Long-term selling to large enterprises requires a three-tier strategy: account management, opportunity management, and face-to-face selling. Without such a plan, a solutions-integration firm with several operating units will find that not only might it present these units to a client as different firms, the units may actually end up competing with each other.
The foundation of this three-tier strategy is, of course, face-to-face selling. At the tactical level, someone must eventually sit across the desk and persuade someone else to buy. And for many years this was the only level of awareness in selling. In selling IT solutions that touch multiple departments, decisions are often made by buying committees in competitive evaluations referred to as "opportunities".
Often triggered by an RFP, this process can be a lengthy and expensive campaign involving changing requirements, politics, and competition - where second place pays zero. However, once you gain a toehold in an account, you can then move from outside-in and bottom-up selling to an inside-out and top-down enterprise- management strategy for building company-to-company trust and preferred-vendor status. Such a "penetrate and radiate" strategy means using one engagement to navigate higher to more strategic problems involving more powerful executives.
This move from competitive selling to repetitive selling can result in less competition, shorter sales cycles, and higher margins. It can mean consultative, insider status and an "annuity account". Yet, not every company's culture will allow it to buy on trust. Invest your resources in the wrong account, and you could "partner" yourself broke. With the right client culture, however, the gateway to repeat business is performance, and the key is selling between the sales.
But without an enterprise plan, preoccupation with immediate projects or quota pressures results in "hit-and-run selling" or "quote-and-hope proposals". In large accounts, tactics for individual decision-makers and the competitive-opportunity strategy should align with an overall account strategy if you are to move to account dominance.
And your efforts must be driven at all three strategic levels. In a strategy session in Singapore, a salesperson presented a plan for an upcoming sales call at a multinational oil company's Indonesian office.
After the presentation, a visiting manager from London responded: "Nice presentation, but we are two weeks away from board approval of a multimillion-dollar agreement with this firm. This deal is done. All you can do is screw it up. And if you quote 1 per cent more discount than our chairman has quoted, you'll do exactly that - and create new horizons on your own career path."
This was opportunity planning in complete absence of an enterprise strategy. And it can get worse.
One Big Five integrator unknowingly underbid itself for the same engagement by two-thirds of the price, which not only left money on the table but also left a year's supply of egg on one partner's face. Each of these levels of selling requires different processes, talent, and tools - but a single overall plan. In hiring, it means getting the right people with executive presence and strategic acumen into the right jobs. It means developing a training curriculum of integrated courses rather than just one. And from a technology viewpoint, contact-management software alone won't enable a team to share a strategic plan worldwide for a major account.
A different technology is needed at higher levels of selling. The irony is that if you do account management well enough, you don't have to do opportunity management at all. Preferred-vendor status built on performance and relationships of trust with executives will reduce risk, raise value, and often result in noncompetitive repeat business.