This article by Rich Nutinsky originally appeared on, your go-to-tool for all things product. Subscribe now!

Win/loss interviews are an excellent tool for gathering competitive intelligence. The interviews offer a unique opportunity to gather fresh data from a target audience where competitors play a distinct role in the customer decision-making process.

It’s an area ripe for gauging both the market’s awareness and its perception of competing solutions. You want to ask customers not only who they talked to, but why they talked to them and how you compared. You also want to learn about capabilities: the key factors in their decision. For example, do competitors have stronger capabilities? Are you missing key capabilities, or do you offer more than the competition? Finally, what are the key factors? What drove the decision, and where did your competitors shine or expose a weakness?

Discovering strengths and weaknesses is important, but the key factors are critical. What if you drive your business to add functional capabilities because you think that is what will help you beat the competition, only to learn that the additional functionality won’t change the ultimate decision because that isn’t what drove the urgency? Perhaps your functionality is fine but you should invest more in your technology. Maybe you need to develop a stronger value proposition or ROI story because that’s where you fell down.

Look for Patterns

Many organizations view win/loss as transaction forensics. In other words, they dissect and analyze individual transactions in isolation to determine why they won or lost that business. When we talk about win/loss at Pragmatic Marketing, we discuss it from a market-driven perspective. It’s not about why you lose or win one deal, it’s about why you lost or won the last 10 deals. Even if your sales team does these transaction forensics, populating your CRM system with transaction data, someone unaffiliated with sales needs to canvass for patterns. It could be someone from product management or marketing, as long as it’s someone who doesn’t have a previous relationship with the customer.

With wins, customers have a vested interest in talking to you; they want to create a good relationship with their new vendor. The information you get from wins could confirm and validate all the things that you think make you successful. But you may very well learn that it was your time to market, not your super-duper feature, that clinched the deal. With losses, you may think that
people don’t want to talk to you, but in my experience, when a new person contacts evaluators, the success rate is quite high.

Ask sales who will be the most open to talk to you. Then reach out and simply say, “I understand you recently made a decision and you’re going in another direction. I respect your decision. I wonder if I could get 30 minutes of your time to understand how we could have helped you better for the next time.”

I’ve had a high success rate securing people with this approach. Many times, the attitude of the person is, “We made you do a lot for us and you got nothing for it. I can give you 30 minutes of my time.”

Remember, you need a large-enough sample to begin to see patterns. And if you make this a regular part of your process, you’ll get better at it. You’ll be sure not to challenge or threaten the evaluators; you won’t ask them to justify their decision and you won’t correct their misperceptions. You’ll remain completely neutral and approach the interview as research. This is a request for help, not a request to dissect their decision. And it’s a numbers game. You must do win/loss consistently to get a sample set that’s large enough.

While it’s possible to find patterns in relatively small numbers, once you establish a pattern it is important to cast a much wider net. Do something more quantitative, perhaps a third-party survey. You want to validate what you think you have learned in your interviews.

Pay Attention to Market Weights

Different markets weight things differently. Use win/loss to figure out what those weights are. I once walked into a win/loss opportunity with a recent evaluator. He explained that the reason we lost was that, despite the great job we did presenting our product, answering questions and creating a positive relationship, the final decision was driven by RFP scores. He then mentioned that he was getting rid of the RFPs, and by the way, would I like to have the responses?

Because I was doing this win/loss with a recent evaluator who wanted to tie things up, I gained unexpected access to a wealth of information. Another time, a client asked if I wanted to read my competitor’s user manual. His company had decided not to buy from my competitor and planned to throw the manual out. Things like this happen when you’re present.

In B2B environments where RFPs and RFIs are an integral part of the process, you can often gain an understanding of a customer’s RFP scoring and development. When customers share how they made their decision, you will see whether your competitors better understood the weighting of common deliverables.

In a third instance, I lost a deal but went in for a win/loss interview and spent 45 minutes talking to the buyer. At the end of the interview, I was told: “You’re the only vendor who lost who contacted us. Everyone else just walked away. You came back and you listened. You asked what you could have done to be better, and it seems as though you’re trying to find ways to provide better solutions for us. You lost this time, but the next time we look for something, you will be first on our list to contact.” This win/loss interview helped my company build a bridge into an account and get a leg up on the competition.

Win/loss is a good way to demonstrate that you’re interested in not only making money, but also in helping your industry. I once scheduled a win/loss interview, and when I showed up, they said, z“We’re ready for you.” I thought to myself, “Who’s ‘we?’” and then I walked into a room where the entire selection committee was seated. They gave me an hour of their time. I heard the perspectives of the economic, technical and functional buyers. Although this was an anomaly, you never know what you’re going to learn or what’s going to happen when you do a win/loss interview. But if you don’t do win/loss interviews, you can be sure nothing will.

Know Your Strengths

Consider this: Every other source of competitive information is available to anyone. Whatever you get off the web, anyone can get off the web. But when you conduct a personalized win/loss interview, you might learn something that no one else knows; I like to call this proprietary competitive intelligence. You get specific information that only you have, and that makes you smarter.

I’ll give you an example. I worked at a company where we competed against a major ERP vendor, and we found out that a large corporation was evaluating our product. Unfortunately, we lost that deal. Sometime later, I ran into someone from that company and asked how things were going.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “You know we bought the other provider, right? We’ve been implementing it for months and I’m only about 20 percent of the way there. I just spent millions of dollars. I don’t know when it will be finished, and the amount of disruption in my business is unbelievable.”

I began to do win/loss interviews whenever we lost to that major ERP provider. And what I found is that they could beat us functionally, they had a bigger name and the executive team was often more comfortable with them than with my company. But, the complaints about implementation were consistent. Based on what I learned about people who chose that competitor, we redid our entire sales presentation to highlight our total cost of ownership and time to benefit. We began to lead with what our solution would cost to implement, how long it would take, what you would pay in services and what you would have to do in training. We talked about all of that before we even got to the product features.

When we did that, in every evaluation the customer would then ask that major competitor: “Tell me about your total cost of ownership, tell me about time to benefit.” Our competitor didn’t have a story for that and we started to beat them 70 percent of the time, head to head.

Because of the data we got, we understood that our competitor’s weakness wasn’t the product, it was making that product work within a business. We significantly grew our company over a short period of time because of the data we gathered from discussing our losses.

A word of warning: Be prepared to hear stupid and inaccurate things during win/loss, and also be prepared to remain disengaged from them. You’re on a fact-finding mission; you want to identify patterns, not correct misperceptions. However, if you hear the same misperception three or four times, it’s time to report back to your team: “We keep losing this because people don’t think we’re (fill in the blank).”

Remember, the point of win/loss interviews is to learn something new, not to correct customers. It is a listening exercise. Customers have already made their decision and they aren’t going to reconsider. But by asking the right questions and listening carefully, you can gather enough competitive intelligence to turn your current losses into a future of wins.

About the Author

Rich Nutinsky is an instructor at Pragmatic Marketing, with more than 20 years of experience in the software industry. He has launched several successful software products using the Pragmatic Marketing Framework. Prior to joining Pragmatic Marketing, Rich served in various product management positions for companies including Arasys Technologies, where he was vice president of product management and development. He has provided consulting services to market leaders such as Microsoft, AT&T, DuPont, NEC, GE and Siemens, working with senior-level executives to improve their product strategy, product management, and marketing processes. He may be reached at [email protected].

About the speaker
Rich Nutinsky Pragmatic Marketing, Master Instructor Member
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