How would your company fare in a March Madness-style competition? Here are a few tips on how underdog companies can compete against even the biggest competitors.

After an exciting game last night, Louisville was crowned national champion of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. Kudos to the Louisville players and coaches, it was a great season. Even if you are not a basketball fan, there is still a lot you can learn from the March Madness tournament. This year’s tournament was a perfect example of how an underdog can outperform teams that, on paper at least, are rated better in just about every respect–as demonstrated by the surprising success of Florida Gulf Coast University.

Business owners may also have noticed that just like the NCAA tournament’s bracket-style, single-elimination format, a growing number of large contracts are awarded in a similar fashion. Whether they are known as RFPs, procurement-managed purchases, reverse-auctions, or competitive bids, awarding contracts have increasingly adopted this head-to-head competition format. If you are good at preparing for these one-on-one comparisons, you have a better chance of winning the final contract.

Recently I was working with a construction firm on a multi-million-dollar opportunity. We went through a competitive analysis that bracketed all the competing companies against each other in order to understand who would win each comparative analysis. Like basketball, what creates a winning strategy against one team may not be right against another. I advocate looking at all of the companies you consider to be your competitors in the final round for a large contract. Compare your company against each one of them individually.

What you learn when you do this:

1. Most of the qualities between you and your competitors are really a toss-up when viewed by your buyer. The buyer often cannot appreciate the incremental significance of your company’s benefit in what you might consider to be a critical category.

2. One advantage does not win every comparison. What makes you the clear winner when compared with one competitor may very well not be your differentiating characteristic with another.

3. By doing a head-to-head comparison, you focus on the one or two issues in each two-company competition and you can build your strategy accordingly.

What to do:

1. When crafting your presentation or final-submission documents, make certain to lean heavily into the competitive differentiators. Remember, you win big competitive deals by beating the other finalists on a one-to-one basis, not by an aggregate comparison of all the competitors.

2. Neutralize all common benefits by communicating the characteristics that all finalists should have in common. By saying this, you take the steam out of your competitors’ arguments and you shape the comparison down to those things you can win.

3. Strategize differently for the finals than for the qualifying rounds. In the preliminary comparisons, when qualifying to be a finalist, it is about meeting the minimum requirements and establishing your credibility. When in the finals, it is about beating each of your competitors head-on.

It’s critical that you build a strategy that focuses on all angles. Too often, companies focus on their unique advantage without considering the comparative value of other advantages in a head-to-head comparison.

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