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You Lose Because Of What You Don’t Do

by David Brock on July 8th, 2010

Over the past few days, I’ve been participating in a loss review with one of my clients.  It was a painful loss, it was a major opportunity, with a prestigious customer.  The winner would lock up the business for the foreseeable future.  My client had been pursuing this opportunity for over a year.  The sale was for a relatively complex piece of capital equipment.  The support teams had done many demonstrations and tests, they had made modifications to the base software to support customer requirements. Through the entire process, they were neck to neck with the competition.  In the end, they were even slightly lower priced. 

Learning of the loss was disappointing to all.  Learning from the loss was critical.  In the discussion of the whole sales process, people brought up the things the competitor didn’t do, that my customer did do  (both from the point of view of the capabilities of the solution and what was done during the sales process).  Others brought up all the things that were done to support the customer during their buying process.  The visits, the tests, the modifications to meet their requirements.

In the end, the things the competitor didn’t do in working with the customer made no difference to the customer and their selection of the competitor.  The things my client did do weren’t why they lost, their customer cited the things my client didn’t do as the reasons they lost.  (Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?)

We all make that mistake, we tend to focus on the things we think we should be doing.  Doing all these things right, being the best doesn’t make a difference if the customer doesn’t care.   The critical issues are:  Are we doing the things the customer cares about?  Is there something we aren’t doing that they care about?

“Duuuggh, Dave, that’s sales 101, tell me something new.”  Yes, it is basic to sales, but there are some things we miss.  Some are very subtle (which is why my client lost), some obvious — that we ignore.

Let me start with the obvious.  How many times do we hear customers saying, “The sales people don’t listen to me, they don’t understand my business, they just pitch products.”  I get calls from sales people every day.  The two most asked questions are:  How are you today?  Are you the decision maker for _______ product/services?  Once they get past these obligatory questions, the pitch begins.   How often do we go to customers with a blank pad of paper, a pen/pencil, and a long list of questions?  How often do we drill down to really understand what the customer is telling us and why it is important to them?  Jill Konrath calls it Going Into Calls  Stark Raving Naked!  Too often, sales people only ask enough questions to launch them into their pitch–having heard a key word, or issue brought up.  We don’t note it, then keep drilling down, asking more; getting at everything that’s on the customer’s mind.

Let me get to the more subtle—this is what hurt my client.  Through the selling process do we constantly re-validate or reconfirm the issues, needs, priorities and perceptions of the customer?  Things change through the selling process — particularly for long sales cycles.  Customer needs and priorities change.  As customers learn more from us and their competitors, they shift their positions, what was important yesterday may not be important today.  New issues come up because of changes in the customer’s business.  The decision makers may change, the new decision makers may have higher priorities.  In our work with the customer, we may have unwittingly done something that impacted their perceptions of us or our competition.

Often, I see sales people that have done an outstanding job of discovery–understanding customer needs and priorities, learning the decision making process.  Then they go on autopilot, going 200 mph addressing those needs, working with the decision makers.  They never pause to see what’s changed, they never probe the customer to understand their perceptions.  They never know whether they are continuing to address things important to customers — at that moment, or probe to understand what has caused things to change.

Through the sales process, it’s critical to constantly reconfirm the needs and priorities.  We need to see if things have changed.  We need customers to give us an assessment of what we are doing—are we addressing their priorities?  Have we missed something?  Are we working with the right people?  Do they have any concerns–about our capabilities, our solution?  We need to really drill down into these issues.  During the sales process it’s the things we aren’t doing that kill us.

This is what my client discovered.  They lost the business because of several small things, things they weren’t doing or handling–by themselves almost insignificant, but collectively, just enough to be the reasons the customer chose the competition.

Keep validating and reconfirming the needs, priorities, perceptions, and decision making process with the customer—through the process.  Make sure you are doing the things that are important, make sure things haven’t changed.  Make sure it isn’t what you haven’t done or responded to that cause the customer to make a decision for the competitor.

  1. Dave,

    Excellent points. How about adding the best practice “Confirm/Reconfirm customer decision process and criteria” at each major stage of the sales process?


    • Agreed, that should be revalidated at each point—thought I mentioned that, thanks for making sure it’s in there.

  2. Only one reason you lose. You get outsold.

  3. Paul, is spot on … if you were down to neck and neck you been outsold. The competitor’s salesman did the things they wanted, or made them want them because he could deliver them, and your guy did not.

    Also, how long is it since this deal was active as the customer is very likely not to know the real reason or wont share why they gave the deal to the competitor if it is hot.

    Best person to ask is the competitor’s salesman. Offer him a position with a fantastic package, interview him and see what he says. Then you will really know why you lost it. I am sure he will only be to happy to tell you how he beat you. And, if he is really good (and it wasn’t his manager) offer him a job!

    Terry Wilcox

    • Interesting views Terry. Personally, I don’t believe you learn to outcompete by hiring the competitors’ sales people and copying. If you copy, you are doomed to following and letting them set the standard. There are better ways to innovate and outsell the competitor. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  4. Dave – great insight.

    This is the classic case of not wanting to accept that you as the selling organization didn’t do enough to win the business. I bet you had to drill hard to get to the ‘didn’t do’ part. The first thing I ask every one of my sales people when they lose a sale is “what didn’t you do” or “what could you have done better”. It’s amazing how quick they respond with “I did everything I could”. It

    My experience is the best always look inward first. Kudos to that company for bringing you in to root cause the loss. I’m sure that next time around they’ll be in a better position to win the sale.

    • Duane, thanks for the comment! Great insights. By the way, the client is taking the lesson forward and winning more. Look forward to your ongoing comments.

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