The old Greek legend tells how the ruler of Crete, King Minos has an underground maze, the Labyrinth, constructed near his palace to serve as an escape proof prison for the infamous Minotaur – a ravenous monster who is half man and half bull. Anyone who enters the maze becomes hopelessly lost, and once that happens, the Minotaur finds and devours him.
Killing the monster is the easy part. Theseus is a hero after all killing is his business. The problem is finding a way out of the maze. Realizing this, Ariadne ties a long thread to his waist as he enters the Labyrinth, holding the other end rightly in her hand. It’s simple but an effective solution. Deep in the cavern, Theseus dispatches the monster and then retraces his circuitous route back up to daylight. He and Ariadne are married, and the people rejoice.
If you will suspend your disbelief just long enough to imagine, Theseus as a modern sales professional we think you’ll readily see the analogy we’re developing. In selling today, especially at the corporate level, you have to content every day with organizational labyrinths. A hundred years ago – even 20 or 30 years ago – it was possible if not always easy, to close major business by calling on and satisfying a key decision maker. Those days are gone. Today, in the era of what we call the complex sale, every major piece of business entails multiple decisions that are virtually never made by the same person.
Not only do you have to contend with multiple decisions, but the people who make those decisions may not even work in the same place; to get a contract for delivery of a shipment to xyz, you might easily need signatures from people in Mumbai or Delhi. To make things even more challenging you can’t be sure that the people who said ‘yes’ on one deal will have the same authority two weeks, or even two days, from now on a second deal to the same company.
In an era of downsizing non-stop mergers and executive musical chairs, selling has become so complicated and so fraught with unknowns, that the labyrinth metaphor may even be a little too simplistic. At least the original Labyrinth wasn’t constructed on a fault line. In today’s corporate group turmoil, it seems as if it’s always earthquake season.
I admit that the type of bull you usually encounter in the business maze is not exactly the hungry Minotaur variety. No matter how confusing the organization chart, how tough your competitors or how demanding your customers may be, you’re never in danger of literally being eaten for lunch. It happens every day. And there’s absolutely no way to prevent it unless you have a strategy. Just like Theseus you need a plan of action and you need a safety line to keep you properly oriented as you navigate through the maze of your sales opportunities.
You can think of this article as Ariadne’s thread or as a floor plan of the shifting corporate labyrinth. Whichever metaphor you prefer, the point is the same. To survive in selling today, you need strategy.
To demonstrate the critical difference between having and not having a strategy, I’ll relate a story about one of our corporate clients.
Not long ago, a major manufacturer of information systems – a company that does hundreds of millions of dollars, worth of business a year was about to close the sale of a sophisticated computer system to a potentially huge new account. The sales representative who was handling the deal, a man we’ll call Rao, seemed to have every reason to be confident. He had been talking to the client’s top management for months, and as the deal moved closer to signing he knew he was firmly entrenched. The department head who would use the new equipment the purchasing manager who would sign for it, the data-processing people all of them were delighted with his proposal. Rao even belonged to the same club as the company’s CEO, and he knew that his executives too were behind the deal. With a five figure commission practically in his pocket, Rao was already shopping for a new car.
Rao’s company wasn’t the only one with its eye on this account. A smaller firm had also approached the customer, and Rao was aware of the potential competition. Judging from the general receptivity to his proposal though, he reckoned he had nothing to worry about. The smaller firm had half the market-share of his own and no matter how good its product might be, Rao was way ahead in reputation alone. Rumour had it that he congratulated himself that the salesman for the other side hadn’t even met the CEO.