Lessons learned

I've had the benefit of working with some very talented people. Over the years I have compiled a list of "Lessons Learned". People frequently ask for copies of this so I reproduce it here for all. You can find a pdf version here. Got lessons of your own? By all means, send me your suggestions.

Proper credit is due to many others. Please read the acknowledgments.

Lessons Learned is © 1994 - 2006 Venture Management Strategies and William Kantor. I freely give permission to reproduce and use this for educational purposess. All you have to do is ask me.

Lessons Learned or Common Sense for Complex Sales
(A work in process)

  1. Concentrate on building long-term relationships—20% of the customers buy 80% of everything.
  2. The best way to increase market share is by holding your current accounts and selling more to them.
  3. The hardest decision you make is which business not to pursue. Don’t be afraid to make this call.
  4. Sell the company. The salesperson’s greatest asset is faith in his company.
  5. Differentiation is finding something that is really important to your customer that the competition can’t match—your product, your company, you, your understanding of the customer’s problems, or your understanding of the customer’s personal concerns.
  6. Plan to use all the available resources of the company to get the sale—attempting to do it alone and failing to communicate with other people in the company is an inexcusable error in judgment.
  7. Everyone gets stuck. If you are stuck, ask for help. There is no excuse for failing while trying to do it all on your own.
  8. Seek the collective wisdom of other successful sales people at your company.
  9. The buyer of a system does not know what they purchased until long after the product is delivered. Corollary: No one ever bought a “bad” system from the competition unless you set up a graceful face-saving recovery when you lost.
  10. If you lose, don’t burn bridges, keep the relationships and start to build new ones. There will be another opportunity. The time to implement a recovery plan is immediately after losing not when they are about to buy again. If a customer chooses another path let them know that you will be there for them if the situation should change. Remember that the winning vendor will get into trouble (it’s only a matter of time) and the customer’s business will evolve.
  11. If the sale revolves around features, you lose—system selling is all economics. Translate your unique product features, reliability, and convenience, into economics (value and cost of ownership). If you don’t do this for the customer, they will either miss the connection or make the wrong assumptions.
  12. While economics is the yardstick for comparison, every sale is an emotional decision for the customer. Their biggest concerns are success and risk. You will be way ahead of the game if you understand the personal agendas that evoke their emotions.
  13. Every sale requires both a decision to fund a purchase and a decision to select a vendor’s solution. Your job as sales person is to have an impact on both—otherwise you are wasting your time.
  14. Don’t assume that your customer knows how to make the business case to justify the purchase. Build the cases—for selection and funding—with your prospect and make sure that he/she knows how to present and use them. If the prospect does not want to do this with your help it is generally a sign that you have either lost the selection or the customer won’t get funding.
  15. Conversely, if a customer asks for your help in justifying the purchase it is a very good sign that you are winning the selection.
  16. A complex ROI spreadsheet is not more believable; it is less understandable ­ particularly if it is yours. Let the customer complicate the analysis (sometimes they have people who’s job is to do this analysis), your starting point should be as simple as possible.
  17. Ask yourself “in who’s opinion is your ROI analysis valid?” You can’t deliver a believable cost/benefit analysis until you understand the customer’s benefit ruler. Seek to understand this ruler before you go there. Otherwise the customer will only see the cost.
  18. When discussing cost remind the customer of the anticipated ROI. “This is the kind of investment you will need to make to get this anticipated return.”
  19. Stay on the offensive—when you are forced to the defensive, you lose.
  20. Being in control means setting the pace and the agenda for your competition. Scrambling to show how you can do something your competitor does or has already demonstrated (probably better than you will) is a sure sign that you have lost control and have been outsold. The same can be said for getting sucked into a price negotiation too early.
  21. If you don’t know you’re winning you’re losing. You are probably playing on an uneven field with criteria that won’t support you winning. You will have to change your strategy and the decision criteria in order to win.
  22. Never “match” features. It legitimizes the competitor’s claims. It is far better to focus on your uniqueness and position that your competitor has matched you. Better yet, set traps that force competitors to “match” your features.
  23. “Pitch” is a stage-one word. Don’t ever “pitch” to your customer. Try to remove the word from your vocabulary. Nobody wants to be “pitched” to. Your role in selling is to understand the customer’s problem and develop a solution. “Pitch” implies that you are there to advocate. Either that you have not listened enough to develop an understanding of the problem or that you are not prepared to listen while advocating your solution.
  24. Start your advocacy by showing that you understand the customer’s situation. E.g., “Based on what we have heard about your business we recommend _____ because _____.”
