As while back, I spent some time categorizing tactics vendors use to create Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) as a buying catalyst for their products. We followed up with a survey trying to understand what kinds of security marketing content is useful at different stages of the sales cycle.

I’m parsing and doing some lightweight analysis of the survey results as we build our inaugural vendor newsletter. Given space restrictions I couldn’t analyze all the data, but I do want to focus on one of my pet peeves: competitive attacks.

When I was on the vendor side, one of the things that got my goat was the insistence on focusing (almost exclusively) on the competition. Everyone – both sales reps and customers – expected us to provide information sales reps could use to beat the competition. The dirtier and nastier the better. Some folks spread rumors about competitors’ finances, or bogus reports that competitive products fell over at customer sites, or that competitors were kicked out of Account X or Y. It all made me sick.

Mostly because I thought it didn’t work. I figured prospects would appreciate information about how our products solved their problems. Unfortunately I had no data to prove that, beyond anecdotal reports of pissed-off prospects not appreciating hit pieces sent directly to their CIOs (two levels above where the decision got made).

So we asked questions to provide a sense of if and where competitive attacks are useful, and to compare them against less-aggressive competitive analyses. To be clear, we aren’t dealing with a lot of data here. Only 32 responses, but enough to build my soapbox and support me urging vendors to stop worrying about competitors and start worrying about customers.

Let’s take a look at the data on specific competitive attacks. The question was phrased:

“Competitive Attacks”: This is down and dirty hand to hand combat tactics, where the vendor attempts to make the competition look bad. There are seemingly no boundaries here, where vendors will question financial viability, spread rumors about staff defections, gossip about investors pulling money out, or anything else to make the competition look bad.

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Almost half of respondents believe this behavior negatively impacts their perception of the vendor. A lot less responded that it negatively impacts their view of the competitor. Very few said these tactics actually improved their perception of the attacker. And few used this information to guide vendor selection or justify selection of specific vendors.

When we looked less aggressive competitive analyses, the results were a bit more favorable – but not much.

“Competitive Analysis”: Some vendors will provide information (usually informally) about why its product/service is better than the competition. They may question the product’s technical capabilities, and/or talk about how they replaced the competitor in an account. They may also provide some reference accounts to discuss why they are better than the competitor.

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About a quarter of respondents use this information in the selection process. As a client, I’m a fan of getting as many reference accounts as I can. Then I call them up and spend very little time on the vendor they chose. I ask why they didn’t choose the other vendors. They are usually pretty forthcoming about companies that didn’t make the cut. I put little stock in what they say about the vendor who gave me their name. Why? Because I know more than I should about the back-room arrangements that take place to get very busy practitioners to spend some of their days doing favors for sales reps. But those are stories better told over frosty beverages.

Listen, I’m not naive here. I understand how the game works. Direct sales is like a street fight. You use whatever advantage you can. I can only tell you that the most successful reps I’ve worked with spent a lot more time focused on customer problems, and much less on the competition. Smart customers buy products based on who solves their business problems best, and do their homework on what products really work in the field. If a product falls over, they know about it from their own research, not the sniping of a competitor.

But at the end of the day, it gets back to people. I’ve always done business with folks I like, and I’m not a big fan of dirty tactics. So if you badmouth your competition I’ll generally send you on your way. But that’s me.