Home Professionalisms Nine Sneaky Ways To Unseat An Incumbent Competitor

Nine Sneaky Ways To Unseat An Incumbent Competitor


by Andrew Sobel, author of “It Starts With Clients: Your 100-Day Plan to Build Lifelong Relationships and Revenue

You’ve been asked to write a proposal for a prospect you know already has an existing supplier. Or maybe no RFP has been issued, but, darn it, you really want this company as a client so you’ve decided to go after them anyway! In any case, it’s tough to overthrow an incumbent competitor. But the good news is it’s possible — especially if you think outside the box a little.

Sometimes a company asks for proposals because internal regulations require multiple bids, even if they’re happy with their supplier. Other times they may be dissatisfied, or at least curious to see what someone else might do.

The problem is, you can’t always know where the prospect truly stands. Either way, think through such opportunities carefully, and, if you decide to go after a competitor’s client, do it in a smart and strategic way.

Here are nine suggestions that can help you gain some wallet share from, or even unseat, an incumbent competitor:

1. Look for trigger events.

I also call these “buying catalysts.” There are certain circumstances that will make it easier to break in, such as:

  • A dissident shareholder or threat of takeover
  • Executive changes, such as a new CEO, or a corporate reorganization
  • Economic events or shocks
  • A notable change in company strategy
  • Turnover or retirements at the competition
  • A service or quality failure on the part of the incumbent
  • New competitive threats that have developed

2. Try to identify something small or non-threatening that you can work on.

If a client has a good relationship with an existing provider, and needs to dump that provider in order to hire you, your chances of success are limited.

3. Be a contrarian.

Propose a new way of defining the problem. Show how their current approach is outmoded (“We used to do it that way…”).

4. Focus on an area where you are clearly differentiated or have a tangible strength vis-à-vis your competitor.

Ask yourself, Where do we have a special competency we can leverage?

5. Invest to earn the client’s trust and respect.

The incumbent has the advantage of an existing relationship of trust. You’re going to have to go the extra mile and make an up-front investment in understanding the client’s issues and organization.

6. Identify executives in the client organization who are not as loyal to the incumbent.

It will be easier to capture the attention and interest of these individuals. You may be able to divide and conquer, as they say!

7. Emphasize innovation and new ideas.

Clients are always looking for fresh perspectives, and they will usually not let an existing relationship get in the way of at least listening to someone else’s insights. Develop an intriguing point of view about one of their critical issues, and you’ll most likely get a hearing.

8. Be patient and persistent.

It may take many visits and numerous conversations, over a prolonged period — months or even a year or two — to find the right opening.

9. Stay in touch so you are on their radar when an opportunity comes up.

This applies to any new business development situation, but even more so when there is a major, established competitor. When an urgent issue arises, you want to be top of mind.

If you’re being blocked by an incumbent competitor, think through these nine strategies. Which ones would work best for you? Give one or more of them a try. And above all, remember to play the long game. Don’t give up on the prospect if you’ve determined they’re the right fit for you. Circumstances change, and you never know when the planets will line up in a way that gives you a chance to step in and shine.


Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships, and is author of “It Starts With Clients: Your 100-Day Plan to Build Lifelong Relationships and Revenue His first book, the bestselling “Clients for Life“, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. In addition to “Power Relationships“, his other books include “Power Questions“, “Making Rain” and the award-winning “All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships“.