  25. Don’t be an amplifier. You are the daily “voice of the customer,” and you are expected to add value to the communication channel. Make sure your input is clear, logical, quantifiable, and reflects all of what the customer means—not just a portion of what they said. If you don’t know what the customer is thinking about a particular topic ask them rather than guessing. If you are speculating make it clear that you are.
  26. The real economics of a serious application are never tied up in the original purchase. If you don’t understand the total cost of ownership then you are at a major disadvantage against a competitor who does.
  27. “Price” is never a valid objection to losing an order—it is a sure indication you have been outsold or lost control of the negotiation. “Price” is the most objective and easiest excuse for a customer to give to a losing sales person. Many customers do not expect that you can do much about “price” so they will offer this as a blameless excuse. (“Gee, it wasn’t your fault. It was a close call but the other guys had a more attractive price.”)
  28. The hierarchy of influence in a purchase decision is: Functionality, Reliability (risk), Convenience, and Cost. Cost is last on the list and will only make a difference if everything else is equal.
  29. “Everything else” is never equal (unless you are selling commodities).
  30. People do not make major purchase decisions based on cost. Companies, careers, and promotions are made or broken on the basis of the success of an important project. If the customer is overly focused on “price” before understanding the value and risks of your solution then you are losing, not dealing with a decision maker, and/or dealing at the wrong level.
  31. If the customer has two options that are widely different in cost, then they will have to look at both and rationalize why one over the other. Small differences (~30%) generally don’t require this kind of scrutiny. Anticipate the obvious: internal development, price concessions from competitors, low-end alternatives, and attractive financing terms. How will you and your customer deal with these when they come up?
  32. The internal development mantra is always: “We can do it for less and it will be more tailored to our needs.” If the internal group wants to compete, the cost will be estimated at about 40% to 50% of the selected vendor’s total cost. Anticipate this and be prepared. (E.g., Wouldn’t it be nice if you got to bid after hearing the internal development cost? Think about how you could orchestrate this.)
  33. When competing against internal development option ask about risk: “Who is accountable for delivery? Have all their projects come in on time and on budget? What happens if they are late? They have resources to do this now but what about when business picks up? How do you get leverage over the internal group when you need their support and enhancements? What does it mean to the success of the project if it is late? Who will take the heat for this?”
  34. Price is a stage-one (transaction oriented) word. Don’t use it unless you mean to imply transactional behavior. You should talk about the long-term symbiotic relationship. Let your competitors talk about “price”. When talking about your product, remove the word “price” from your vocabulary and replace it with “value.” Never say ”list price.” “List value” is not much better. Who wants to pay “list price”? Instead use words like “established value,” “market value,” or “normally offered at” etc.
  35. When the real negotiations start, the customer will not give you credit for concessions made very early in the sales process. Conversely, concessions offered after the decision has been made are unlikely to help.
  36. Timing is critical. Pace the sales process to make sure your activities further your cause. A presentation, demonstration, benchmark, reference, or concession must be used at the right time.
  37. Don’t be afraid to ask, “What’s it going to take to get the business?”
  38. Customers will tell you when you are winning. Ask. Answers like “Well there are a lot of vendors”, “It is too close to call”, “We haven’t seen all the other solutions yet”, or “You are certainly one of the top contenders” are a sure sign that you are losing.
  39. Every purchase is negotiated. Plan on it, build negotiations into your strategy, and be sure you have clear objectives and a clear structure of the negotiating team. You will end up with less than where you start.
  40. Don’t negotiate among yourselves. Negotiate with the customer. You might be surprised at how easy it is to get something important to you. You will never know unless you ask for it.
  41. You cannot concede your way to an agreement. At some point you have to say “no.” If you don’t push back the agreement will not be worth having.
  42. Every negotiating team needs a salesperson, a negotiator, and a “higher authority.” No one should try to be all three—it is very expensive.
  43. Recognize that customers naturally try to have negotiations piecemeal. When asked for seemingly small concessions before a formal negotiation starts, if you are not sure that the customer is negotiating, ask them “are we negotiating” and offer to bring in the negotiating team.
  44. When the buyer starts to negotiate, the statements “I’ll check with the factory” or “I’ll have to check with my management” are an automatic concession. Anticipate the obvious points—evaluation systems, price concessions, extended payment, acceptance testing, free consulting, etc. Get all the issues on the table then make a non-monetary concession such as “I’m really looking forward to working with you, and I know we’ll be able to reach an agreement that will make you happy.” Then bring in the designated negotiator.
  45. Seize the opportunity to close as soon as it presents itself. Your objective is to get the deal off the street asap. The only constant is change. Competitors find out about opportunities at the last minute, companies get bought and sold, people come and go, management changes, and reorganizations happen.
