Three Thoughts on Competitiveness in Salespeople

Anthony Iannarino
Post by Anthony Iannarino
January 29, 2010

Yesterday’s post on competitiveness in salespeople brought three comments, all of which require more than a response in the comments section under the original post.

Dave Brock at Partners in Excellence On Ethics and Personal Best

The first is from my friend, Dave Brock at Partners in Excellence (hereinafter Brock, so as not confuse him with another Dave in this post). There aren’t many people as thoughtful as Brock, and so I take his comments seriously. Dave’s comments speak to two issues with my post on competitiveness. The first concerns the ethical issues surrounding participation in a zero sum game. He says:

It may sound like word-smithing, but I don’t mean it this way. I am driven to win, I really don’t care about my competitor, but winning is a personal goal. Somehow if I focus on a zero sum, while I would also be winning, I think the behaviors I might display are different than those I would display by focusing on my personal goal of being successful.

And Brock is correct; there is no doubt that the fact that sales is a zero sum game can (and does) impact the way that some play the game. But my recommendation that salespeople be ferocious competitors is not a recommendation that it be done unethically.

In fact, unethical behaviors are not competitive. Unethical strategies and tactics may allow a salesperson to win for a time, but in the long run those same strategies and tactics are their undoing.

Brock’s fears that some may interpret my call for competitiveness in a zero sum game as a license to use any method available is certainly a valid concern, and I am glad he brought it up so that I could dispatch it here.

Brock’s second point is that it may in fact be better to focus on doing your personal best, and that by doing your personal best you may be able to deliver more for your clients . . . especially when your competitors aren’t capable of creating the same value.

My drive to succeed is performing at the highest level possible. To beat my previous levels of performance, and to succeed. If I only focused on beating the competition, I would hold myself to a lower standard—frankly, it’s easy to beat competitors. I would also be doing my customer a disservice, because I may not be serving them the best.

And I am in complete agreement. Almost. I don’t have any tattoos, but if I did I would surely have the Japanese phrase Masakatsu Agatsu (True Victory is Victory Over Oneself). The running theme of this blog is personal effectiveness in sales, and the greatest obstacle to that success is almost always oneself!

But I have to challenge the assertion that it is enough to do one’s best. In a zero sum game it isn’t enough to do your best. You have to do your best and you have to try to beat your competitors.

To do less than everything possible to beat your competitors would be to dishonor them as competitors, or to not take their threat seriously enough. Sales is a blood sport, and your competitors undoubtedly trying to beat you. I also believe this can lead to dangerously underestimating your competitors.

Brock says:

Imagine what would happen both in the profession of selling and the value we could create for our customers if we focused our competitive drive on performing at the highest level, rather than simply beating the competitor. Wouldn’t we achieve much more for our customers? Wouldn’t we learn more about ourselves and improve? And, oh by the way, we will beat other high performing sales people.

I believe that competition is part of what drives all of us to create more value and ensures that we do in fact perform at the highest level.

Which segues nicely with fear.

Tom X. on Fear and Competitiveness

Tom’s story is wonderful. He took a personality profile when he joined his present employer and scored very low on the competitive segment of the test. He took it again at the CEO’s direction and scored low again. He still got hired. He was Producer of the year in his first year and made the top three his second year.

Tom suggests that his motivation isn’t his desire to win. Instead it is his fear of losing. His words: “In this economy, I simply fear losing my job, my house, and everything else.”

I don’t know Tom, but I believe that it is his fear of losing that is driving his competitiveness. There are lots of motivations that drive competitiveness. Some people are competitive because they like to beat other people. Some people just hate to lose. And some people are competitive because they simply can’t afford to lose.

His fear reinforces my statement that sales is a blood sport. Losing can have very unpleasant consequences!

Dave Stein of ES Research on Strategy and Tactics in the Field

Dave Stein (hereinafter Stein) bows out of the philosophical discussion that Brock and I are engaged in, and adds instead this:

I would like to raise the subject of competitive selling approaches and skills. I was very lucky to have been exposed early on in my sales career to very powerful competitive selling concepts, strategies and tactics. I worked hard and became a very tough competitor. You know I’m not talking about slamming the competition, or what’s equally as ineffective, ignoring them. It’s more (pardon the hackneyed expression) like a chess game played by someone who can literally see five moves ahead.

Stein’s company evaluates sales training programs and “always includes questions about the trainer’s approach and content in the area of competitive selling. It’s that important.”

This is the tactical application of the salesperson’s competitiveness. I can’t say it any better than Stein, so one more quote:

Having a good knowledge of your competitor’s company and products and services is important. Everyone knows that. But analyzing how the other rep in the deal sells on the street, coupled with the ability to build deliberate and specific offensive strategies and defensive counter-strategies with the appropriate supporting tactics and counter-tactics leads to the true meaning of the term, “Outselling your competition.”

This approach is too rare. Knowing how your competitors expect to win is extremely useful in determining a strategy and the tactics to necessary to beat them. All of this on competition and zero sum games (and more) can be found here.

Ponder these thoughtful comments. Then act accordingly and fight like Hell.


Are my competitive behaviors within the boundaries of ethical behavior?

Am I bringing my personal best performance to every competition?

Am I learning from competitors when I lose and using those losses to learn how to create greater value for my customers?

Do I know how my competitors expect to win? Do I have the strategies and the tactics to back up my competitiveness and to win?

Anthony Iannarino
Post by Anthony Iannarino
January 29, 2010