an international conference. I was the point person for speaker selection and it felt like standing in front of a tidal wave. Ideas and suggestions coming fast, furious and from all sides. Board members were making requests, sponsors were demanding speaking slots, speaking proposals were flooding in. It was overwhelming! The first thing I did was to list very simple standards in the RFP (request for presentations). I was shocked by how many suggestions and proposals didn’t fit. But that made it easy to quickly “thin the herd.”

The second thing buyers do when faced with a lot of alternatives is they trust their instinct. They have strong opinions about what they need and what they don’t. The latter is usually the result of lessons learned the hard way. I call these “deals with the Almighty.” You’ve made these before. When something goes horribly wrong, you look up to the sky and say, “If you just let me get through this I will never do (fill in the blank) again.” And it goes beyond bad habits like smoking and drinking. It’s promises like, “I’ll be far more careful before I hire anyone again.”

Saying these decision makers are jaded is an understatement. They have their guard up. They trust their past experiences more than they trust what we tell them. Result: we can’t assume our message will be heard. Our credibility does not precede our conversations.

The third thing buyers do is go micro. Because in the final round of consideration, there’s not that much difference between the options. Any difference is so small that it’s basically a coin toss. Therefore, the smallest criteria will tip the scale. You can win or lose the deal based on the tiniest, most illogical thing.

So don’t try to figure out why. You rarely get an answer that will satisfy you. Trust me, their explanation just won’t make sense. Expect something nebulous such as, “Weeellll, this person had blue eyes and yours are brown.” And you’ll think to yourself, “Hey! You knew my eyes were brown when we started this.” Yes, it will be that silly.

Show up and compete

No matter what field you are in, or how good you are, there will come a time that you will have to compete for buyers who have alternatives. Being able to show up and compete in a crowded environment is a skill that will break you out of any kind of rut. It will help you withstand any economy and market dynamic. Your business can not get to the next level until we can get the speaking invitation, the consulting assignment, the coaching contract in the face of other choices.

Filed Under: Market Strategy, Sales


About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.