Harvard Business Review is arguably the most prestigious publication for business leaders and management thinkers. Here’s one of my recent Harvard Business Review articles titled the Win More Business with an Indirect Strategy.
For the past two decades, business to business selling has been conducted in basically the same way. Salespeople directly approach customers armed with facts, features, and the benefits of their products to convince customers to buy. However, customer decision making has changed and today’s buyers are smarter and more sophisticated than ever. In addition, your competitors have not sat idly by. They’re focused on defeating you so they have educated themselves about your products and sales tactics. Sales success in today’s times requires a new way of thinking about sales strategy. The question is, what is the right strategy for today?
In his classic book Strategy, famous military historian Lidell Hart detailed the “indirect” approach to war. In painstaking detail he described the superiority of the indirect strategy over the direct strategy, using examples throughout the history of warfare. He theorized that the outcome of every major war from Roman times through World War II could be attributed to the grand strategy the parties selected. Instead of a brute force direct attack to overwhelm the enemy, the victors always chose to battle indirectly. When forced to fight, the indirect strategy involves using surprise, intelligence, logic, and human nature to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses.
Hart argued that the indirect approach was not solely a war strategy but also an influential philosophy that could be applied wherever opposition to new ways of thinking exists. He said, “The direct assault of ideas provokes a stubborn resistance, thus intensifying the difficulty of producing a change of outlook.” For example, “The suggestion that there is a bargain to be secured is far more potent than any direct appeal to buy.” Below, you will find seven principles of the indirect strategy and their business to business sales application.
1. Employ Psychology. The first and foremost principle is that the indirect strategy is a psychological operation (“psy-op” in military jargon) based upon understanding, predicting, and influencing human nature. In sales, winning requires earning the trust, respect, and friendship of another human being. The victor builds the strongest customer relationship while inflicting mental and emotional trauma on his enemies. The secondary psychological goal is to elevate the enemy’s combat fatigue and skepticism about winning because a halfhearted warrior is more than halfway to losing.
2. Plan Your Strategy. During a long sales cycle of several months or more, it’s easy to focus on individual battles and lose sight of winning the war. The sales cycle is reduced to a series of battles without an overriding grand strategy. Salespeople become fixated on the next customer interaction, proceeding from the initial sales call to the sales presentation, then on to the product demonstration and evaluation. However, all salespeople are like generals who should create a strategy to win their wars long before the first battle begins. The successful military leader preplans how and where he will attack in accordance with the resources at his disposal. The victorious commander achieves his objective through calculated maneuvers to gain the advantage and counter tactics to neutralize his enemy’s advantages.
3. Know Your Enemies. How well do you know your competitors? How much time do you spend studying their Web sites, products, and marketing collateral? Do you take the time to perform an honest win-loss analysis after each engagement? Most salespeople argue that they simply don’t have enough time for these types of activities. However, history repeats itself for those who don’t learn from the past.
4. Be the First on the Battlefield. As a rule, it is always best to be the first salesperson in an account. The chance to understand a customer’s environment first, establish relationships, and set the criteria for the selection process are obvious advantages. But if you work for an underdog company that competes against industry favorites, being the first on the battlefield is the difference between success and failure.
5. Spies Provide Privileged Information. Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote about the indirect strategy when he said, “Knowledge of the enemy’s position can only be obtained from other men. Hence, the use of spies.” These words are still true today. In order to win any complex sale you need proprietary information that only a spy can provide. These spies are members of the selection team, other company employees, or business partners. They provide valuable information about the internal machinations of the selection process and inform you about the thoughts of the various selection team members. Without a spy, you never know how well you are positioned in an account or what the enemy’s next move will be.
6. Understand How the Objective is Organized. All battlefield commanders need location-based information so they can map the way to reach their objective. Similarly, salespeople need a complete understanding of how the evaluators are organized within their company because political power during the decision-making process goes far beyond the lines and titles on an organization chart.
If you are involved in selling an enterprise solution, you already know the importance of understanding the inner workings of the various departments within a company. Your product might be purchased by the information technology department and used by accounting and manufacturing. Therefore, it’s critical to map out the political interrelationships between evaluators and their respective departments of the organization.
7. Create Turning Points. The indirect strategy is based upon creating turning points which cause enemies to lose momentum they can never regain. Like war, every deal has a critical moment, or turning point, that determines the winner and the loser. In sales, information can be used to create turning points that eliminates competitors. Your expertise on the customer’s industry, understanding of best practices, knowledge of unflattering facts about your archrival, and the willingness to raise critical issues the customer is unaware of can be used to create turning points.
For the sales warriors of the business world today, the difference between being hailed as a hero or branded a failure hinges on winning. But in order to win, you must know the steps it takes to develop a winning strategy. Winning is everything in sales as it is in war. In the words of indirect strategy practitioner Napoleon Bonaparte, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”