Sumo Wrestler (Image: Thinkstock)

As your practice matures, winning a sale means that someone has to lose.

Early on in the growth of your business, when you are first starting out, the wins can often come quickly and easily. At that stage, you are open to a wider range of client opportunities to the point of taking nearly every prospect who will answer the phone. Then you start to narrow your focus and develop a specialization that lets you target increasingly higher value prospects.

(Related: The Value of Prospects Who Don’t Close)

As the value of your prospects goes up, the volume of prospects often goes down. Where you once looked to close several prospects a month, a handful of new clients a year can become game-changers in terms of revenue because of their size and their referral potential.

While most of us understand this intuitively, we often overlook a key factor of these high-value sales: the incumbent.

A high-value prospect typically has an advisor already. In these sales, you are not simply convincing the prospect to buy from you, you are convincing the prospect to leave your competitor to work with you. It’s not a transaction. It’s a competitive takeaway. When you ignore the incumbent’s role in your sale — instead focusing solely on your ability to dazzle and impress — you miss what is potentially the most important and most impactful part the process.

The incumbent has a home-field advantage, and if you bring insights to the table without working to drive a wedge (a term I gladly borrow from a book by Randy Schwantz) between the prospect and the incumbent, the prospect will often handoff the most interesting parts of your pitch to the current advisor, asking him or her to execute on them. That’s the easiest route for the prospect, after all. It has the least conflict, the least friction, and allows the prospect to keep the relationship they have likely had in place for years.

When our sales coach works with our advisor clients to address this reality, he covers three main points:

1. Do not give away information without a clear expectation of what happens next.

Talk about the incumbent’s role in the process directly, and acknowledge what is likely to happen and request an alternative path — “Look, I know you work with an advisor already, and that you can take my proposal back to him and have him execute. But if I give you this information, I want us to have a frank conversation about why my firm was the first to bring these opportunities to your attention. Can we agree to that?”

2. Use leading questions instead of directly attacking the incumbent.

Remember that your prospect chose to work with the advisor, so if you are too aggressive about pointing tearing the incumbent down to build yourself up, you may trigger a defensive behavior in the prospect.

Instead, ask questions about the incumbent’s solution that you already know the answers to, giving your prospects just enough direction to fill in the blanks themselves. For example, if you ask how the quarterly employee retirement education sessions are going, the prospect may answer that their current advisor does not offer those.

3. Have a plan to address advisor lock-in and coach the prospect through it.

An incumbent is likely to go to great lengths to save an account and will make several attempts to do so, even after your prospect has said yes to working with you. Incumbents will offer discount rates, make it difficult to transfer files or data, and will cash in all of the rapport they have built up with the prospect over the years.

Instead of leaving your prospect to face these challenges alone, have a conversation ahead of time about what the prospect is likely to face when they tell the incumbent that they are moving on, and coach them through the process of navigating these challenges. That preparation can prevent a prospect from having a change of heart at the last minute.

4. Be patient, and do so with a good attitude.

If a prospect says no, clarify if that is a no for now or a no forever, because there is a difference. Exiting an existing relationship can be difficult for a prospect, but if you are willing to wait and nurture the relationship, the opportunity can convert down the road.

Unseating the incumbent should become a regular part of your sales process, especially as you target higher value prospects. If you do not adopt the mindset that a sale is a competitive takeaway, you will end up forfeiting a game you never showed up to play.

— Read 6 Ways to Capture the Rewards Hiding in the Unknownon ThinkAdvisor.


John Pojeta

John Pojeta is vice president of business development at The PT Services Group. Before he joined PT, he owned and operated an Ameriprise Financial Services franchise for 16 years.