But They Love Their Incumbent!?


You’ve gone to all the effort of identifying your next ideal client. You researched them and found out what they do and why you should be talking with them. The name and number of the person you need to contact is on your call list and today is the day you ring them. You ring them and the bottom falls out of your best laid plan. They indicate that they absolutely love their incumbent supplier and, worse, their supplier loves them. They have a fantastic relationship.

What do you do next?

Good sales people will realise that if they’ve identified a business as their next ideal client – it is highly likely that their competitors will view the client the same and, importantly, their incumbent supplier will be well aware of their value.

So what you don’t do is politely thank them for their time, close of the call, update your CRM with the annotation that they aren’t worth pursuing and strike them off your marketing list. Unfortunately this happens too often.

What you should do is one of two things – you either bring it up before they do or honour the statement. Bring it up before they do? Yes! If you know they are highly likely to be loved by their incumbent supplier and warrant it – you tell them this. You say to them ‘I recognise you are probably well loved by your current supplier, however I would enjoy the opportunity to meet with you and form a relationship’. You’ve actioned two things here. First, you’ve taken away the opportunity for supplier satisfaction to be used as an objection to meeting with you and second, and more importantly, you’ve set the expectation for how you believe they should be treated. They should be loved by their incumbent supplier.

If you have done your research properly and believe they are a client you should be working with – be realistic. They will have an incumbent supplier who likely recognises this. Your objective, as with any initial call or visit, is to form a relationship with them – not sell them anything.

How Do I Displace Them?

These clients are difficult to displace – here you have a situation where your ideal client loves their incumbent supplier and they love them in return. This can be exampled by the client being prepared to be a reference site, testimonial client or even appear in the suppliers marketing material. Often times, these clients are considered to be influential and/or important and can often be at the top of their field. They are usually worth loving. Because they are worth loving, their incumbent supplier will be looking after them. And, because they are worth loving, they are worth you establishing and maintaining a relationship with – though you need to honour the relationship with the current supplier.

Whilst displacement may be difficult – there may arise a number of situations where displacement may occur:

  1. Irrecoverable service failure by the incumbent. This can come about through a service failing or inability to satisfy the current or future requirements of the client (eg a product or service gap). It could occur through staff changes highlightling a lack of institutional knowledge of the client when the incoming relatinoship manager is left wanting. Though bear in mind that given the mutual loyalty enjoyed by both sides, the incumbent supplier will usually be given a longer length of rope here to recover the situation.
  2. Significant event. A significant enough event occuring in the business could instigate change. This could be a major purchase/acquisition, a JV with a client empathic to your solutions, shareholder change or new key staff who can influence decisions.
  3. Relationship Apathy. Sometimes a client decides that they should open their supply relationships to competitive tension to ensure they are getting the best deal. Effectively an RFP or EOI event. In this situation, unless something is materially flawed, the incumbent is usually still in a position of strength especially where changing suppliers is unwieldily. That said, it is recognised that tendering as the incumbent can be a troublesome event.
  4. One Off Event. A standalone opportunity could arise for which the client wishes to separate from their other business for various reasons – eg risk, differing stakeholders. This may present an opportunity for you to work with them in an isolated situation.
  5. Unrealised Value. It may be possible that you can identify something the incumbent has missed which could be of value to the client. This could be a solution unique to you, a challenge or opportunity they have considered or other situations. This could open the door though you need to manage the sale carefully if the incumbent could also meet this for the client

There are other situations which can arise and feel free to comment below of others you’ve encountered. The key here is being on the dance card when they do crop up.

How Do I Manage These Relationships?

Developing a meaningful relationship with these clients is important here rather than selling to them for two reasons. First, when a event like this arises they need to know you and trust you enough to engage with you for a solution. Second, when called upon to deliver against one of the above situations, your knowledge of them, their challenges and their opportunities will allow you to impart value on your response rather than just price.

If you didn’t maintain the relationship prior to the opportunity arising you may miss out on knowing about it all together or, if you are given the opportunity, it is highly likely you’ll only have a price lever to play with.

If the client has told you they are happy with their current supplier but are equally happy with developing and maintaining a relationship you – honour the existing relationship by not ‘selling’. Instead the relationship strategy here is to stay in discovery and credibility phase. Find out as much information about the business, the people, their pain and opportunity points, their strategy, their clients and suppliers and add value where you can through your network. Not selling, but supporting their business. Showing interest and demonstrating value. Treat them like a client so they can experience it and, when the opportunity does arise for them to become one, they already know your value proposition because they have already experienced it.

These are’t overnight wins. They aren’t relationships to ignore because they are currently in a mutually loyal relationship with their incumbent supplier. In fact, hearing this when you call on them is exactly what you want to hear. It means you are likely speaking to the right clients.

You can’t be disingenuous to them by suggesting they are disloyal to their incumbent so they can be loyal to you. This is hypocritical. What you can and should do is spend the time and effort to get to know them deeply so when the opportunity does arise to work with them, you can improve their position using this knowledge.


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