Simple in concept, difficult to master, sales strategy can make all the difference. successful sales tactics are driven by a winning sales strategy.
Until recent decades the term ‘strategy’ was associated with military conflicts and used to win battles. These days the term is widely used to encompass an overarching approach to achieving any objective. In some respects this dilutes the potency of the term. In its purest form it deals with competitive situations where there is a clearly defined outcome. As such, the study of strategy, its use and the outcomes attributed to good use, has much to offer sales organisations and individuals.
There are thousands of salespeople, many of whom have risen in the ranks to become leaders in their field who have had at least a fleeting exposure to the ideas and leverage available to those who use strategic thinking well. Through the last decade of the last millennia, several well known high end sales training courses included a brief education in the use of military thinking to win particular sales opportunities.
The education was brief because the sales training courses were rarely more than three days long and sales strategy would be covered in one of 8 or 10 modules. The subject is huge and its study could easily fill a full time 12 month course. A quick Google search will yield numerous examples.
For me at least, one bit of a sales course was not enough. I had my Team at SGi take the Holden Powerbase course which included a section on sales strategy. Later I signed up to become an accredited TAS instructor. Target Account Selling became perhaps the best known of the genre of sales courses delivering a ‘High Value Complex Sale’ methodology. I attended two programmes delivered by accomplished instructors and eventually got my wings. Even then, I don't think I had properly internalised the principles.
Later, after TAS was absorbed into Seibel, I built my own 'High Value Complex Sales Methodology' training course. Through these multiple iterations including having to understand sales strategy sufficiently well to create a unique spin on the theme, I came to feel confident about using and teaching the subject.
Why it should be so difficult eludes me. I know it is difficult not just because I took a while to ‘get it’; not just because those I have tried to help understand it seemed to find it as difficult as I did; but because so few people even now, decades after the principles began being taught in business schools, so few sales or business leaders seem to use strategic thinking effectively.
It is easy to separate good and bad strategy. The next actions should be obvious. If required actions aren't obvious, the strategy is not serving its purpose and should be renewed or revised. Good strategy drives tactics. It seems a straightforward concept yet finding a sales strategy that works is not so easy.
Sporting examples are the easiest to relate because the action takes place within confined parameters such as distance, time, or score. Let’s consider Mo Farah who won gold in both the 5000 meters and 10,000 meters at the 2012 London Olympics. It is easy to think that Mo didn’t need to out think his competitors. He was just too good. That in itself is a strategy that was likely ten years in preparation. “A winning general creates the conditions of victory before beginning the war“ observed Sun Tzu, 2500 years ago.
Perhaps all athletes aspire to be the best, yet so many of those that take part in top events have little hope of winning. Each has their own competition with peers of similar potential. Amongst those closely grouped, the right strategy makes all the difference. If you are dominant (have run in the fastest times) and on form you might opt to dishearten your competitors by setting a fast pace all the way. If you are slower than the leaders in your group, you need a different strategy that plays to your strengths.
In a sporting event, much of the competitor intelligence is published. Everyone knows or can know each other’s seasonal best performance. While detailed intelligence about a competitive vendor’s capability may be public, discovering their plans, learning about their relationships with customer staff, and understanding the customer's unofficial decision making process is difficult. This is critical information. As elegantly stated by the Chinese general, Sun Tzu: “The reason competent commanders win victories, achieve outstanding success, and surpass ordinary people is that they know critical information in advance.”
More than having the necessary information, the ultimate strategist has such a grasp of the principles involved in formulating and executing effective strategy that he or she can correctly anticipate a competitor’s intentions. Adversaries all have observable limitations that constrain options. Perhaps Sun Tzu’s most familiar quote is “Victory lies not in defeating the enemy but in defeating the enemy’s strategy for therein is his vulnerability.”
There are great parallels between the circumstances of battles and those of vendors competing for a particularly attractive piece of business. Both generals and vendors have limited resources and there will only be one winner. More so, the customer is the prize, akin to the territory that most battles are fought over.
Article by Clive Miller
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