Written by Kevin Jones, Principal – Ignite Selling

A lot of very unexpected things can happen. Have you ever been caught unprepared? Being outside when a storm hits, away from shelter. That scrambling, frenetic, heart racing feeling of getting to safety or getting in out of the storm?

How many of us have had client engagements that we would compare to being caught in the midst of a storm, where you are being kicked around by the environment and losing control of things. Every salesperson, from the average to the top performer, runs into things they do not expect – and could not have predicted – during the long and winding journey of a complex sales cycle. Black swan events, like a summer storm, can arise with very little warning. What will make the difference between simply surviving and thriving is not necessarily the accuracy of your predictions, but rather your ability to adapt to your changing environment and your level of preparedness.

Think about a typical sales opportunity for a moment. What are some of the critical events that could affect your winning it? There are events that could positively and negatively influence our winning a sale. A few that come to mind might be:

• Your most strongly influential advocate has left your customer’s organization
• Your competitor’s product has been recalled, leaving the field clear for you
• A key supporter of your solutions at another company has joined your customer’s organization in a position of influence
• Your company has experienced either product quality or service delivery failures, and the word is spreading in the market
• Your customer experiences a significant financial downturn (or windfall)

Have you thought about them? What have you done to reduce your risks or strengthen your position? How can you capitalize on positive turns or mitigate the negative ones? We will never be able to predict all eventualities, either positive or negative. However, if we have thought the possibilities through, we will be better prepared to deal with them if they do occur.

Selling in uncertain times means remembering that part of the old Boy Scout oath, which says, “Be prepared.”

Two Ways of Viewing the Environment
Top performers look at their selling environment in two ways. What could happen nearby – in my company, my customers’ company – which could impact on our success? We might call this a micro-view. Looking at things near at hand only gives them a partial view, however. Top performers also invest time considering what we call the macro-view. What are those potential events in the world at large which could affect us? How do their customers fit into the bigger picture? How will they be moved by changes which turn an entire industry or market? They are proactively ruthless in their analysis, so they avoid nasty surprises – or are at least better prepared to deal with them.

Environmental analysis, whether from a macro- or micro-view, tends to fall across three distinct perspectives: industry, customer, and company.

The Environment from a Micro-view
A few years ago, we were working with a global medical device manufacturer. They are the leader in their sector worldwide, with a very solid reputation for outstanding service and great products. Carlos was a top performer. He managed his territory well, he understood his customer’s needs, and he delivered on his promises. Not only had he built great relationships with all of his customers, but he also knew who all the key players were in his accounts. He knew his Advocates and his Adversaries, and he knew which ones ranked high and low on the Influence Scale. Moreover, he was well aware of how things stood with his competitors. In many ways, Carlos was the exemplary major account manager.

One afternoon, Carlos learned that a crucial Advocate in one of his hospitals, the Director of Materials Management, was leaving for a new opportunity. Although this was unsettling news, as it would be for anyone who’s lost a key supporter, Carlos was confident that his time spent building other relationships was now about to pay dividends. Although the Director was his most influential Advocate, she was not the only one.

Carlos, like many others involved with the account, presumed that the Director’s replacement would be someone promoted from within, but nobody knew for sure. The surprise choice, however, was someone from another hospital. Unfortunately for Carlos, the new hire was not a supporter, as Carlos learned from his colleague who had been calling on him. Everyone was on high alert. Would Carlos and his company be replaced?

Carlos wasn’t going to take any chances. His hastily revised strategy involved contacting all his Advocates to resell the value of his solution. He prepared executive briefings to remind them of the reasons they initially preferred his solution. He highlighted the differences between his and his competitors’ offerings, as well as helped them understand the potential downsides of making a change. Carlos had begun to build a campaign to lock in his products at the hospital.

Within four months of his being hired, the new Director of Materials Management signaled his intention to displace Carlos and his solution with a lower priced option. Fortunately for Carlos, the new Director was open to having conversations with his team – and with the competing vendors – about the potential change. As Carlos soon learned, the Director was open minded and accessible, but leaned heavily on price as a primary criterion. He had developed a financial justification for swapping out Carlos’s offering for a lower priced replacement.

The good news for Carlos was that there were other factors being considered, apart from price. Carlos had invested his time and efforts in cultivating strongly influential Advocates who understood the overall value of his solutions. They used their influence and their advocacy to champion Carlos’ cause. The change never happened and Carlos continues to grow his market share within that hospital.

Carlos, like all top performers, is a keen observer of his customer’s environments. He watches it carefully and is therefore able to be proactive in his strategies for managing change and uncertainty. He understood that there could be a chance that a non-supporter of his products could become a key decision maker in his account, so he had to develop a strategy that could save/defend his position in his account. What could have happened if Carlos didn’t immediately take a proactive strategy to defend his position in the account? What if he would have waited until the new Director of Materials Management was hired and then began developing his sales strategy? Thinking ahead – and putting a strategy together to capitalize on or combat those key events which could impact the decision making process – is just smart business.

The Environment from a Macro-view
The butterfly effect is the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Asia has ramifications for the streets of Manhattan. This is at the same time poetic hyperbole and fundamental truth. The events taking place in our world are, in some ways, interconnected to greater or lesser degrees. And while a single butterfly in a Thailand rainforest may not ruin the financial markets on Wall Street, we no longer have the luxury of living in a silo. It is vitally important that we look at trends, news, market shifts, and “human factors” which bear on our industry sector, as well as on other sectors which touch ours. We need to understand how these trends are influencing our customers, and more specifically, how they are affecting the people we sell to in those customers.

• Do you know the trends in your industry?
• Do you know what your customers are doing to mitigate risks or capitalize on windfalls? How will it affect you and your company?
• What are your customers’ strategic goals? How do these goals fit within the sector’s value chain, from supplier to supplier to the market?
• How tight is credit? What affect does access to capital have on your customers, and what bearing does that have on your ability to gain market share with them?

Change, they say, is the only constant. We have heard that mantra for more than two decades now, so much so that its familiarity has robbed it of its power. But it is nevertheless true: we live and work in a world of circumstantial uncertainty. Sometimes the winds blow fair, sometimes they blow foul. One thing that is guaranteed is that the business environment we sell in today will not be the same in the morning.