Winning Big Deals - Everything You Need to Know

Back in 2005, Tiger Woods was the biggest winner in the world and he cracked more than $10 million in prize-money earnings alone for the first time in a single year. In 2005 I was running the Australian region of a global software company and we did three of the four biggest deals globally for the corporation. Here is the inside scoop on how we did it.

We were targeting large enterprises and the sales people that worked for me understood that sales success is largely derived from having the right relationships with people, and they also talked about strategy; but when I quizzed any of them about what 'strategy' actually meant in the real world, each was like a deer in the headlights.

I don’t know about you, but if a salesperson comes to me and says: “This deal’s strategic." That’s code to me for: ‘We need to discount the hell out of this or we’re not going to sell anything for 18 months but I want the organization to invest heavily in pursuing it.' That’s usually what strategic means for them and they don’t really know what strategic selling looks like. Most sales people just know adirect head-to-head strategy where they’re going to behave on the basis that: ‘We have best brand, best technology, best reputation, best price, best service, best support and we can just duke it out with the competition based on our superiority'.

They don’t understand that there are other strategies that you can employ, strategies of changing the rules, strategies of containment, different things that you can do politically and around insight and value. When I coach and mentor salespeople in executing well, the first thing I do is to get them to use their tools well; to be a professional tradesman rather than 'a tool with a tool'. But just having a tool and processes doesn’t mean the person is going to execute well. Just having a discovery or qualification process doesn’t mean that the information in the tool is going to be able to deliver insight because often that information is inaccurate, untested and not validated.

Often you pressure people to do account plans and use the tools and you assemble groups of people to have meetings and do peer reviews and yet, when you turn your back, things just return back to how they were and the tools gather dust. So I believe in all methodologies whether it’s TAS, Huthwaite’s Value Selling, Miller Heiman’s Blue Sheets, Green Sheets, Gold Sheets, Art Jacob's Battleplan... they’re all great. The trick is to get people to use something; anything, well.

The view that I’ve formed is that it’s the way a salesperson thinks and operates that determines their success, not the tools they use. They need a way of generating insight and managing complex process with low overhead. What I came up with was a framework for professional selling that actually solved this problem. It addresses the universal problem with strategy. Here's my analogy: Strategy is like a person standing on the tee of a golf hole; they masterfully plan out what they’re going to do... but they can’t actually hit the ball. That's the real problem – execution! You’ve gotta have a strategy that’s executable.

We need sales people to function in that top right quadrant. We use terms such as ‘hunter’ in the top left quadrant and ‘farmer’ or 'relationship manager' in the bottom right. 'Transactional' people are more common in the retail and fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) industries.

But what really defines 'being strategic'? When I interview salespeople and ask them, I rarely get a good answer. To me, being strategic is first and foremost about engaging early at the most senior levels possible. It means being 'first in' and having conversations about business problems and then embedding yourself in a compelling business case in a way that creates disadvantage for the competition and sets the agenda with a bias toward your strengths. This is all consistent with Challenger Selling and I published my book before The Challenger Sale. Consensus building is possible but remains a slippery slope when you're late to the party with all your competitors in the deal.

You need to wire a bias for yourself into their requirements so that the document that eventually comes to market, in the form of tender or RFP/RFQ, favors you 'between the lines'. The two or three competitors you're up against are just there to make up the numbers to serve the client's need for a competitive process. That's being masterfully strategic and better still, you'll avoid the competitive bid process all together.

Yet being strategic also requires us to set an agenda around business value. The reason it’s important to focus on business value is because we all need to behave as if our biggest competitor is not our traditional competition; our biggest competitor is ‘do nothing’, the status quo and apathy.

We need to think, what happens if the customer has other funding priorities, if things change within their business? How can I be absolutely confident that they will go ahead because as much as buyers want their ROI and it’s expensive for them to go to market and buy things; in big, complex sales environments where there’s 9 month or 18 month sales cycles, it’s also very expensive for us to sell to them. We need our ROI as well.

So what I came up with was the concept of RSVPselling. It works with your existing tools and it's not really a sales methodology but instead a meta-framework for managing complex selling. One of the things I hear regularly is that coaching is dying. Sales managers are increasingly becoming administrators and spreadsheet jockeys and fall victim to a lack of time for field coaching. But we really need to mentor people and get them thinking and acting the right way. The RSVPselling framework achieves exactly this and in the most simple manner possible.

What I did to win massive opportunities is simply this. Every time I sat down with a salesperson, whether with their account plan, with one of their sales tools or whether writing notes on the back of a napkin in a coffee shop; I would say to them: “Tell me about the relationships that you’ve got in this account. And tell me about the relationships our competitors have there. The reason I do that is because relationships with the right people are the foundation of any sales success. The cardinal sin of selling is that people are often selling to the wrong person or at the wrong level inside the organization. They’re selling to the people that can say 'no' but not to the people that can say 'yes.'

