How to unseat the incumbent

How to muscle in, and boot the competition out

Pay-off: A paint by numbers approach to unseat the incumbent / competition and win the client you want
Investment: 8 mins

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Hi there!

You shouldn’t be clicking on titles like that! I don’t write these sorts of tips! I’m all about good honest, ethical, high-value selling. Having said that, I am going to address this much requested question. And we can keep our pride and dignity because of what I call…

‘The elegant theory of sales evolution’

I’m a big believer in letting high-value rise to the surface. I call this ‘the elegant theory of sales evolution’. Nature takes it’s course. And you can indeed, and sometimes even should unseat the incumbent. You know, if you really think you should be serving this client. This is honest, ethical and absolutely about you doing your bit to POSITION AND OFFER the very best options you know of to this client. The competition might be stifling this client’s progress, for all you know. And you might just be the white knight they need.

If horses hold the title, and you, the challenger, invent the car, then, sorry horses, you’re out. Neigh! Yep. It might not be nice to be the horse. (Why the long face?….and all that.) But that’s survival of the fittest.

So, what’s my thought-process for attempting to unseat the incubent and win over that new client? Well, I’d probably coach you with these four questions:

1. Is this the best game for you to be playing right now?

This is not a loaded question. Those who work with me know my take on ‘picking a game you can will win.’

It’s pretty simple in sales, you can choose which clients you’ll pursue or engage with further. And which clients it’s not worth the cost of pursuing. You control your effort and approach. Your choice. You can pick the red or blue pill, and that determines the rest. (So choose well, and if you want help to know how to choose well, check out my main site and contact me.)

Look at the clock. It’s ticking. Maybe this is the best current use of your resources to try to win this client who already has a preferred supplier. But maybe it isn’t? The apple might be a little too high, relative to some other juicy apples lower down? You’ll need to think that through.

But if, when coaching you around this question, you tell me that you think it is the best game for you to play right now, then I’d ask,

  • why is this your priority goal against your other options? (I’d seek to be convinced by you)
  • what will the true cost of pursuing this be? (I’d test how accurate you’re being vs whether you’re licking your finger and holding it up to the wind)
  • are you prepared to pay that and see it through? (I’d measure your enthusiasm and check you haven’t had too much caffeine)
  • what’s the likely return in the short, medium and long term if you do win this client? (I’d triangulate your response with a colleague of yours)

If you breeze through those answers, great. We can move to step 2. But you may simply decide to point your efforts elsewhere. If you do decide to pursue, then you made a deliberate and highly-driven choice! That’ll come in handy for my next question.

2. Why would that client want to shake up the status quo – and everyone impacted – and go with you?

“What?” you’d answer, as your eyeballs twitch side to side. As if you hadn’t heard me, but you had, you’re just buying time to think.

At this point you might tell me that the incumbent does a pretty basic job to be honest and er, that you can cut their costs…and that. Or that you’re simply better. I’d nod as you say that, but secretly, I may or may not be convinced, yet. (I’m wondering how the client sees things.)

We both remind ourselves that value is in the eye of the beholder. And we accept that there are almost certainly things that the client loves about their current provider, and other things they’re a bit frustrated by.

We agree that the client would switch providers, only if the key decision makers were convinced that to do so would be significantly more value than the status quo brings + the costs of them switching (including any missed opportunity costs whilst switching ie. failing to focus on project X right now that other colleagues are breathing down their neck to complete).

So we’d need those circumstances and that realisation to arise, wouldn’t we? Blimey, where’s Derren Brown when you need him?

So, to arrive at this point you’re going to need some pretty sharp techniques that can establish the key buying drivers of a customer. And how their perception of ideal value is being met currenty vs what they might be missing. There are some strong methodical conversational processes you can walk the client through that achieve this, if you’re interested. I help my clients make good use of those, and they work. Give me a shout if you want help with them.

So, we agree we need to roll our sleeves up, bend reality, and make these desired circumstances real. Which cues up my next coaching question…

3. How (the hell) are you gonna do that?

At this stage you remind me that this is exactly where you need some magic wizard-like spell to help. So, in my best Harry Potter voice, I say “PAGPTE” to you.

You look at me, and we both know you won’t remember that acronym, but I’m more interested in you just walking through what it means. It’s not, after all, an acronym you need to remember!

Pain and gain, People, Timing and Ease” It’s got a great ring to it hasn’t it. Well, OK it hasn’t, but it works like magic, which is way better, providing you own the process and do it well.

You do intend to do that, don’t you?

So, at this stage we walk through each of these and I encourage you to discuss them with your colleagues, to get the best ideas rising to the surface. Let’s walk through…

Pain and gain

Ultimately, buyers will only switch provider if there’s enough pain that they’re facing with the current provider on board (that you can relieve) or enough gain that’s worth them switching. The spotlight must shine on pain and gain, and test and measure what they feel.