  46. A time-limited offer, where the deadline is your date, will not succeed in getting a firm commitment. Plan accordingly. It is better to ask the customer to give you their date and then respond with a proposal that addresses their problem.
  47. If your offer was not accepted, rather than making another offer to the customer, get them to extend a specific offer to you.
  48. Most buyers don’t care about your company’s needs to close business on their time frame. On the other hand, if you have developed any relationship, most “human” buyers will care about your personal needs like meeting your objectives or helping you succeed. It is better to ask for a personal favor to than to ask because your company needs it.
  49. Never underestimate the pressures on your customer to close. Don’t go into a negotiation without first asking what pressures are on the customer and how can we remove the pressures on us.
  50. If you are using a time-limited offer to close consider not to stating how much the cost will change. Describe the discount rather than the amount of change. You want to leave yourself room, there are a lot of reasons for missing a deadline and you don’t want to lock yourself into a particular approach until you assess the situation in case the deadline is missed. (It almost always is.) If you have to specify a definitive difference then it is more credible and more likely to work if the “before and after” difference is small and/or if the change is driven by something that you can’t control (such as a price increase caused by your suppliers or a tax offset that goes away at year-end).
  51. If you extend a missed deadline, you are training your customer that your deadlines are meaningless. Don’t use a time-limited offer unless you really mean it.
  52. If a customer misses a time-limited offer deadline there are many ways to change the deal other than just increasing the cost. That will become a win-lose change. (If that’s what you want then go ahead.) Reduced capacity, shortened payment schedules, delayed or accelerated delivery, and larger commitments are some of your options—investigate all possibilities and consider what might be viewed as truly enforcing the deadline but not over penalizing the customer.
  53. When quoting discounts, always show the starting point and the discounted amounts. If you don’t show the starting point you don’t get credit for the discount.
  54. Sell wide and deep. In a complex sale this is typically 3x3. Three levels up the organization and three functional groups wide (e.g., IT, Operations, Marketing, Finance, Contracts). Sell and ask for the order at all levels.
  55. It is very rare that the business people with whom you strike an agreement are the same people who negotiate the final purchase agreement. Meet the purchasing/contracts people before you have to negotiate a deal. You don’t want to enter an adversarial discussion. Let them know you are an OK person and that you look forward to working with them. Give them an opportunity to express their agenda.
  56. If you suspect you might have competitive problems, you actually have a competitive disaster.
  57. There is no such thing as a firm delivery on a product that has not been completed and released to production. Plan accordingly.
  58. All systems get into trouble the only issue is “when”? If you are on the outside, plan on taking advantage of this.
  59. When a system gets into trouble, the first rule is to stabilize the situation and set up clear lines of communication. Specify a team leader and point contact at the customer and your company. Both individuals should have a strong vested interest in a positive outcome. All problem discussions should go through these points or you will be out of control. Establish regular communication and emergency notification procedures. Do not let your team lose faith in the company or the product.
  60. Identify the true beneficiaries who really get the credit/blame for the decision. Then help the customer win in their organization.
  61. It is the salespersons’ job to manage the customer’s expectations. Performance must exceed (not just meet) promises to have a truly satisfied customer.
  62. Selling futures is easy if the customer wants to buy from you—there is so much left undefined where the customers’ imagination fills in the details. Conversely: Selling futures and managing expectations is very difficult.
  63. Don’t try to introduce a brand new product to an account unless your relationships are rock-solid. New product introductions are always more difficult than planned. New product introductions in new accounts may appear easy but are almost impossible to manage.
  64. The most powerful and underutilized weapon in the salespersons’ arsenal is “discovery.” Find out what is really important to each individual buying influence in the account. Use the words “who, what, why, when, where,” and “how” to lead your discovery.
  65. The most overused and weakest weapon in the salespersons’ arsenal is “advocating.” Making a statement like “this system will dramatically improve your productivity” will be ignored by the customer and will tell you nothing about how they feel about your solution. It is far better to ask “How do you feel it would improve the productivity of your organization if you had this capability?”
  66. Successful discovery depends on effective questioning and attentive listening and observing. Talking too much is the most common barrier to effective discovery. Someone said “you were given two ears, two eyes, and one mouth; give them equal time.” There is no such thing as “adequate” discovery. Either you know what motivates the customer or don’t.
  67. The most important question you can answer is “what will happen if you don’t do this and who cares?” If you can’t answer the question then you really don’t understand the driving forces behind the project. Be prepared to ask these questions often. “Who stands to be promoted if this project succeeds?” “What happens to them if this fails?” “Who cares the most about the success of this project?”