When you’re selling at a lower level in the organization, the people you’re talking to want to talk about your product. When you go and sell at the right level, when you have relationships with genuine power in an organization, you can challenge them and they care about delivering outcomes and managing risk. It bears repeating: When engaging at the CXO level, the conversation must be about achieving business outcomes and managing risk. This is how to get traction in the account and achieve alignment and support.

When coaching a salesperson on relationships I say: "Tell me about the relationships you have in this account and are they relationships that are going to cause us to win? Are they relationships of integrity? Do the people we have relationships with do what they say they will do? Do they deliver us genuine insight and influence? Do they provide intelligence about what’s going on?" That’s the measure of relationships.

The next thing is strategy and here are the questions I ask: "Do you [the salesperson] have a strategy for managing these relationships? How are you going to avoid getting blocked? Are there external consultants that have got relationships that will be influential? What’s your strategy in managing relationships and what’s your strategy for dealing with the competition? The number one competition is… do nothing; so do you have a strategy around business case value?"

That leads into this concept of unique value; not are you projecting a unique value proposition – that’s very 'old world'. That’s what marketing departments in the 80’s taught sales people to do: feature, function, advantage, benefit – keep projecting all of this value out there. Rather than projecting value, do you know how we can uniquely create value for the customer? First and foremost by having a better understanding of their business and their operating environment than anybody else that’s going to turn up and try to sell them.

But there is another problem with trying to project value to somebody by talking about all of your features and functions. Features and functions can create price concerns because people think: Well that’s probably over-engineered for what I need or it’s going to take a lot of effort and complexity to implement. The other problem with features and functions is they don’t win you deals, they exclude you from deals because when you start focusing on features and functions you can often reveal something you don’t have – you can highlight weakness so it’s a mistake.

The key with value is to allow the customer to define it and then get yourself embedded in a compelling business case and as the lowest risk option.

The fourth thing that I focus on is the biggest blind-spot for most salespeople – process alignment. The reason most sales people miss their forecast numbers is that they don’t understand the buyer’s process. Men forecast based often on their own testosterone fueled needs to hit a number at the end of the financial year or the end of the quarter. Or, people forecast based on when they think they’re going to get a decision but they don’t understand that after the decision there needs to be a procurement process or a legal department involved in a contract review. Maybe it needs to go to a board 'as a formality' [not; never]. There’s all kinds of other processes that can be poorly understood by the people we're working with inside the customer organization.

Often the lower down the people are in customer organization, the more likely they will inadvertently mislead our own sales people because they themselves don’t understand the internal politics, agendas and process gates. They may not know that the funding is not really secured. Maybe they’ve only got the go-ahead to actually investigate rather than procure. I always ask salespeople: "Do you have strong process alignment with the buyer? Are we aligned with the way that they evaluate and select? Do we understand the approval and procurement process?"

If all elements of RSVP are covered and the deal is progressed to a reasonable point, I then raise the issue of a 'close plan' because that’s how you ensure process alignment and forecast accuracy. You sit down with your buyer, the senior person in the organization, but you don’t talk about the date they’re going to place an order with you, that’s transparently self-serving and it’s not the end-game anyway. Instead, you talk about the date that your customer is going to be live and realizing the benefits of the solution you’re delivering to solve their problem.

I teach salespeople to ask: "What date do you have to be live by and what happens if that date is missed?" I encourage them to explore whether someone very important won't receive an annual bonus, or whether someone could lose their job.

If there is a close plan that's been validated by the customer as a 'Project Alignment Plan', then we can start to forecast with confidence because the customer is telling us why it’s important to have everything in place by a certain date. It's their date, not ours, and once we’ve got that date we can start to go backwards to all of the interdependent events that precede it. When do they need to assemble a project team? When will they need to have contracts signed? There is much more but now what we’ve got is a date where we are going to get a purchase order based on the customer’s need, timing and process; not based upon our needs and hopes as the seller. We ensure forecast accuracy and remove a huge point of stress and friction within the sales organization. This concept of close plans can be done very simply in a spreadsheet. There are a lot of simple tools for doing that.

In summary, this is the conversation you need to habitually have with your salespeople: "Tell me about the relationships you’ve got. What’s your strategy? How are we uniquely creating value? Show me you understand their evaluation, selection and procurement process – prove it all to me." We need to have that conversation over and over again regardless of which tool or methodology is in play... or no tool. The RSVP concept works so well because it is very low overhead; it's a conversational way to keep mentoring your people relentlessly so that they start to think as they need to and remove the blind-spots in execution.

I had the managing director of a technology company phone me from Hong Kong once, and he was very excited. He'd read my book three months earlier but didn't seem to have any kind of epiphany... but the concepts had seeped-in. He had been in a coffee shop meeting with his number one rep in Asia and he had unconsciously used the RSVP questioning framework. As he walked away, it had just dawned on him and he called me. He had uncovered some serious areas of vulnerability in the quarter's most important sale, one in which the salesperson thought that they were home and hosed.

If you need assistance with sales execution, or are wondering how to generate insights for salespeople to go upstream like Challenger exhorts, feel free to e-mail me at 

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Main Image Photo by Flickr: Keith Allison