A Tale of Getting Out-Sold – Read This and Learn

I have been out-sold a few times in my career…I perhaps hate losing more than I enjoy winning.  However, as the saying goes, you learn more from your losses than your wins.

I was early in my career but was fortunate to work for a market-space gorilla – functional dominance, a Wall Street darling, and thousands of customers across the world.  This company was featured in Forbes as being the most admired sales force in any industry…and I was proud to be a part of that.  Perhaps too proud.  I remember meeting my sponsor, Mike.  He was Chief of Marketing, an officer of the $20B company, and old enough to be my grandfather.  He was likeable – patient, intelligent, kind, helpful…all the attributes that makes a seller’s job enjoyable.  As you know, it’s rare air to genuinely like and enjoy your prospect…and not only did I like him…he liked me.  Back then, that was unusual.  Ha!

The opportunity was scoped, sized, and I determined very quickly we would have a functional advantage.  Moreover, the deal size would make my quota for the year, which back then would have been about $150K commission.  Still big money even by today’s standard.

So there I went…prosecuting away, step-by-step, just like I was taught.  Pitches, demos, discovery meetings…and all along the way, Mike was telling me we were slaying our competition.  Our competitor was formidable, but their strength was their customer service offering.  My stack’s functionality was strong there too, but our differentiation was having a suite of applications that spanned across the entire enterprise (marketing, sales, service, etc).  What was interesting is, the prospect’s pain was deeper in customer service, but had needs in other areas of the enterprise as well.  My strategy was simple…expand the vision and strongly emphasize the needs of the other departments.  A flank 101 strategy…and boy was I flanking well.

My leadership was patting me on the head every time I gave deal updates, but kept nudging me to get higher and wider in the organization.  I pushed hard for this.  We were getting towards the end of the cycle, and after a meeting Mike said he had a surprise for me.  As I followed him down the halls like an expectant kid on Christmas morning, he knocked on the door of another executive’s office and said, “there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”  I looked on the door and there read, “John Johnson, CEO.”  I was peeing down my leg as I had never met a CEO before, much less a publicly traded $20B CEO.  We small-talked for 5 minutes and then he said something that blew my mind.  He explained his board meeting went well that morning, and the board decided to take a long position in my company’s shares with the excess cash on the balance sheet.  He then said to me with a wink, “We’re counting on your company to win this selection.”  On the way home, I called my VP and told her to move my forecast to COMMIT.

Mike called me the next week with the selection decision.  He said I have good news and bad news.  He started with the good, which was the entire executive leadership (including the CEO) made a unanimous decision for my company.  Bad news was, they were going with my competitor.  What?  When I asked him to explain, he said it was simple:  their buying culture was delegation of authority…and they felt the risk of forcing business users to use leadership’s choice vs. their own was too high.  He went on to explain how my competition was rarely at corporate….never met any officers of the company besides him…and certainly never met Mr. Johnson.  However, she spent almost 100% of her time in the field, spending time with the customer service user base in all 13 distribution centers across the US.  I went to 1 of them…ONCE.  I was out-sold.

Identifying the right decision maker is simple, but not easy.  It requires lots of work, diligence, questions, probing, and validating.  I made the grave error of asking 1 question – who’s the decision maker?  Mike’s response was several people would help make the decision, but he was an officer of the company and owned customer service and the budget.  I inferred he was my guy as opposed to taking the time drill in to this.  If I asked several probing questions, I would have uncovered their buying culture, and spent as much time in the field as with their leadership.

Years later I came to know my competitor – she was and still is a killing machine.  I was manhandled that day, but one day I hope to get my revenge.

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