  68. The next most important question you can answer is “Why would the customer buy from us versus the competition?” Don’t be afraid to ask this of your customer.
  69. If your prospect appears unreasonable, irrational, or hostile, you have not done enough discovery to understand his/her perspective.
  70. Triangulate. Ask the same question of different people to find different perspectives and truth.
  71. If you don’t know the outcome of a demonstration/advocacy session before you engage, then you haven’t done enough discovery. Ask yourself if you have had an opportunity to understand the agenda of everyone who will be attending? If not, schedule some time before the demonstration to get to know their hot points and what they are expecting to see.
  72. Make sure that you have supporters in the room when you are presenting. These people can help control the discussion and give you valuable feedback on the post presentation discussion.
  73. People who are overly and outwardly supportive of you may not be trusted and may not get good information. Don’t rely on them for feedback unless they are very high in the organization and on a solid political footing.
  74. Don’t plan on doing discovery as a preamble to a demonstration meeting. The time to ask these questions is before you show up to advocate. The customer is probably attending the session expecting to see something. It is also very difficult to get individuals in a group setting to tell you what is really on their minds. On the other hand, you have a lot more latitude to ask questions if you are doing so in response to a question you are asked during a demonstration.
  75. Negative selling is extremely difficult to pull off effectively. In most situations you are better off not to try. Trapping the competition, however, is much easier and less risky. Traps are set using hypothetical questions about known competitive weaknesses. E.g., “What would it mean to you personally if the implementations were late?” or “What would happen if after purchasing this, you found out that the system you bought couldn’t handle the job?”
  76. 70% of communication is body language. Read your customer and recognize that you will transmit messages when selling under pressure.
  77. Ask yourself, “How would I compete against me?” Since you have the most immediate knowledge of your own weaknesses, an objective assessment of how the competition could put you on the defensive will help you shape a stronger selling effort. A good salesperson thinks about this all the time and does not let his/her weaknesses get them down.
  78. The key to victory is not in defeating your competitor but rather in defeating your competitor’s strategy—this is where they are weak. Your strategy must exploit the weaknesses in theirs.
  79. A political disadvantage can be overcome (in time) by a strong value proposition. Corollary: It is very hard to compete against a politically advantaged competitor—don’t waste your time in a head-to-head competition unless you have a lot of time and stronger value proposition or are prepared to lose. Better to find a small niche to work on where the political advantage will be irrelevant or ignored. You can grow the relationship later.
  80. References tend to validate what people are thinking. Don’t rely on them to do you selling for you.
  81. A politically connected insider is far more influential than an unknown outside reference.
  82. If you are winning, a positive reference serves to validate a decision so that you can close. If the account is not ready to close then the value of the reference will be lost.
  83. Negative references rarely reverse a selection although they can stall one for long enough for a competitor to unravel your deal. Anticipate and be prepared for it.
  84. Beware; your competition might even tee up a negative reference about your product. Anticipate the obvious (your troubled installations at other companies) and inoculate before the competitor offers up your failed or disgruntled reference.
  85. If someone is emotionally attached to a competitive solution, don’t a reference to reverse their selection. This is a waste of a good resource.
  86. Reference timing is critical. Use references late in the sales process to lend comfort and support of a decision to buy from you or very early to support someone’s interest in your product.
  87. Prepare your references. Make sure you understand what the customer wants to hear, let the reference know, and then prescreen the reference to assure that they will reinforce the message. Finally, make sure that both parties (the customer and the reference) are not changed when it comes time to make the call. I.e., If Frank asked for the reference and gave you his agenda make sure that Frank makes the call. Sally will have her own agenda -- even if she is “calling on behalf of Frank.” The same goes for the reference.
  88. If someone is emotionally attached to a selection, a negative reference will more likely backfire on you than reverse his or her thinking.
  89. A negative reference about your competitor’s products can neutralize their positive reference and stall a deal.
  90. Here is one way to use a negative reference to your advantage. This will only work with a highly influential individual ­ like a senior manager whose support is needed to complete the purchase and who is as-yet indifferent to the vendor selection. You might ask some of these questions: “What is your experience with projects like this? Do they come in on time and budget and achieve the desired objectives? Have you spoken with others who have done this? Have you asked Brand X about what happened with their deployment at ABC Corporation? Have you asked to speak with ABC so you can get their perspective on (fill in the blank).” A series of questions like this often results in your customer asking for you to provide a contact of your own from ABC corp. Don’t even think about attempting this approach if this conversation feels unnatural to you or if your relationship won’t support it ­ it will backfire. If you are unsure, just let the customer know that you will be there for them if things don’t work out with the selected vendor.
