The tendency to ignore preparation by salespeople is the only one factor in their undoing. Another is a tendency to focus exclusively on the individual sale and to ignore the account. It is the selling event that occupies the bulk of most representatives’ attention. There is nothing wrong with attending carefully to the selling event – whether it’s a phone call, an introductory letter, or the sales call itself – but such attention can create real problems if it leads you to ignore the larger picture.
In a complex sale arena, you have short term and long term objectives. In the short term, you want to close as many individual pieces of business as you can. In the long term, you want to maintain healthy relations with the customers signing for these deals, so that they will be willing to make further purchases from you in the months, and years to come. It would be great if these two objectives always coincided but you know that they don’t. All of us who make a living in sales can point to business that we wish we hadn’t sold – to sales that seemed like a good idea at the time but that turned out, down the line to be liabilities.
You have probably seen this happen to yourself in cases where somebody sells a product to a company that cannot really use it well where the fit between the product and the company’s needs simply isn’t as exact as the salesperson would like it to be. What do you do in a situation like that? If you confined yourself to the short term view, you might be inclined to gloss over the bad product fit and go for the instant payoff, your commission. But you wouldn’t last very long with that account once the company discovered that it had been sold a pup. You could forget about referrals and repeat business. And you would very soon discover that your tactical victory had turned out to be a strategic defeat.
One of the hardest decisions any sales professional has to make is the decision not to close a sale, even though it is possible to do so. One of our major clients faced this decision several years ago, just after completing production on a new computer assembly. The assembly was so sophisticated and difficult to operate that, if it had been put on the market (a market that was very eager to have it), our client would have been deluged in weeks with service calls and angry customers. The company’s officers understood this, even though the potential customers did not, and so they made a painful but very savvy decision; they followed a competing firm to be first in this hungry but inexperienced field. It was the competitor who ended up having to deal with frustrated customers, while our client reaped long term profits from its caution.
This story highlights the importance of an account-centered approach. If you concentrate chiefly on tactics, you’ll be likely to forget the account, and to go from selling event as if they were their own rewards. To revert to the military analogy, you’ll tend to focus on winning individual battles while forgetting about the war of which these battles are only components. Our strategic approach offsets this self-defeating tendency.
One caveat, though. I do not mean to imply, by using the military terms ‘battle’ and ‘war’ that we see successful selling as a victory of the seller over the buyer. On the contrary we use the military metaphor purely as a short description. In contrast to what you might have learned earlier in sales training programmes, in a successful complex sale you never beat the buyer or trick him or her into signing. That’s another problem with the ‘tactics first’ approach and with the go get “em” philosophy of many sales trainers. They set you up to keep score to gauge your success by how many customers you’ve roped in.
We all know people who relish sticking it to the customers who are continually asking themselves, how can I con this buyer? The question we stress in Strategic Selling is very different. It is how can I manage this sale? Only by asking that question throughout the sales cycle can you avoid the adversarial view that so often turns tactical success into straight defeat.