So find out what their pains and frustrations are with the status quo. To do that, you need conversations with the right people. Find the detractors if you can. Who’s not a fan? Who’s bugged by this? You’d love to hear their thoughts wouldn’t you ‘as you may be able to offer some really useful alternatives’.

So tell people that, and get hooked up! Dig that pain up. It will take effort and detective work. But once you have the snapshot of the current situation, it’s also worth getting them to consider the longer term shifts in pain and gain. Situations aren’t static. They often ebb and flow. Often, when a provider stays with a client for a long time, they can be on a trajectory of increasing then declining value.

What goes up…

Could that be going on? Is that trajectory forming an unhappy smile on the charts in front of the boardroom? Maybe. That might be your cue! Has the client noticed this? Or considered it? And is there an opportunity cost that they’re missing keeping things as they are? (There will be. So what is it? Can you add relevant value there?)

And specifically, where are the weak points? Where’s this solution or set-up a bit wobbly? What numbers can you improve for them? Why do they matter? You can’t guess this stuff. You need it to come from the right people in the client’s business, but if you build rapport and trust and offer to bring that conversation to them, there’s value for them on the other side. They’ll appreciate your consultative approach. Possibly because the incumbent is more passively just enjoying the easy ride. That happens. They’re losing the muscle. You’re flexing yours. Tip: flip that on it’s head. If you’ve been with a client a long time, start flexing.

Find the pain/gain, drive a wedge in, and get to work exploring improvements. That’s the first thing to think through.


When’s a great time to ‘muscle in’? When key people change roles. When things are shaken up anyway. You’re no longer shaking things up, you’re the white knight to the shake up. “Shaken up? Have no fear! I’m here.” (Don’t say that bit.) If key decision makers come and go, or if you get a heads up that this is on the horizon (and in this day and age you often don’t have to wait too long for things to get shaken up) then consider taking a new conversation to them. Strike!

New people in new roles bring new providers in. The client’s ‘social fabric’ pulls a little and might just need your reinforcement. There’s a doorway there to your goal. Get to it.


Of course timing matters and is related to the above. But it gets it’s own mention. Even if people don’t change in the client’s organisation, changing times can create changing circumstances. Technological, political, environmental and market shifts amongst others change the rules.

PESTLE can help you unseat the incumbent. New challenges require new approaches. So, strike.

And you may have an advantage! The incumbent provider may be ‘typecast’. They may be known for one thing. And that thing might be out of date, if you go in and change the client’s reference points. (I can show you how, just get in touch). But you – you can re-position yourself as something new and fresh and ready for the new wave. Well you are. You’re not making this up.

That gets people thinking.

So there’s another door to your goal. And with that, let’s go on to my final coaching question in this scenario…

4. How could you shape your USP to improve this newly defined situation – and what’s your lowest barrier to entry for this customer to progress things with you?

I hate two questions in one. But we’re grown ups. We can deal with it. You’d need to explore how you could leverage and position your USP to deliver on the pain/gain points established and fulfill the desired value. It needs to be tight, and sharp, and potent, and intelligent, and valuable. They’re not going to be taken for fools here. Shaking up the status quo will be on their head. Their peers and bosses are watching.

Your case must be watertight. And impactful. It must get attention. And it will, if you put the effort in.

Build a plan for maintaining or improving the things they currently love about their existing provider, and of course significantly improving in the areas that they wish their existing provider would deliver. Haven’t got enough? Innovate! What else? How else could you bring the value up here? Get your heads together and solve the problems in front of the client’s face. Then tell them about it.

When it looks good – and it needs to excite, you need to invite the key person/people who have the power to say ‘yes’ to a new conversation, or presentation. (I could help prep you for this so that you feel like you could knock down walls.)

And you need to have a low barrier to entry call to action ready to offer them. What’s an easy way for them to dip their toes in and get things rolling?

Reduce their risk and hassle, or they’ll just stay with the incumbent. It’s a business decision they’re making, but a career decision perhaps too, in that they have their own reputation to manage. Their boss checks in with them. Give them something great to say.

So an easy action to proceed should be offered, with a plan to win them over as you progress. Oh. Yes, you’ll need to get that plan laid out with your colleagues. You could do it on the back of a beer mat down the pub. That counts.

And that’s it. I mean, there are plenty more things you can do, but this is just a snapshot of the sort of coaching I might take you through on this specific challenge.

Obviously, the level of effort you’d need would depend on the situation. You might be facing a situation where the client is at their wits end with the current provider anyway, in which case you’d be in with a wink and a smile. But I’ve deliberately drawn your thinking out here to tackle a more robust challenge. WIth this mindset, you’ll be ready to tackle any situation like this.

Finally, let me know how you go. Drop me a note. And if you think I can help you or train up your team, get in touch.

If you’re online, I can probably help

It’ll be no surprise that since lockdown most of my work has been via e-learning and online webinars. I’ve done lots of them. And they’ve been going very well. In other words, no matter where you are, I can probably help you bring your sales up. If you’re serious to do so, that is.

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