When I was in sales, I was almost always in a competitive situation. Whether I was responding to a request for a proposal (RFP) or trying to develop a relationship with a prospect who was using a competitor’s equipment, I became accustomed to not being the “only game in town.”

Although competitors can keep us on our toes and might even bring out our A-games, managing competitive threats can also drain us of energy and tempt us to make the common mistake of bashing our competitors. But taking this low road is never a good strategy, and there is some very good research that helps us understand why this is the case.

Let me provide a couple of techniques that you can use when you are talking with prospects and candidates who are evaluating other companies or career opportunities.

But first, a brief refresher in psychology:

Spontaneous Trait Transference

A study reported in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed a common — yet somehow unconscious – psychological phenomenon called “spontaneous trait transference.” According to the researchers, spontaneous trait transference plays a major role in how people form impressions of others.

Here’s how it works: When someone says something either positive or negative about someone else, the listener will somehow automatically attribute the same (either positive or negative) trait to the speaker. So the trait that the speaker is referring to (about someone else) subconsciously transfers right back to the speaker!

Here’s a concrete example of how this might work in recruiting. Let’s say that, during a screening or prospecting call, you find that the other person is actively weighing other opportunities with your key competitors. After learning that you are up against a competitor, you share some information about your competitor that is unfavorable or unflattering, hoping to create fear, uncertainty, or doubt in your prospect’s mind about the value your competitor can provide – thus, you hope, tipping the scales in your favor.

According to spontaneous trait transference, however, your candidate or prospect will likely attribute those same (unfavorable or unflattering) traits right back to you or to your company and/or to your career opportunities!

RainIn other words, if you say that your competitor’s work environment is hostile or not open to work-life balance, your prospect will likely believe that your company also has a hostile work environment and is not open to work-life balance.

Try These Practical Strategies Instead

So, what is the best way to gain an advantage over your competitors without falling into the trap of spontaneous trait transference?

First, be sure you have mastered some basic selling skills. Take the time to understand what is important to your prospect and be skillful and targeted in your value proposition.

Be diligent and thorough during the discovery phase of your screen or prospecting call. Be crystal clear on the things that are important to the other person when making a career decision. Ensure you have a complete list of the factors that will be used in the decision-making process.

Develop a tailored, unique value proposition, using the decision-making criteria you identified during discovery. Ensure that you completely and truthfully align your solution with what’s important to your prospect. Pay particular attention to confirming that what you are sharing indeed aligns with what is important to the other person. Be careful about making assumptions about interest, and watch out for excessive “selling” or talk time on your part.

Do your homework. Before you engage with prospects and candidates, have a thorough and rich working knowledge of your “product.” Be ready with short (“just like you”) stories that will reinforce how your opportunity can meet/exceed the requirements of your prospect or candidate. Great recruiters – and great sales professionals – know their products very, very well.

Once you have established a firm foundation, then you may also want to address your competitor – but be careful. Use positive phrases and make calculated comparisons. For example, you might say something like, “Yes, I know XYZ Company. They are a good company …” Then bring your prospect back to what you can provide – the unique value you talked about earlier on your call.

Find out if there are any concerns or questions that would keep the person from moving forward with your company or opportunity. Then, proceed to once again reinforce how others have found value at your company – but only share this if the value is relevant to what’s important to your prospect. And, of course, be honest when making your statements.

TreeAgain, be very careful to keep the tone positive, truthful, and tailored to what is of value to your prospect. When you are tempted to badmouth the competitor, stop yourself. Don’t accidentally leave yourself open to spontaneous trait transference.

I remember when I was young, my mother always said, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone don’t say anything at all.”

Guess mother was right!


A version of this article originally appeared at HRPartnersPlus.

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