Observations and Insights on Selling

The SalesPractice blog offers weekly observations and insights for sales practitioners pursuing the highest levels of performance in personal selling.

This Week's Post:

Putting Things in Place

Gary Boye

One of my favorite quotes from Peter Drucker is:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Although strategy is a relatively common word, the plain truth is that it is one of the most misused words in our language even among some people who practice it diligently.

Of course, that’s a good thing for those who do understand it.

At first glance, some might think that Drucker is demeaning strategy and weakening it in comparison to the effects of culture. We have to know better and realize that the man, revered as he is, certainly places an extremely high value on strategy and its use. When he introduces "culture," into the mix, he is reaffirming the tenets of strategy which demand an aligned philosophy, strong leadership, and awareness of conditions which can be traced directly into three of the factors Sun Tzu described in his definitive treatise. So--culture lies not in an opposing pole to strategy, but is part of it. If it is out of alignment--then the "best laid plans" can fail and most often do.

It would be very difficult to succeed in sales without a strategy. Those words can be taken lightly or dismissed. They can be lost among all the nuggets and platitudes that are hurled about in what passes for sales education.

I believe we must take the words seriously; our career is at stake.

Strategy is a science. We needn’t become scientists or forsake our chosen practice. I know many very successful sales pros who are routinely strategic in their methods and would be at a loss to define what the word means. I liken them to those fortunate individuals who can pick up a musical instrument and play it without ever learning how to read a single note. Personally, I've studied the science of strategy out of pure fascination and I've taught it professionally. Like most people, in my early years I did not know the difference between strategy and tactics. A grandmaster of chess has written that strategy is the science of tactics. Perhaps he's right but I prefer not to think that way because I have made my living in sales and sales education. I don't see the relationship between buyer and seller as a win-lose scenario. I'm not tactical (sorry) because I try hard not to make the mistakes that would have to be repaired with some tactic. Yes—I believe that most tactics used in selling are used in an attempt to undo the damage that came before. Take, for instance, the overly documented notion that we close sales by assuming the sale. It’s called "the assumptive close." It's as transparent as the emperor's new clothes (pardon the unintended pun). The real assumption seems to be about the prospect's intelligence, or lack thereof, and that’s a foolish assumption for a salesperson to make.

It might help to clear up some common misunderstandings so that we can make room for a simple way to think about strategy that can serve us forever.

The word “strategy” is derived from a Greek term that means “thinking like a general." Of course, in selling, the applications are distinct just as they would be unique in chess, sports, or war. Strategy, in itself, is not intuitive. It relies on analysis and foresight. The age old principles of strategy could be described as a system for winning without conflict. I think that last point reveals adaptability to sales convincingly. Again, we don't want to see the relationship between buyer and seller as a win-lose scenario.

Quite often, people confuse strategy and tactics and think the two terms are interchangeable, but they’re not. Their meanings are different. Ultimately, a good way to think about the two is that strategy acts as a guide to a set of actions or tactics. The second common misinterpretation is that strategy constitutes a plan. Although planning can be an important component, it is better to view strategy as a way of thinking hard about where you fit and where you are in relationship to your environment. What is your current status or position in a given situation and what would you like it to be?

Set the Stage for Opportunities.

In sales, strategy involves putting things in place to achieve a desired outcome. In doing so, the idea is to advance our position. We think in terms of setting the stage for opportunities. Let's examine two cases that exemplify a successful strategy. I'll begin with one from my own experience.

I was once asked to submit a proposal to a very large manufacturer of hospital equipment to conduct and moderate a seminar for the company's management staff. I was told that there would be thirty eight participants ranging from C-level to regional managers in service and sales. I was quite interested in the project because the seminar had a novel theme--one that was in line with the very topic we are discussing. The vice president who was designing the program had decided to have it centered on the teachings of Sun Tzu and his classic treatise on strategy, popularly called The Art of War. In recent years, the work has become increasingly popular as a guide for businesses and individuals in the competitive arenas of selling, marketing, and service, and as a model for leadership. This was a study I was intimately acquainted with because I had previously led seminars on the application of the treatise to business and sales practices. However, I was not the only one courting the project. There were, in fact, two others who had actually written books on the very subject, but who had limited experience in sales and marketing.

My strategy was bold enough to ignore the competition and put something in place to create a better position for myself. I created a handout piece and made forty copies which I sent to the VP, asking him to put them in the hands of all attendees in advance preparation for the event. The handout was titled How to Understand Sun Tzu. It described what we would cover in the seminar. The closing words were: "With all of the above said, we want to welcome you to our discussions and workshop. Bring an open mind, put on your thinking cap, and feel free to pronounce Sun Tzu’s name any way you feel comfortable with." -- Gary Boye--- Your Moderator of Seminars on Strategy.

At first glance I could be accused of violating my own principle of never assuming the sale. Actually, I was utilizing another principle: Let the prospect assume ownership.

Those pieces went into the right hands and there was no turning back on their part from my involvement. To this day I suspect that I was awarded the project because the decision makers were impressed that I practiced what I preached. But my idea was hardly complex; it was merely somewhat creative and it put me in that position because I had differentiated myself.

We Don't Ignore What's Already in Place.

What about things that are already in place? How often do we find opportunities positioned right under our noses. I love to tell the following story. Becky was a student at a parochial elementary school who for two consecutive years won first place in the annual fundraiser contest. Each year she won a brand new bicycle, one of which she gave to a friend. The scenario for the contest was this. Each of approximately eighty students was to go door to door selling certificates worth one large pizza from a popular pizzeria in town. Most of the students lived within a two mile radius of the school. Of course, they set out working their very own neighborhoods. But, each year, Becky did not. Instead, her father drove her, and waited for her, in the neighborhood directly surrounding the pizza establishment itself. Here I'll let the reader consider the huge advantage the young student secured.

It’s not the first time I've been humbled by an eleven year old. Thank goodness that hospital equipment company didn't know about her!

Take the Small Steps.

Many of us work in an environment where the buying cycle follows a common pattern spread over time. Although various sources will reveal different pictures of what a buying cycle is supposed to look like, the stages are often similar to the following:

  • Awareness of Needs
  • Assessment of Alternatives
  • Alleviation of Risk
  • Decision
  • Achievement of Results

At each stage of the process shown above, the challenge for the salesperson is to position herself in a leadership role. That leadership is gained by differentiating oneself from the competition. The best position we can attain is that of partner with the buyer. That requires uncovering those needs that are hidden as well as apparent. It requires evaluation of sound ideas, honest appraisals worthy of mutual trust and respect at the second and third stages, and, a culmination orchestrated by the partnership where the obvious solution becomes compelling. Partnering in the achievement of results and facilitating conditions of satisfaction are the final earmarks of outstanding strategic performance. 

Whatever the buyer's incremental process, we can use it as an opportunity to make progress in bite size chunks. Leadership, defined by a leadership role in any selling scenario, is the ultimate position we want to attain in order to achieve our desired results. And--as in almost all quests for leadership, it is the small steps that will take you there. Once you determine the buyer's process, those steps will be more clearly defined.