How to Beat an Incumbent Competitor: Advice From a Military Genius

By Andrew Sobel

Most large corporations already have well-established relationships with advisors and service providers in major areas such as banking, consulting, accounting, IT services, legal services, and so on. Because of this, it’s not easy to gain a foothold. If a client is happy with your competitor, they need a compelling reason to choose you over them.

Analogously, in the US Congress it’s very hard to beat an incumbent for similar reasons—they have huge advantages in terms of free publicity, existing relationships with voters, a network of grateful financial donors, favors they can do for stakeholders, and so on.

Yet, incumbent competitors in business can be beaten. Doing so, however, requires a careful strategy, determination, and patience.

Medieval town of Carcassonne at sunset
Medieval town of Carcassonne at sunset

Principles: Advice from a famous military strategist

Carl von Clausewitz (1780 –1833), a Prussian general, was one of the most famous military strategists of his era. He wrote a brilliant book called “On War,” which is still studied today. One of his most famous quotes is, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

Here are five of Clausewitz’s “principles of battle.” They are highly applicable to the challenge of breaking into a new client where there is a strong competitor.

  1. Focus: “We must select for an attack one point of the enemy’s position and attack it with great superiority.” To win a new client who already works with your competitor, focus on an area where you are clearly differentiated or have tangible strengths vis-à-vis your competitor. I’ve seen firms make inroads because they had a strong presence in a particular market or country, or had done some unique research around an issue of importance to the client. Ask yourself, Where do we have a particular strength we can leverage? Also, remember: if your client has to give up their relationship with another provider in order to have a relationship with you, that’s a high hurdle for them to get over. It’s much easier if they can keep their existing friends while adding another friend (you!) in a very focused area.
  2.  Surprise:One of the strongest weapons of offensive warfare is the surprise attack…it is the most important element of victory.” If possible, try to come in under the radar. If an incumbent finds out their client is having very preliminary talks with you, they may be able to put the kibosh on your efforts and convince the client to cut you off. If they only become aware of your presence when you are about to sign a deal, however, they may be unable to stop you. You might even consider coaching your contact about this, reminding them that it would be human nature to try and block you, which would not be in his or her interests.
  3. Audacity:…never forget that no military leader has ever become great without audacity.” If you want to penetrate an already well-served account, you have to be bold. You have to walk in with great confidence. You must project strength and deep experience. Successful rainmakers aren’t intimidated because there’s already a strong competitor in place. They know that things can change overnight, and sometimes they do.
  4. Shelter: “…obstacles in the terrain enable us to place our troops under cover
…to support our flank, it must be absolutely impassible, such as a large river or lake.” Clausewitz writes extensively about terrain and how to use it to your advantage in a battle. In our language, the obstacle for the incumbent competitor would be the shelter of a trusted relationship that you develop with a key executive. If someone likes and trusts you, it represents a strong barrier to being pushed away by other executives who are loyal to an incumbent. This means you must cultivate a relationship—even more than in other cases—to underpin the ultimate sale. If no-one feels a personal connection to you and your solution, you’ll be easily dislodged.
  5. Energetic Follow Up: “(We must) follow up our successes with the utmost energy.” On the first project or engagement, you have to do a great job and even exceed expectations. Your client has to receive validation of their decision to hire you, especially since they may have been under pressure not to.

Helpful Tactics

We’ve learned some key strategic principles from von Clausewitz. Now let’s briefly review some tactics that will help you break into an incumbent.

  1. Look for trigger events. There are a number of circumstances that will make it easier to break in. These could include things such as:
  • A conflict of interest with an existing provider, who has to withdraw from a transaction or project
  • Executive changes
  • Reorganizations
  • Economic events or shocks
  • Turnover or retirements at the competition
  • A service or quality failure on the part of your competition
  1. If you are making a cold call, develop a tailored approach that aligns with one of the client’s key goals. To quote a senior executive I recently interviewed: “People who are trying to get an appointment with me leave voice messages and send emails all the time—but I ignore most of them. They leave general messages like, “We have an interesting solution that we’d like to show you,” but that doesn’t get my attention. But something like this does: “We have a tested solution that can help you dramatically improve you ability to implement stronger risk controls. It’s currently being used by Microsoft, GE, and Google.”
  2. Try to identify something small or non-threatening (to the incumbent) that you can work on. As I mentioned, if in order to hire you a client has to dump an existing advisor with whom it has a good relationship, your chances of success are very small.
  3. Invest to earn the client’s trust and respect. The incumbent has the advantage and you’re probably going to have to go above and beyond in terms of making an up-front investment in understanding the client’s issues and organization, and building their trust. If something goes wrong with their relationship with your competitor, they will reach towards someone else they already trust—and that should be you.
  4. Identify executives in the client organization who are not as loyal to the other provider. You’ll certainly be able to capture the attention and interest of these executives more easily, potentially dividing and conquering.
  5. Earn share of mind: emphasize innovation and new ideas. Clients are always looking for fresh perspectives, and they will usually not let an existing relationship get in the way of at least listening to someone else’s good ideas. Develop a contrarian position about one of their important issues, and you’ll most likely get a hearing. And remember, to get share of wallet you need to first win some share of mind!
  6. Be patient and persistent. It may take many visits and many conversations over a long period of time—months or even a year or two—to find the right opening.
  7. Stay in touch so you are there when your opportunity comes up. This applies to any new business development situation, but even more so when there is a major, established competitor. You have to be there when “the dam breaks” so to speak.
  8. Pick your shots. It takes investment, so be selective about investing your time, and focus on opportunities where the potential payoff is highest.

Look on the bright side. When a client has an established relationship with your competition, it means that: the client has a need for your services; they are used to using external providers in your market; and, they value a long-term relationship. These are all strong positives. In other words, there’s plenty of honey in the beehive—you just have to romance the bees and get by the bear who is guarding it!

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