£1,000,000 competitive analysis

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I have always felt that salespeople that are well educated make more effective salespeople. I don’t mean whether they have a Degree or a PhD; I am referring to their ability to overcome objections during the sales cycle by being well informed about their market, their products and their competitors’ products without having to call in product experts to help them out.

I had the opportunity to put my theories into practice when I was tasked by Northern Telecom to set up and manage a Competitive Analysis function for their EMEA CPE product group. At the time Nortel, as they became known, had just launched their new PABX, the Meridian, having been very successful in the market with their SL-1.

I devised a two-stage strategy. First of all I created a database using Filemaker Pro on my Mac which contained information about all competing products. This took some effort and probably didn’t contain ALL competing products, but it was relatively quick to get going.

I visited one of the large telecom shows in Geneva and brought back 17Kg of brochure-ware. Images were scanned into product entries and feature lists created using tick-list buttons in the database. This allowed reports to be generated of which products contained such and such a feature.

This competitive analysis function was EMEA-wide so I circulated an advert for it to all out regional sales offices and our distributors’ sales offices too. I based the advert on a famous advert for McGraw Hill, changing the text:

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If you don’t know who they are, and you don’t know their product
If you don’t know what they stand for and you don’t know their customers
If you don’t know their record and you don’t know their reputation
Then how can you compete effectively against them?

I also added a queries section to the database. Any question about any competitive product was logged along with the answer. Answers could be found from other sales teams, market data from market analyst reports, my own competitive database and by phoning other manufacturers or their distributors. 

I guaranteed an answer within 48 working hours, the database reports showed I hit an average reply time of 24 working hours. Each month, all questions and answers were circulated in an omnibus edition.

The second stage of the competitive analysis strategy was to deliver a heavy-weight report each quarter. Feedback suggested the Ericsson MD110 was seen as overall number one competitor to the Meridian, so that was the product which was the subject of the first report.

At the time, Nortel has an extensive R&D arm called BNR. BNR did produce detailed competitive breakdowns of competing products, but from a technical perspective, rather than a sales perspective. Nonetheless some of their information was useful and I repurposed some of it for use in this report. Other information came from the previously mentioned sources.

As we learn best by basing new information on information we already know and our sales teams were naturally already familiar with both the SL-1 and the new Meridian, I decided the format of the report would be a “compare and contrast” model; this is how they do it, this is how we do it.

I took each of the publicised benefits of the Ericsson product and analysed them to ascertain what they were really saying and the implications of what they said. This included line card densities, MTBF figures, restart times, the amount of real estate the system configurations required and system architectures such as illustrated below:

"Superloop" backplane architecture of the Meridian, based on a diagram first published by BNR

"Superloop" backplane architecture of the Meridian, based on a diagram first published by BNR

The report was intended for consumption by sales teams, account managers and pre-sales support as well as other marketers. I used Pagemaker to publish it, so the layout of the 30 or so pages were nicely designed, with lots of use of white space for improved legibility. I wanted the report to be read! The competitive analysis function was offered as a branded service and the whole report received this branding.

Backplane architecture of the MD110 as drawn by me

Backplane architecture of the MD110 as drawn by me

After the report had been published I received a call from the Comms Manager for a well known financial institution. As it happened the two of us were previously acquainted. She had received a copy of the report, although it was not really intended for use by customers, but a helpful sales person had handed it over... 

However her company was an SL-1 customer and she really wanted to stay with Nortel and upgrade to the new Meridian, but Ericsson had quoted at a considerable discount to the new Merdian. By the time I had taken “Diane” through the report she understood the differences between the two products such that she was able to compare the two quotes.

Diane told me that it became apparent that the two quotes were not like for like and once Ericsson had requoted and requoted they had lost credibility with the management team and lost the contract.

Howsoever, I knew we had won this contract because I was also running a “Win/Loss analysis” program and this particular bid came in, reported as a win.

The contract value was a nice, round £1,000,000.