20. 06. 2019

Unseating the Incumbent

Unseating the Incumbent

Displacing an existing solution is one of the toughest challenges in sales. Here’s how to tackle it.

Running into an incumbent supplier throws down a gauntlet to any ambitious account executive.

It’s a true test of salesmanship to uproot an existing provider, but it can seem like an impossible task to triumph in the face of your established competition, especially when they likely have longstanding relationships and superior customer knowledge in their favour. However, the rewards of doing so can be exceptional.

Toppling incumbents requires research, strategy and outstanding execution.

How do you pull it off?


How you first approach the discussion with a prospect is critical. Adopting the stance that you are competing directly with the existing solution - as though you were both pitching for the same first-time business - quickly leads to a head-to-head feature battle where you are the unknown contender up against a reigning champ.

Inertia and resistance to change will quickly win out.    

Rather than take this path, move the discussion to a choice between investing in your solution and maintaining the status quo, positioning the incumbent as the ‘doing nothing’ option rather than revitalising them as a competitor to be defeated from scratch.  

Re-framing the dialogue in this way helps add freshness and momentum to your proposal and legitimises a discussion around change and an investment opportunity with ROI potential. 

Find Someone Who Really Cares

Every sales rep’s training double-underlines the importance of pitching high up the org chart and impressing the fabled C-suite.

While this is important (we’ll see why later), somewhere in the decision-making group is someone whose job performance (and potentially, career path) will change if they have a better tool to deliver better results. Rather than waste time presenting feature comparisons to a disinterested boardroom, invest this time detailing the superior functionality your solution offers to the key user group and getting them personally invested by understanding the impact this investment could have on their own trajectory.

If you’re working at a smaller vendor, the chances are that your product goes deeper in key areas and has a high chance of evolving faster than a creaky enterprise solution that has workarounds, patches and add-ons used to tape over the cracks. It also helps to weight your demos towards any short-term feature advantages, so that prospects can envisage real-life improvement with your solution straight out of the gate.

To back you up, work with marketing and sales enablement to get real-life customer success stories. It’s a cliché for reps to tell customers that “tons of people are moving over to our product”. Even if it’s true, it sounds hollow.

Few things hit harder than a compelling customer testimonial detailing why they switched and what the results have been.

If your company has a genuine chance of winning business away from comfortable incumbents on a meaningful scale, it’s worth showcasing the rationale to move in full.

Aim high, think big

Just as your interactions with those closest to the product should be big on user benefits, it’s vital to switch gears when your time comes to pitch to senior leadership.

A few things are important here:

  •  Demonstrate value creation

Senior business leaders are primarily concerned with cost, risk and revenue.

Moving away from an established solution creates risk.

Unless your offering is significantly cheaper, any cost savings may fail to outweigh the risk of change (plus disruption caused by migration, integration, retraining etc.).

This leaves you with revenue.

Focus on how your solution creates new revenue opportunity for the customer wherever possible (quicker time to market, creation of actionable data insights, employee productivity, advanced competitor intelligence etc.).

Keep in mind that hinting at and demonstrating revenue potential aren’t the same thing. If you’re pitching to a large buyer, you’ll need to show detailed projections in your proposal exactly as an entrepreneur would pitching for investment. Treat your C-suite audience as investors and show them how adopting your solution leads to top-line growth.

The chances are that the incumbent is asleep at the wheel regarding the way their product is impacting the customer’s financial performance, so if you deliver a compelling presentation you stand a chance of pitching against an opponent who fails to show up.

  • Sell the dream

To win over big-picture thinkers in senior positions, reps need to present their solution as a long-term game-changer that helps the customer achieve their strategic goals. This means beginning with a vision of the full solution in action, showcasing all the ways that it supports business objectives. Taking this as a start point has a radically different impact from beginning with a feature-led product demo and working your way up to how the solution creates value in the long term. 

Meet risk head-on

A big headwind against anyone trying to displace incumbents is the risk associated with change. From who shoulders responsibility if a supplier switch goes south, to the financial and performance impacts on a business level, risk is on everyone’s minds.

Leaving this up to the customer to figure out on their own is only delivering half the pitch.

Instead, you need to work (much) harder than your customer to show that you have stepped into their shoes and understood the risk of change, creating a thorough, actionable transformation journey that demonstrates how each relevant risk factor can be managed and mitigated.