  91. Never pre-announce a win to outsiders before the deal is closed. Nothing is definitive until you have agreements signed. There is nothing more embarrassing than having to recant to a prospect that you didn’t win a deal you thought was going to be yours. If your about-to-be-new customer finds out that you announced the deal they may see it as a breach of trust (if not a breach of confidentiality agreements you may have already signed).
  92. The riskiest time in a sales process is immediately after selection and before the contracts are signed. Competitors will be at their door, buyers’ remorse kicks in, and the funding and selection decisions will come under new scrutiny. Conversely this is when you may have the best opportunity to block or scoop a deal that you have otherwise lost.
  93. Don’t try to scoop a deal unless you know why the customer would change the decision. Reiterating points you already made will just alienate you. Until you understand what could change the decision (e.g., risk, delivery time, total cost of ownership), the best you can do is use discovery to understand what motivated the thinking about selection. If you don’t have a reason to change the decision, it is better to start implementing the recovery plan and laying the groundwork for getting the next round of business.
  94. Sometimes is it best to settle for a “containment” approach than to try to scoop a deal. “Containment” means getting the customer to delay and do nothing. Don’t try to contain a deal unless you have good reason why the customer should wait.
  95. As soon as you are notified that you have won, broadcast the win inside the customer’s organization. This is not an opportunity to brag. You need to reinforce and cement the decision across the entire organization. Thank them for the selection and lead the discussion into the future success you will jointly realize. Talk about the end results they want to achieve and the steps in the deployment that will get you there. Start deployment planning meetings asap.
  96. Unsolicited RFPs/RFQs/RFIs are wired for someone else. Unless you are the market leader, if you didn’t participate in creating the RFX then it has been written around someone else’s capability. Ask yourself “is this really worth pursuing?” Heroics at this stage rarely lead to a win.
  97. If the RFX is not wired for a particular competitor, then it is an educational exercise for the customer—education at the expense of the vendors. Most of the time these result in no immediate purchase decision. In the rare event that this does lead to a purchase, at best the selection is going to be a random outcome unless one vendor finds an inside track. Assume someone is going to get the inside track. If it is not you, you are going to loose. If you don’t have a coach in the account then you will not win. In this case don’t waste your time with a large effort.
  98. The best approach with an educational RFX is to treat it as an opportunity to develop a relationship with the account so that you will have an inside track when they do get around to real making a purchase. A viable strategy is to participate but minimize your investment (use of sales resources, references, etc.).
  99. Don’t discount your future. Future discounts if any should be limited in time and smaller than those granted today. (Do you want to encourage your customers to wait and buy later?)
  100. Discounts come in many forms other than a reduction in the selling values. Extended payment terms, upgrades, the ability to influence your company’s resources are just some examples. Look for ways to use these today but keep them out of the future relationship.
  101. A deal with a deeply discounted future will sour the relationship. Discounts (or any onerous terms) that persist are a constant reminder of a unbalanced deal and will over time cause you to become frustrated with the relationship. If you can’t renegotiate a bad deal, your only approach is to drop (or minimize) support of the account. Lack of support will cause the customer to become frustrated with you. Structure discounts or onerous terms to get them behind you as soon as possible.
  102. Never propose a special offer without an expiration date. If you want the customer to act on it, make sure that the date is theirs not yours.
  103. Future discounts should be restricted to a single customer. Don’t let these rights be transferred. These can generally be carved out of any assignment rights.
  104. Discounts should be offered in consideration of something. Anticipate the request for a discount and think about what you want in return. E.g., Better payment terms, a press release, agreement to take reference calls, longer-term or bigger commitments, and referrals.
  105. Customers are not always right. If they were, they would pay little and get a lot.
  106. Your company is not always right.
  107. Balance is critical. Sales people fail for two reasons: they are either overly attentive to the customer’s agenda (thinking “the customer is always right”) or they are overly focused on their company’s agenda (thinking that the way to win is to get what you want). Your job is to provide attentiveness to one side or the other when needed and balance when appropriate.
  108. The best way to get a sales team to improve their performance in the short-term is to get them to share what works with each other.
  109. Don’t hire a sales person who behaves as if the customer is always right.
  110. A sales manager’s role is to add value to their sales team.
  111. Reporting the status of sales situations to your upper management does not add value to a sales team.
  112. Successful sales campaigns are always a team effort. Foster an environment that facilitates collaboration and sharing credit.


