It’s been said that some salespeople make things happen, some watch things happen, and some wonder what’s happening. The difference lies in having a strategy and leading a team to execute it effectively.
Strategy is a plan to deploy resources in a way that brings your strength to bear on the opponent’s weakness, creating momentum that leads to victory.
You can win without a strategy. It’s called luck. Direct salespeople are paid to make their own luck. You can get luck with a Web site.
The models of strategy descend from (like it or not) military history. In the last few years, many business executives and military leaders have been studying classical leaders’ strategic models to determine the models of strategy, which can be applied to company or marketing-level strategies of today. We do this because the models are timeless; the application is situational. It requires allegorical thinking. Models allow us to anticipate future events and to communicate that vision. Intuitive or “natural” salespeople or managers without mental models may have trouble leading a sales team because they don’t know why they are good and can’t transfer that knowledge to someone else.
Classical historical strategy drives market strategy; market strategy drives industry or territory strategy. At the sales level, it is critical we strategize at four different levels:
· THE INDUSTRY MARKET LEVEL
· THE ENTERPRISE LEVEL
· THE OPPORTUNITY LEVEL
· THE INDIVIDUAL LEVEL
Only then can you drive a complex sale strategy in its entirety. Each level requires different technique, talent, and technology that can communicate the enterprise strategic account plan worldwide.
WHY STRATEGIES FAIL
Knowledge is power; the more you know earlier, the more advantage you can have. It’s amazing how little most business developers know about their accounts after months of involvement and considerable resources.
Failure is the seed of learning. By studying why strategies fail, we learn how to make them succeed.
One of the major reasons strategies fail is poor information. There is not a general out there who wouldn’t trade troops for better knowledge of where the enemy is and which way they’re headed. That’s why spies are so important. In the Persian Gulf War, our initial strikes were to knock out the information and command centers and blind the opposition.
Another reason for strategic failure is no strategyat all. Imagine a quarterback in American football coming out on the field and having a huddle. The team asks what the play is and he says “I don’t know, let’s just go for it.” (We’ve all been in those presentations.) If the quarterback calls the snap and fades back to pass and the rest of the team is going out for an end run, this person is going to get footprints all over his body. Effective power comes when the entire team knows the plan and can execute it, with timing, together.
Another fatal error is not having a plan B. Some leaders plan only for the best possible outcome and assume how the competition will react. They don’t test their plan and develop alternatives. The speed of change in marketing and sales today is so fast that a rigid, inflexible, or static plan will result in defeat.
Speed of information drives speed of strategy drives competitive advantage. By the time you win an opportunity, you may be on plan D, E, or F. This doesn’t mean we should be indecisive. There must be a conscious reanalysis and coaching process for absorbing new information and processing it into new strategies, tactics, and actions.
Other sources of failure include poor execution. Patton said a good plan violently executed beats a perfect plan we’re constantly thinking about. He also realized that speed gives the opponent less time to perfect their plan and defenses.
Strategies also fail because of bad timing– the right thing done at the wrong time, too late, too little, or even too early. Because issues and politics change, a time-based strategy is essential to victory.
The inability to have a process for absorbing new information and generating new accurate strategies can often lead to indecision, poor priorities, or waffling, all of which can prove fatal. IBM’s response to the justice department’s attempt to break them up resulted in not two but three strategies that were not a migration path for the client but were competing strategies, leading to their decline in the 1980’s.
A classic principle of strategy is not to divide your forces in the face of a superior foe – spreading yourself too thin. Multiple strategies can work. The allies did it successfully in World War II. But it requires more resources, clear priorities, and decisive leadership.
The last source of strategic failure in sales is failure to pursue the battle won. “Hit-and-run selling” or “drive-by selling” is when you get inside the walls, then leave for the next opportunity rather than selling from the inside out.
The best account managers use opportunity management in tandem with account strategy. Why? Because real profitability comes from shorter sales cycles and better margins on repeat business after you gained access, built trust, and reduced risk.
A DYNAMIC STRATEGIC PLANNING MODEL
Patton said, “Luck favors the man in motion.” By this he meant that the person in motion not only keeps his or her opponent off balance and unable to process new strategies but in the process of action, he or she finds out more information faster than the enemy.
The information processing cycle is known by fighter pilots; they live and die by it. In the movie Top Gun, Kelly McGillis asks Tom Cruise, “What were you thinking up there?” His reply was, “You don’t have time to think. You take time to think up there, you’re dead.” By that he meant it must be habit and reflex. The pilot must have all the models in his head to be able to process strategy instantaneously.
Many salespeople don’t process this at all. They pick a company and product strategy and plod straight ahead until they either win or lose. If you could always win on company and product, why do you need salespeople? Most salespeople don’t know when to trigger alternative strategies. Those who do, win more often.
DYNAMIC, FLEXIBLE STRATEGY
The first step in the strategic process is information. The more we know – about the competition, the decision-making process, the politics, and the client’s needs – the better we will be able to formulate a more accurate strategy.
Information drives strategy. Then you need a vision of victory. Salespeople need a mental picture and map of how they plan to win. They also need electronic communication tools to get it out of their head and into the teams’ heads. Then the team needs effective presentation skills and graphics tools to get the benefits out of their heads and into the prospects’ heads.
Next you need to set goalsand objectives. These terms get switched around semantically, but a goal is more general than an objective. An objective defines what you want to do in measurable quantities and is date-driven. It is less important what you call it than that you have one and execute it well.
