increasing salesDespite its name, the performance marketing industry — i.e., search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click marketing (PPC) and affiliate marketing — is ripe for bad behavior. In fact, a few years ago, I started to notice that potential clients of mine were having the same kind of problems over and over again with their performance marketing programs and vendors. The clients did not really understand enough about the work being done, and the success metrics used to claim success by vendors were very misleading.

While online marketing is very measurable (thanks to its data-driven focus), the data itself can be fairly easily manipulated to make almost any program look successful. As a result, prospective clients were being told their programs were growing and bringing in substantial new revenue, when in reality, they were costing a lot of money and not creating much value at all.

It quickly became clear to me that educating potential clients with a detailed “under the hood” look at their online marketing programs could demonstrate the problems undermining their existing programs and, at the same time, prove the value of our own approach. (Education like this also provides my team with a significant amount of information on how our competitor’s position, sell, and service offerings.) Today, our transparency sets our sales process apart from other firms in our industry, and is often a top reason why we’re awarded new business.

But transparency is a best practice almost any sales-oriented organization can adopt. Here are a few key ways in which you can set yourself apart from the competition — and ultimately sign more clients:

1. Be willing to educate the prospect on your own dime.

Prospects often aren’t completely clear on the details required to create and manage, say, a successful customer acquisition program. We audit programs for every viable prospect, then walk them through the areas that are performing, and those that are not, to discuss ways the program might be altered to achieve more success.

While complimentary audits take time and resources but do not generate revenue, they show prospects how we operate as a team, how we approach their program, and our level of service. No matter what industry you’re in, this is a great way to nurture leads.

2. Go way under the hood when researching competitors and their businesses.

Understanding the competition is a really important part of the selling process. But relying solely on website content and social media activity is a mistake. It’s imperative to understand every step of the competition’s process, from marketing and sales to delivery and staffing, reporting and service, and even employee and client retention. The goal is to show clients that you are selling something that’s really differentiated and that you’re willing – and able – to fully understand industry dynamics.

3. Listen to a prospect’s past frustrations.

Entrepreneurs are always told to listen to the client, and certainly that is true in servicing them, but it is also an excellent way to learn about competitors before the next sales meeting. We listen very closely to our competition’s ex-clients when they discuss their frustrations, and we dissect their key selling points from the client’s point of view. We study their staffing models, research their team members on LinkedIn, and take notice when key customers drop off their websites. We also look for information from quotes, press releases and speaking events.

Whenever we win a new client or take over for another vendor, we try and learn as much as we can about what we were up against by getting copies of their proposals and client reports and looking at the makeup of the team that serviced them (e.g., were they very junior?). Most of our clients come to us after a bad relationship, and we want to know why it was bad and where they were misled.

4. Neutralize your competition’s strengths.

Recently, we won a major account where we were up against 1-2 larger competitors. In our proposal, we neutralized our competitors’ strengths by educating the client on the industry and the common tactics used to mislead prospects about performance. We also carefully outlined the differences in our staffing model, client/staff ratios, reporting metrics, etc., and specifically debunked many of the selling points that we know our competitors emphasize. In many ways, we turned their perceived strengths into weaknesses.

We learned early on in our business that we have a very different approach from our competitors — one that is more about creating sustainable long-term value than fast results that aren’t real and won’t last. When we talk to a prospect about what our competition will promise, and why the results will not be what they seem, they often return to us impressed. In short, our transparency is a major selling point.

But perhaps the most unexpected upshot is this: No matter the industry, an educated buyer always makes a better long-term partner.

Robert Glazer is a serial entrepreneur and customer acquisition specialist with an exceptional track record of growing revenue and profits for early to mid-stage consumer businesses. His firm, Acceleration Partners, is a go-to advisor for affiliate and performance marketing to many of the industry’s top brands, including adidas, Bonobos, ModCloth, One Kings Lane, Reebok, and Tiny Prints.