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Very little of this material is original. This started as a list of about 20 “pearls” of sales wisdom entitled “Common Sense for System Sales” compiled by Jim Prestridge during his years heading sales and as EVP/Vice Chairman at Teradyne. Jim and the rest of the Teradyne management team used these pearls as part of the Teradyne sales training program. As a newly hired sales person in 1984, I happened to be a beneficiary of the work. I continued to learn from Jim and Teradyne founder/CEO Alex d’Arbeloff over the ensuing nine years while working for them. More recently, I have also had the good fortune to work with Jim and Alex on another endeavor. If you find anything useful in here it probably came from that original list or from subsequent discussions with them.

In time, I have added to the list with lessons gleaned from others and my own failures and successes. Many of the lessons here are borrowed from sales training programs (most notably Wilson Learning, Strategic Selling, and ValuBase Selling) and from books written by others. When I get the chance, I’ll update the list with appropriate credits.

I maintain this list because it is easy to forget the basics. I find it helpful to refer to this often but never too often. Also, others with whom I have shared it have apparently found some value in it. (At least they come back and ask for the latest version.) I hope that you get as much out of this as we have.

One of the hardest things about selling is that there are very few absolutes. If anyone tells you that they have a formula for selling that works every time don’t believe them. (That may be one of the few absolutes.) I’ve tried to write about things that are absolutes but I am always open to new thoughts so you may find, some of these “lessons” controversial or even “wrong” based on your experience. Perhaps you have other lessons learned or had different experiences that should be incorporated. To that end, I am always willing to listen and add or modify these lessons learned.

Please feel free to email your suggestions to me.

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Copyright © 1994 - 2006 William Kantor. All rights reserved in all countries.