Playing the Long Game


Football Photo_HL

It went down as one of the greatest drives in Super Bowl history. Down 16-13 with 3:10 left on the clock and the ball on the 8-yard line, Joe Montana and the 49ers methodically marched down the field to score the game-winning touchdown. It cemented the 49ers’ legacy as a dynasty and cemented Joe “Cool,” Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig as all-time greats.

What most people forget about the 49ers is the struggle they had that season. They were lucky to even have a winning season. They were in deep with a brewing quarterback controversy, had a modest 6-5 record halfway through the season, and had been previously embarrassed in the playoffs seasons prior. The team’s journey was uncertain, difficult, and long.

As it is Super Bowl week, it feels like an appropriate time to talk about football. While the sales and sports analogies have been well-trodden ground lately, namely because entrepreneurs and salespeople look for the fast, close and quick win.

We all want the deal that just lands on our laps. We think it is like some movie where deus ex machina magically comes to our rescue.  Boom, there’s a big, juicy deal ready for us to snag and all will be well in the universe. Maybe this happens once in a while, but that is like relying on hope as a strategy.

Just the other day I met a salesperson who was just starting out in her career. She had recently contacted me via LinkedIn sending me a message that was entirely a product pitch. It immediately reminded me a recent post that was making its rounds on LinkedIn. I replied with a rather terse response and some corrective advice, and the saleswoman immediately apologized.

Many weeks later, I agreed to meet in person when she asked for some help. She said her biggest fear was the large number she had to meet. It made her push hard, but she was going for volume rather than quantity. I told her to use automation and leverage templates and to blast out messages to the world and see what sticks. I told her to stop looking at the big, hairy goal and forget the automation for now. Instead, I said she should personalize the hell out her outreach, focus on getting one client, and then keep repeating the strategies that help build her book of business. But first, I told her to focus intensely on the needs of the buyer.

Everyone wants a shortcut. Vendors promise miracles. There is an existing tool that will solve your pipeline issues and close deals more efficiently. That is the biggest flaw I see, particularly with startups, with companies that gravitate to the shiny tools and sales methods that promise speed and scale. Everyone thinks “bigger” and “faster” when they should start at “better”.

Social selling has become that new “bigger” and “faster”. The assumption is that if I connect with enough people on LinkedIn and Twitter and whatever social network du jour, then I can blast out messages incessantly. People treat the platform like a billboard, but billboards are distracting. The channel gets crowded and noisy and the audience moves on.

Sales is a long game. This is especially the case for complex sales, which rely on the currency of trust. There are no shortcuts to trust building. You can possibly shorten the time through credibility, market dominance or timing timing. Again, this depends on hope, which is not a great basis for building a pipeline or a committing forecast.

Other people have compared sales to a marathon, but I am not sure that captures the actual motion of managing deals. I like to think of the sale as more of a football drive. You will get blocked and tackled and pushed back. There are various moving parts to monitor on your team and the opposing team. You may get penalized. Momentum has an enormous impact.

To succeed in sales and win consistently, you need precision, patience, and poise.

  • Precision– You cannot chase everything. You need to be laser-focused on your strategic objective and in the tactics you employ. That means being ruthless on the deals you stick with and those you drop. Many salespeople entering new territory or founders getting started tend to dilute their efforts. They target too many accounts, talk to too many people and waste cycles on middling opportunities. Sure, you may miss some great deals that look ugly at the start, but you are not looking for exceptions, you are looking for repeatability in the customer profile and buying process. You are looking for why you win so that you can bottle that up to scale the sales team. This will accelerate your growth much faster than chasing after bad businesses and making rash estimates.
  • Patience– Not every indication of interest is an indication of intent. Prospects can show interest but have no underlying need at the time. That does not mean you should simply wait till you get the RFP. By then it is too late. However, you are building trust and learning more about the prospect and the company. You gather intelligence to connect the dots so that you can position yourself as the obvious choice when the opportunity arises. The opposite of patience is simply wasting time on spray and pray demos, pitch decks, and tire- kicking conference calls. That is what the amateurs do. The professionals understand when to deploy their resources for maximum impact and build mini-commitments from their prospects. Scrubs pitch you and lay down the hard sell right after inviting you to connect on LinkedIn. The pros add value in each interaction, establish credibility, and build a bridge of trust.
  • Poise– Sales has more ups and down than any other profession. It is easy to lose focus and let emotions drive, particularly when you are staring at a huge quota. Where are the deals going to come from?  Will I have enough time to close the business? Are we getting squeezed in the marketplace? A lot of things you simply cannot control, but you can control yourself. Your ability to respond to the challenge is the grit that will prop you up when against the ropes. Grit is your forward momentum to drive to the first down and then some. The greats keep the situation in perspective and move ahead, sometimes using the playbook and sometimes improvising. The point is they stay in the game and find a way to win.

There are no easy formulas for sales. I do share tactics and tools and practices that can help correct the more egregious errors. Ultimately though, success in sales starts with the right mindset and the ingredients of precision, patience and poise. Once you adopt this mindset, you can achieve much more consistent success and amplify the value of your successes. What do you think has contributed to your success?  Please share how you have found success in the long game of sales, I would love to hear your thoughts.



Reprinted by permission.

Image Credit: CC by Angela Lagercrantz

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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