…Continued from part 1 article here.
I recall on several occasions, arriving late to a prospect’s party. On some occasions we didn’t win the business; but there were other times we were successful in displacing a direct competitor or incumbent. In every situation, though, we learned something.
I highly recommend doing a (win/loss) review of your deals each time, regardless of the outcome. Where we lost, it was because we were unprepared, disengaged, and misaligned with the prospect, their key stakeholders, and what they were trying to achieve. Sometimes price would be given as the main reason we lost (and, quite frankly, what we would prefer to hear than the painful truth). However, when we scratched below the surface with the buyer, we would find that we were simply outsold by a competitor who had a better grasp of the account than we did; despite them having an inferior product or solution. Our complacency was the silent killer.
The main lesson? Always go into a competitive situation (if it makes sense to do so) paranoid and properly prepared. Or, as Andy Grove of Intel once said: –
Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survives. – Andy Gove, Intel
You learn from failure, right? Well, although a bit of a cliché, I believe learning from setbacks is essential for achievement. It’s what Professor Carol Dweck calls the “growth mindset”. But, you also must learn from your successes too. Why did this customer choose you? What did you do well? What didn’t you do so well? What were the trigger events that made this customer go to the market in the first place? How can we build on these lessons to be better prepared or shorten the sales cycle the next time round…?
Anyway, here are some main lessons I’ve learned that I would like to share with you. Will they guarantee success each time? Of course not. But, if applied properly – and you learn from your experiences – they will substantially increase your chances of winning the next time you’ve decided to party on an unfamiliar dancefloor.
These lessons are:
1. To start with, low price is not the answer. Going in with an aggressively low-priced bid to undercut your direct competition is NOT a sensible thing to do. It’s a poor strategy because it does not provide the sustainability your business needs. It may win you some business in the short term, but your profits will erode over time as direct “me too” competitors start to outbid each other on price each time. I’m saying this because I’ve been there and learnt from it – heavily discounted deals can have serious consequences on your bottom line. Your customers start to devalue the solutions you provide as your aggressive low pricing becomes the norm in the industry. You then must work harder (increased cost) for less, just to achieve the same levels of income as before. It’s like a downward spiral and you’re better walking away from deals that bring no long-term value to your customer and your business.
2. Diagnose the situation. Good strategy – as Richard Rumelt, author of ‘Good Strategy/ Bad Strategy’ puts it – is about diagnosing the underlying problem before coming up with a plan and an approach to addressing it. A bit like the good mechanic I refer to in Part 1, it’s now possible – because of social platforms and the internet – to get a view of what’s going on within your prospect’s organisation, prior to having a conversation. Who are the potential influencers and decision-makers? Do you know someone who is directly connected with these people online (such as LinkedIn) who can make a warm introduction for you? Your ability to access trigger events, online publications, board-papers etc. means that winging it is no longer acceptable. Being properly prepared for the dance-off, especially when you’ve arrived late to the party, is now an imperative. Would a General lead his army into battle without understanding the enemy?
3. This leads to: Know your competition… and yourself! Despite this being obvious, suppliers often overlook the importance of deeply understanding the competitive environment and your direct competition (incl. the risk of the prospect doing nothing or designing their own solution). Instead, outdated sales training still places much emphasis on establishing a relationship with the buyer without fully understanding the forces (incl. your weaknesses) that could prevent you from winning the contest. As a result, many are entering the ring like a boxer who hasn’t carefully analysed every move of their opponent in advance – you will likely be knocked out in the first round.
This is not about trying to match one another like-for-like on skills and capabilities (the commodity trap). Rather, it’s about identifying potential competitor weaknesses, the pros and cons of the buyer’s planned direction, and your strengths which you can leverage to create unexpected value (the knock-out blow) for the customer.
4. Sales is a team sport. If you’ve watched the film Grease, you’ll recall that Danny’s success at Rydell High’s National Dance-Off wasn’t just because of his own unique skills or abilities. It was because of teamwork. Without Sandy or ChaCha, Danny would’ve been sitting on the side-line.
Like Danny, we’ve discovered – from our own research and hands-on experience – that those most likely to succeed in sales, were people who worked together closely with others internally and externally (to their business) in support of helping their target customer achieve the desired outcomes they were looking for from a project. Those individuals who were actively collaborating with colleagues (whether finance, marketing, technical etc.) and partners in a coordinated way, significantly increased their chances of winning competitive sales opportunities.
5. Execution – creating unexpected value. You may have heard of the saying “it’s not what you sell, but how you sell”? Well, as I mentioned earlier, your products’ “superior” features and capabilities alone, will not win you the business with today’s well-informed buyer. Whether you’re late to the party or not, “how you sell is a sample of how you solve” (James Muir, author of The Perfect Close). This means that it’s your ability to demonstrate to your prospect – throughout their purchasing process – how you are helping them RIGHT NOW to get to where they want to be (well before they’ve even become a customer). In doing so, they’re sampling whether they can work with you and your team beyond the sale.
Ask the right questions. Tread with caution here, though. Yes, discovery is an important part of the sales process. However, when you’re late to your prospect’s purchasing process, unnecessary self-serving probing questions can do more damage than good. This is where your findings from lesson 2 and 3 are essential. Your assessment of where your prospect is trying to go (not just at the immediate sales opportunity level, but at their wider organisational level) and where they are in their process, will determine the questions you should be asking. If there’s a grey area you’re not quite sure about, or if there is something from their project you’ve identified which doesn’t seem to align with their overall strategy, this might just be the opportunity for you to engage in a conversation with the right people. What’s your legitimate reason to engage?
Intelligent questions that help your prospect to learn what the best thing for them might be to do (based on your experience), can be extremely valuable. Asking with your prospect’s interests at heart can put you in a position of being a trusted advisor because questions with the right intent demonstrate sincerity, and that you know what you’re doing.
This is what builds trust – “A sample of how you solve” – and can give you the edge you need to disrupt the competition at this late stage. However, if you feel you’re not the right fit for each other, you must respectfully move on. Your time is better spent elsewhere.
Making the final killer move. Like in the final dance-off scene in Grease, ChaCha managed to carefully time a move that allowed her to disrupt Sandy’s dance with Danny. Although the audience will most likely disagree with it, it’s an example of how an unaware competitor (Sandy) can be quickly replaced by another (ChaCha) at the final moments – ultimately stealing the show. No one in the audience was expecting it.
When it comes to your dance-offs, whether you’re the first contender on the dancefloor or not, you must always be on high alert of your competitors potential moves (including your customers). However, when you’ve properly diagnosed the situation in advance to the best of your ability (lesson 2), have assessed the competitive forces (lesson 3), and have worked together as a team (lesson 4), you should be in great shape for creating that competitive wedge that can disrupt your competition when you’re late to the party.
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Written by: Jonathan Lancaster