Why Competitive Trash Talk Works In Politics But Not In Business

We were watching one of our favorite shows the other evening as a family, Shark Tank. Since elections are days away, each commercial slot is filled with political advertisements. Let’s face it, today’s political ads are a great example of what NOT to teach our children. In four straight ads, for four different candidates, each one said nothing about what their candidate would do, but instead spent the entire ad focused on why their opponent is a blood-sucking-leach who will abduct your children at night (I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly).

Though I generally dismiss candidates who take this approach, here is the only reason this works in politics: Politicians know they are battling over the “undecided” votes of less than 20%. It’s just the way it works in a two-party system. They recognize that their camp won’t be turned away by negative ads. And, the people who already don’t like them, just might hate them little more than they hated them before. A negative ad hopes to convince the ones in the middle that the other candidate is more “evil” than the person running the ad. So, though ethically questionable, negative political ads can be effective.

You might think that speaking ill of your competitor in business would win you some “votes” with your potential customer. Not so fast. Let me share why doing so is not a good idea, and how you can get the negatives on the table without making yourself sound like a weasel.

Three Reasons Why Trash-Talk Does Not Work In Business

First: The person making the decision about whether or not to hire you, also likely played a role in hiring the existing vendor, or selecting which other vendors to consider. So, when you speak negatively about the other vendor, it is natural for your client to get defensive. They probably brought them into the equation.

Second: Your client has enough people in their own organization who can complain about vendors. They don’t need another complainer. So, when you speak ill of them, you put yourself into the complainer/hater category. Most of us don’t want to hire people like that.

Third: When you speak negatively about the competition, you might appear to be jealous or fearful of them.

On top of all of this, you don’t want your client to select you because all of the other options sucked. Rather, you want them to select you because they feel you best understand their situation and they see you as most likely to deliver the best value.

How To Speak About Competition

Here is a strategy for uncovering valuable competitive information while helping your client feel that you have a good understanding of their situation. First, let’s say they have an existing vendor (if you want to know how this works in open-competition, post a comment and I’ll share the details in a response). It might sound like this…

“Pat. I understand you’ve been working with XYZ for a while. We always like to get a sense of where we might be missing the boat compared to other vendors. Can you share with me some of the things you like best about XYZ?”

Pat will likely share with you the positives that stand out for them. Pay attention. Pat won’t give EVERY little detail. Rather, Pat will only share the points that matter most to Pat. After drawing out the positives, we ask the next question:

“If you could change one or two things about your experience working with XYZ, what would those be?”

Pat will then share areas of frustration. Pat might say “I wish they were more proactive with communication.” If you delved further, Pat might share “We had a project where they were delayed but didn’t tell us. It made us late, and our client was really angry.” Your only response is “Wow. That’s unfortunate.” Then we ask them a key question that most people miss:

“Is the potential of working with someone more proactive to avoid those customer disasters in the future worth a conversation about how we might be able to help?”

In this way, we accomplish several things:

  • We let them tell us what they like and wish they could change about their vendor. This helps them to also feel like we have a good understanding of their situation;
  • We sit back as the client shares the negatives about their experience with their existing vendor;
  • We then ask if we should discuss working together to overcome an annoyance about their existing vendor (that they just relived when they told us about it).

These simple two questions can provide great clarity about the competition, while helping you to stand out from the competition. Most importantly, you won’t sound like a slimy politician, just a trusted advisor looking to help your client. That should get you valuable votes toward growing your business.

It’s Your Turn

How do you feel when a vendor speaks negatively about the competition? Share a story in the comments.