When to fold?
What's the best way of winning more? Don't fight battles you’ll almost certainly lose. Sounds obvious but I've lost count of the number of autopsies I’ve run on deals that, when I look at the information available at the start, they were never going to win.
A wise man once said “There are only two reasons why you lose business. Either you were outsold or you were never going to win.” I want to put being outsold to one side for now and look at how to avoid fighting battles you’re not going to win - the art of qualification. To master this art (and it is an art), you’ll need to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses in relation to the opportunity and the competition you're up against. Most importantly you need the courage and discipline to say "Pass" when necessary.
As an even wiser man (Sun Tzu) put it, “The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory” - or if you prefer a more modern reference, as a character in The Wire, advised a colleague in a no-win situation , "You cannot lose if you do not play." We're conditioned to think of that as a defeatist sentiment but actually it's a smart tactician who can accurately pick which battles she's going to win or lose.
Since none of us are blessed with ability to see into the future, how do we decide? You need to understand your customer really well. By “customer” I mean everyone who can influence the decision - not forgetting their personal agenda is as important as their business agenda – and how they make a collective decision. It’s equally important that you are realistic about your company's ability to meet these needs against the other choices they have – which will always include “do nothing”. Remember to look at the bigger picture. If 90% of your company's attention and resources are tied up on another deal, what are your chances of winning with the B team?
No-one doubts the importance of qualification and companies have invested in a myriad of tools in an effort to get it right. There are probably as many deal review processes, criteria and checklists as there are deals. In theory these governance processes are there to stop us throwing money and resources at sales opportunities with a low probability of success - either we'll lose the bid or worse we'll win and end up with something we can't deliver on time, to quality and within budget. In practice people game the system to justify bidding. Sometimes they do it deliberately. Sometimes they're overly optimistic. Mostly they're just blind to their company's real strengths in this particular context. We're all great sales people and we can win anything, right? And if we no-bid on this one then we might just qualify ourselves out of a job.
In reality there are only two questions to answer to qualify any sales opportunity. Why will they buy? Why will they buy ours?