Setting a clear objective is essential to defining the strategy. If we don’t know where we’re going, any road will do. Covey says, “Start with the end in mind.”
Strategyis how you intend to achieve the objective; it’s your plan of attack. It is how you plan to allocate resources, what you’re going to sell to whom, where, and when. Tactics are the day-to-day detail actions you do to execute the longer-term strategy.
STRATEGY COACHING REVIEWS – THE ANTIDOTE FOR “HAPPY EARS”
The most essential part of a strategic plan is the testing of it. Professor Tom Kosnik of Standford University says, “Testing their strategy is what separates the amateur strategists from the effective ones.” But it’s also where our tradition of positive mental attitude can get in the way. The best of plans require critical thinking and that is perceived by some people as negative.
It is true there is a self-fulfilling effect of positive thinking. However, too often this results in assumptions, or “happy ears,” for salespeople who are always ignoring the facts. The account looks good, right up until it’s lost. There is a balance point of critical thinking, attacking our own plan without becoming negative. In the movie A Bridge Too Far about Montgomery’s failed attack at Arnhem, the Polish general Sosabowski (played by Gene Hackman) said, “But what about the Germans?” No one wanted to question the assumptions in the plan, and the attack failed.
Bad news early is good news.
One thing is certain: Your plan will be tested – by the competition, the client, or Murphy’s laws. But it will get tested. Salespeople who were too busy to plan will now have to find another prospect.
Bad news early is good news because we can either refine our strategy or withdraw from the account. Blind spots late are bad news. Bill Gates says about himself in Business @ The Speed of Thought, “I have a natural instinct for hunting down grim news. If it’s out there, I want to know about it.” “An essential quality of a good manager is a determination to deal with any kind of bad news head on, to seek it out rather than deny it.” A Fortune magazine article on “Why CEOs Fail” described one of the warning signs of executive denial as a background in sales or marketing.
Who do you want to test it? Your own team. And from whom do you want the bad news? People who want you to win – your own team. But it means leaving your ego at the door and improving your plan rather than defending it. Testing plans on the job is learning by losing – a far more expensive approach, except for the fact that lost sales never hit the books, so you may never know how bad you really are.
For every self-fulfilling positive mental attitude success story, there are a dozen disasters in sales and marketing from people who didn’t adequately challenge their own plan. Edward DeBono has a book called The Six Hats of Thinking. One of these is a red hat for the positive thinking aspect, but there is also a hat where we attack our own plan to find the flaws in it before the competition does.
Nothing increases positive mental attitude more than winning. If we can anticipate the failure points and strengthen them, we should have a much better plan as well as plan B, C, and D in the pocket.
Next, you must execute. The devil is in the details. But an average plan can be overcome by great execution, Likewise, a perfect plan can be defeated by poor execution.
Finally, you get results and new information based on a call, a presentation, or a survey. In sales it is essential that you process new information and come up with a new plan or revalidate the old one.
The best time to reevaluate strategy is right after a sales call (not in the elevator or the bathroom, but after we get out of the building – the walls have ears). The curbside review is important to detect new information, critique performance, and make sure who has the ball on each action item. If you scatter like quail for the airport without taking this valuable time to strategize, you have missed a great opportunity.
The next time to revalidate your plan is in a strategy session before each major event requiring resources – the big proposal, the big presentation, or the corporate visit. These are essential. Once your top executives say the wrong thing because they weren’t prepared adequately, you can’t buy enough “mind erasers” to get it out of the prospect’s head. “What the chairman meant to say our strategy was – never mind.”
COACHING – THE MANAGER’S VALUE ADDED
Competitive advantage doesn’t come from awareness of a strategy; it comes from consistent execution faster than the competition. Coaching is where managers can make the difference. And yet many sales managers and most consulting partners don’t see this as a major part of their job. They simply “flog the forecast until morale improves.” Salespeople need more than “how much and when?” from their managers.
Pipeline reviews by management in a coaching environment are where you drill down into the competition’s strategy, the value proposition, and the politics of the decision-making process. More accurate forecasts come from a foundation of better sales plans for accounts controlled early and reviewed often.
STRATEGY AND TACTICS
When it comes to strategic planning, tactics should fall out of the strategy. But too many salespeople go “ready, fire, aim.” Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had nine hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first six sharpening my ax.” Many salespeople are out there chopping with a dull ax, generating tons of paper and lots of sales activity without felling any trees. But salespeople don’t get paid to be busy; they get paid to win. It’s been said that tactics are doing the thing right and strategy is being sure we’re doing the right thing.
Tactics are short-term and flexible; they change dynamically. Strategies, however, should stay consistent until new information is introduced and you have made a conscious decision to commit to a new strategy. Both strategies and tactics are essential to success; a plan will fail for lack of either.
Tactics in the absence of a strategy creates a dependence on luck. General Bedel Smith, Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Great salespeople, like great generals and athletes, make their own luck. Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who crossed the Alps to defeat the Romans, said, “We will either find a way or make one.”
There are multiple strategies that could win. Looking for the perfect one will cause the loss of valuable time. Commit to one decisively, execute it violently, and revalidate it constantly.
The terms “strategy” and “tactics” often get confused, and the reason is that they are actually “nested.” An action item can be both a strategy and a tactic at the same time, depending on the level from which it’s viewed. What is a tactic to the enterprise becomes a strategy for the department. So the same item, viewed from above or below, could either be a strategy or a tactic. It’s less important what you call it, than that you write it down and do it.