An old Greek legend/myth tell how the ruler of Crete, King Minos, had 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 happen the Minotaur finds and devours him/her. This gruesome scenario repeats itself again and again until the young hero Theseus, with the assistance of the princess Ariadne, devises a strategy to kill the monster and get out of the maze.
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 Theseus’ waist as he enters the Labyrinth while she holds the other end tightly in her hand. It’s a simple but 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.
What is the name of Zeus, does this ancient legend/myth have to do with selling?
Actually, quite a lot. If you suspend your disbelief just long enough to imagine Theseus as a modern sales professional we think you’ll readily see the analogy that is being developed. In selling today, especially at the corporate level, you have to contend every day with organizational labyrinths. A hundred years ago – even twenty or thirty years ago – it was possible, if not always easy, to close major business by calling on and satisfying one key decision-maker. Those days are gone. Today, in the era of what is called the Complex Sale, every major piece of business entails multiple decisions, and those decisions are made by multiple decision-makers.
Not only do you have to contend with the multiple decision-makers, but they all may be located in diverse and distant geographic locations. To make things even more challenging you can’t be sure that the same people, who said yes on one deal, will have the same authority in two weeks or even two days later for a second deal to the same company.
In an era of downsizing, nonstop 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 conservative.
Admittedly, the type of monster you usually encounter in the business maze is not exactly the hungry Minotaur variety. But figuratively: It happens every day. And there’s absolutely no way to prevent a tragic ending 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 through the maze of your sales opportunities. To demonstrate the critical difference between having and not having a strategy, here is a story about a corporate client.
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 potential huge new account. The sales representative who was handling the negotiations, a man we’ll call Ray, 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 that would use the new equipment, the purchasing agent who would sign for it, the data-processing people – all of them were delighted with his proposal. Ray even belonged to the same club as the company’s CEO, and he knew that this executive too was behind the deal. With a five-figure commission practically in his pocket, Ray was already shopping for a new car.
Ray’s company wasn’t the only one with its eye on this account. A smaller firm had also approached the customer, and Ray was aware of the potential competition. Judging from the general receptivity to his proposal, he figured 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, Ray was way ahead on reputation points alone. Rumor had it; he congratulated himself, that the salesman for the other side hadn’t even met the CEO.
What Ray didn’t know was that the rival firm had one major advantage. Many of its best salespeople, including an eager young lion named Greg had acquired a whole new perspective on selling. He had learned how to identify the critical Buying Influences in a sale, how to minimize his uncertainties about a customer’s receptivity, how to avoid internal sabotage, and how to leverage from his own strengths to maximize competitive advantage… He had a detailed, pragmatic system that allowed him to analyze components of the pending sale far more effectively than Ray could ever hope to. Armed with his understanding of these components, and of how they all fit together in the sale, he was about to take a win from the market “leader”.
It was true that Greg hadn’t met CEO. But thanks to the Strategic Selling program he had attended, he didn’t have to. While Ray was congratulating himself for knowing customer’s senior management, Greg was quietly finding out who the real decision-makers were for this sale, and uncovering other information that could help him close the deal. Specifically, he wanted to know who would have to give final approval for the sale. He found what he was looking for in Jeff, an outside consultant whom Ray had entirely overlooked. Jeff was able to give Greg two valuable pieces of information.
First, he explained that for this specific sale, it was the division general manager, not the CEO, who had to give final approval; Ray’s connection to the CEO was thus ego-gratifying but irrelevant. Second, if Greg wanted to sell this critical decision-maker, he could do no better than to go through Jeff himself. Prior to becoming a consultant, he had been a valued senior member of the buying organization, and division general manager had routinely relied on him for information about state-of-the-art technology.
What Greg did, therefore, was to show Jeff the match between the buying firm’s need and his computer solution – and then let Jeff demonstrate it to the general manager. Soon all the parties involved in the purchase decision were sold on his proposal. He was the one who got the new care, while Ray, who supposedly had the sale tied up, was left wondering what had gone wrong.
Anybody who sells for a living can tell you similar stories about a “locked in” deal that fell through because a salesperson in charge had failed to cover-all-the-bases, or pitched the proposal to the wrong person(s) at the wrong time, or over-looked a crucial signal that the sale was in trouble. No matter how expert or experienced you are, you have probably felt the pain of disappointment that comes when your competition unseats you form a totally “secure” position.
What you may not realize is that there is always a specific, clearly identifiable reason that such a sale is lost, even though you may not know what it is. That reason never involves merely “luck” or “timing” or “hard work”. When you lose a done deal at the last minute, it’s always because you failed to bring to the sale what Greg brought to his deal; a clearly defined, consistent, and reliable “process” for success that takes into account all the elements of the pending transaction, no matter obscure or trivial they might appear.