IF THERE'S ONE THING most salesmen have, it's a plausible excuse for not getting the business. "We lost out because of their internal politics"; "They stuck with the current supplier for price reasons". Chances are the people giving those reasons have great selling skills. So why do they achieve only limited success and never bag the really big clients?
Perhaps they lack the tactical thinking and persistence needed to go for the major prize and are under the impression that if you don't get a quick result you're wasting your time.
For large-scale success, however, it's important to recognise that selling skills alone are not enough. You also need focus. Effort and energy must be fixed on the right people, at the right time, in the right manner.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been written linking military strategies to success in the world of business. Lanchester, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz - all can now be found in the business library - and the list goes on. There's even one called Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun (although I don't recommend it).
The overuse of military analogies is a definite risk when talking about business, but a successful sales strategy is based on three battlefield concepts: concentration of firepower; attacking the competitor/enemy at their weakest point; and timely, comprehensive and accurate intelligence.
Concentration of firepower In the early 20th century, Frederick Lanchester developed a principle of warfare which said that fighting strength equalled the efficiency of weapons times the square number of troops. In layman's terms it meant that, with the right firepower, a smaller force could wipe out a larger one.
At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Admiral Horatio Nelson knew his British fleet was smaller than the combined forces of the French and Spanish. As a result, his strategy was to sail at the enemy, cutting their fleet in two, and concentrate his firepower on one half at a time.
The "square" from Lanchester's principle meant Nelson could defeat the first half, while maintaining enough ships to take on the second with the possibility of success.
In modern business, we use more user-friendly terms - niche marketing, market segmentation, laser-beam penetration - practices which have been used with great success in virtually every industry.
When Canon wanted to dominate the copier market in Britain, it was up against incumbent market leader Xerox.
Canon's strategy was to concentrate all sales and marketing resources first on Scotland, where Xerox had a smaller presence.
Only after achieving a 40 per cent market share there did it set its sights on London.
For a provider of professional services, that means targeting 12 (not 120) prospects. Unless you have unlimited resources, prospects simply won't become clients. A scattergun approach will spread resources too thinly and reduce the chances of winning any new business.
Attacking the weakest point Sun Tzu was right when he said you could be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attacked places which were undefended. When Honda wanted to expand its presence outside Japan, it started with the lower end of the motorcycle market - a segment ignored by the competition. By the time Honda had developed a distribution network, a strong image and a loyal brand following, it was also ready to take a dominant position in cars.
Even if you're not selling motorcycles or cars, the same strategy will work. Identify areas of weakness in what your competitor offers a client and focus all your efforts on doing better in that aspect. In other words, establish a bridgehead.
For an accountancy firm, don't start with a potential client's major domestic requirements, talk first about its smaller international needs. For an advertising agency, show you can run a digital ad campaign before asking to handle the brand. Whatever your industry, your initial sales efforts should target the client in areas where the competition is weak.
Timely, comprehensive and accurate intelligence In any war, the most important commodity is intelligence. With superior information, you can almost always outwit the competition. I'm not advocating industrial espionage or the use of secret listening devices in boardrooms, but there are ways to gain good intelligence. It takes time, but makes the difference between success and failure.
You should read any published information that gives you insights into a target company. This might be interviews, press statements, annual reports or brochures.
Consider offering a Trojan horse - a service you offer, but don't charge for. This will get you into the organisation and allow access to information and decision makers who would otherwise be out of reach.
Besides that, source information from inside your own firm. Some of your colleagues may have dealt with people in the target company before.
Talk to suppliers who have already won business from the prospect and find out how they did it. Put their experience to use. If you can, find a "white knight" - a friendly insider who will talk to you informally. Even if you are not a frontline salesperson, you still need a strategy. Invest time in thinking. Develop a structured approach to acquiring clients. Focus your energy, attack the competition where it is weak, and gather intelligence.
Planning is only one part of it - what counts is winning the business. Don't wait until your strategy is 100 per cent ready before starting to sell. That will mean missed opportunities caused by "analysis paralysis". The key to successful selling, and to a military victory, is knowing when to plan and when to act.
TIPS TO WIN
Careful with that Frontal Attack Don't go in with all guns blazing and try to knock out the competition by offering the best product, the cheapest price and a generous line of credit. We tend to use this approach when the prize is so tempting it blinds us to more considered options. Or maybe we just want a quick success and to get on with the next deal. Regardless of the reason, a frontal attack is a sign of poor strategy. If you have identified a genuine opportunity, plan your moves carefully, and realise the client may even be unimpressed by a supplier who seems prepared to promise everything at once.
The Trojan Horse This strategy involves offering prospective clients a service that is of value to them - at no charge. For example, an accountancy firm might offer a couple of days' training in new financial accounting regulations. Do not think of this as giving something away for free, but as an investment of time in building a relationship. It will give you the opportunity to penetrate the prospective client's organisation and gather intelligence which will help you plan for and win future work. The key is to make sure the client sees the value, while not feeling there is a quid pro quo.
Who, What, How A simple but effective way to open a meeting with someone you have not met before is to realise what is going through the other person's mind. The person probably wonders who you are, what this is all about, and how long it will take. Before you walk into a meeting have a very specific plan as to how you are going to answer these unspoken, but very real, questions.
If You Go First When we're up against other vendors presenting for the same business, most of us prefer to go last. We think that being last will help us demonstrate real effectiveness and increase our chances of being remembered - not to mention giving us extra time to prepare. But what if we have to go first? Accept the challenge and turn it to your advantage. Think of two or three very difficult questions that you might be asked and have answers ready. If those questions are not asked, bring them up yourself by saying, "You may be wondering about ... and this is what we would do." The client is now likely to ask your competitors what they would do under the circumstances, and they will only have a couple of seconds to think of a good answer. In effect you're creating a time-bomb for them. Remember, everyone is playing to win.