It's the question asked by anyone who's ever lost a sale: What went wrong?
Was it something I said? Was it something I /didn't/ say? Or was our product not up-to-snuff versus the competition?
Over the last decade I've interviewed over 1,000 decision-makers as part of the win-loss studies I conduct for clients. I'm always fascinated by how they describe their selection process and why they made their final decision. One of the most interesting parts of the interviews is learning why the competing salespeople lost.
There's a natural tendency to assume that the losing salespeople lacked sales prowess that the winner possessed or their product was far inferior in some way. However, in the overwhelming majority of interviews the evaluators ranked all of the competing salespeople and the feature sets of their products as being roughly equal. This suggests that there are other factors that separate the winner from the losers with some being completely out of the salesperson's control. Below, you will find these key factors along with a corresponding win-loss interview quote.
Incumbent Advantage. The incumbent vendor has a huge sales cycle advantage and the tendency is for them to win business by default. Based upon my research, the odds of unseating an incumbent vendor is typically about one in five.
"It's a pain to switch vendors. It's a pain to analyze whether you should or not. We naturally prefer working with our existing vendors." —Vice President of Purchasing
Inability to Remove Risk. Customers are never 100 percent sure they are purchasing the right product. Regardless of their confident demeanor, on the inside they are experiencing fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The ability to remove perceived risk plays a key role in determining who wins the deal.
"It sorts itself out pretty fast — those who will and won't make it with us. We are a big company, so there's always a tendency to go with the big players. Who are your proven big-time customers? What resources do you have to get something fixed?" —Chief Operating Officer
C-Level Executive Access. Because every major purchase involves executive level approval at some point, a salesperson's goal is to connect with a busy executive and conduct a meaningful face-to-face meeting. However, one of the toughest jobs in all of sales is to penetrate the C-suite, and there is a direct correlation of winning to the number interactions the salesperson has with executives during the sales cycle.
"Every salesperson is trying to get into my office and explain how their wonderful products will save me tons of money. Very few do because most don't understand what it takes to sit across the table from me." —Chief Executive Officer
Business Solution Focus. A common interview theme is that both the winning and losing salespeople knew their products very well. However, winners were better able to prove their value as a business partner who had the expertise to solve the customer's problem.
"What's wrong with salespeople is they're typically selling a product. I don't need a product unless it solves one of my business problems." —President
Ineffective Messaging. Successful communication is the cornerstone of all sales. Winners have the ability to tailor compelling messages that resonate with the various evaluators across the organization and up and down the chain of command.
"We are a skeptical group, and they lost the deal during their presentation. They said they were different and much better than what we have, but they didn't provide enough proof. What they said didn't really apply to us." —Chief Financial Officer
Poor Pre-sales Resources. The complex sales process is typically a team-related sales effort that involves pre-sales product and consulting experts. Losers were often cited as having inferior quality pre-sales resources and equally important, the lack of knowledgeable resources who consistently attended each meeting throughout the sales cycle.
"The vendor we chose has a group of smart, dedicated, customer-oriented people. To a great degree, I don't think their products and services are different from their competitors'. They distinguish themselves with their people." —Vice President of Supply Chain
Lack of an Internal Coach. A clear difference between winners and losers is that the winners developed an internal "coach" within the account. Coaches are evaluators who provide proprietary information about the selection process, status of the competition, and help the salesperson determine his course of action.
"Anytime we had a question, the sales rep attacked it. He would get their people on the phone within a day to answer how we could do something. He listened to what we were trying to do and he knew his resources. He earned our trust so we were much more open with him." —Chief Information Officer
Out-of-range Pricing. Time after time, interviewees reported they did not pick the least costly option. Savvy evaluators realize there will always be a low bidder. In reality, there is acceptable price range that the prospect is willing to pay and this can be anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent higher than the lowest proposal (depending upon industry and products being purchased). However, solutions priced outside of this boundary will rarely, if ever, be selected.
"Price is always important but we did not buy the lowest priced solution. There are many other factors including the fit between organizations that render pricing to a secondary factor. With that said, I never want to buy the highest priced solution." —Vice President of Technology.
Losing is always hard. Learning you are the loser in the eleventh hour of a deal is a frustrating, humbling, and embarrassing event. If you find yourself in this circumstance, perhaps it's time to honestly ask yourself if any of the factors above were at the root cause of your loss.