The Tory leadership contest: Why beating (up) the competition can lose you the vote (and customers)

21 July 2022 | 5 min read | PR
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

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The media’s attention has been firmly fixed on the current Tory leadership contest. At time of writing, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are the final two candidates in contention to take over as the next Prime Minister when the final Conservative Party membership vote takes place in early September.

What we have witnessed over the last few weeks in terms of how each of the contenders has pitted themselves against their leadership rivals is a warning to all business leaders (MDs, CEOs, CMOs) on how they should and should not speak about their competition in the public domain. It is a warning that if not heeded runs the risk of damage to the reputations both of the leader and the organisation they represent.

According to one study, 48 per cent of a company’s reputation is determined by the standing the CEO has in their market. And, 50 per cent of people believe that this will only increase in the next few years.

The leadership contest serves as a warning of individual and organisational reputational risk.

So, it follows that what those who represent the business say and do directly impacts both the perception of the organisation’s brand and its revenues, too.

While the CEO is of course the face of the organisation, she or he is not the only brand ambassador whose p’s and q’s can and sometimes do come under scrutiny. Especially when it comes to pitching for new business.

Imagine the scenario: your company has been invited to tender for a contract with a great potential client. They’re just the type of company you want to work with and their business could have a major impact on the fortunes of your company.

During the pitch process, the client mentions the other companies who are in the mix. One of which is a main competitor – someone you’ve probably come up against once or twice before.

The client then asks you the question you know is coming: Why should we partner with you over your rival?

You may be tempted to respond with, “We’re better than them” or worse still, “We’ve heard some things about them that ain’t so good”. But don’t.

When you belittle the competition what you are doing is showing that you actually fear them. Your potential client will likely take a poor view of you too. After all, they asked your rival to pitch for their business because they regard them as being one of the best in class alongside your good self.

When you belittle the competition you’re showing that you actually fear them; your prospect will think less of you because you’re effectively questioning their judgement.

So, by denouncing them as a serious player not only sees you risk questioning the clients’ judgement of your rival, you also guarantee they’ll rethink whether you are as good as they first though you were as well… a seed of doubt will have been sown.

Instead, big them up. Do what you see Premiership football managers do before a big game. You never hear Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool or Pep Guardiola at Manchester City knocking each other down.

Rather, a mutual respect is shown for their opponents. They talk of the strengths of the other team and how they admire what they have achieved and how impressive their performances have been.

But then they shift the focus back to themselves by highlighting what makes them effective and why they believe they are best-placed to secure the right result when Saturday comes. It is this approach that businesses need to follow.

A competitor by our definition is an organisation who has the potential to win business away from you. They can offer your target client a product or service that will address the needs, wants, challenges and obstacles faced. As such, they must be admired.

By recognising this and openly big them up (but not too much), you inadvertently shine the light on yourself as a business which recognises the strength in others and respects your rivals for this, while also communicating how what you have to offer is different.

A competitor is an organisation who has the potential to win business away from you.

There is nothing worse in business than one party bad mouthing another, it is unprofessional and shows a weakness on the part of the bemoaner. So, don’t be that company.

Consider how you are being perceived and be remembered as the person and organisation who respects the competition which be default goes a long way to ensuring that others – including your competition – will respect you in return.

Reputations matter.

One last tip:

When pitching a new client, always ask for the meeting to take place as early in the day as possible. Research shows that when you don’t already have an exisiting relationship with your prospect, the chances of you winning their business increase if you pitch first. This is because you set the tone – the benchmark – by which all subsequent pitches will be compared to and the prospect will subconciously be looking for flaws in all those who follow you.

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