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5/12/14 Win More Sales with an Indirect Strategy - Steve W.

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HBR Blog Network
Win More Sales with an Indirect Strategy
by Steve W. Martin | 8:00 AM May 6, 2014
For the past two decades, business-to-business selling has been conducted in basically the same way. Salespeople
directly approach customers armed with facts, features, and the benefits of their products to convince customers to
buy. However, customer decision making has changed and todays buyers are smarter and more sophisticated than
ever. In addition, competitors have not sat idly by. Theyre focused on defeating you so they have educated themselves
about your products and sales tactics.
Sales success today requires a new way of thinking about sales strategy. The question is, what is the right strategy?
In his classic book Strategy, famous military historian Lidell Hart detailed the indirect approach to war. In painstaking
detail he described the superiority of the indirect strategy over the direct strategy, using examples throughout the
history of warfare. He theorized that the outcome of every major war from Roman times through World War II could be
attributed to the grand strategy the parties selected. Instead of a brute force direct attack to overwhelm the enemy, the
victors always chose to battle indirectly. When forced to fight, the indirect strategy involves using surprise, intelligence,
logic, and human nature to exploit the enemys weaknesses.
For example, at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, the smaller Carthaginian army under the command of Hannibal
defeated a numerically superior Roman army using the indirect strategy. Hannibal placed his weakest infantryman in
the middle of his line to give the impression of vulnerability while positioning his heavy infantryman and cavalry on the
flanks. As the battle progressed, his flanks closed in on the surprised Romans and they were vanquished.
Hart argued that the indirect approach was not solely a war strategy but also an influential philosophy that could be
applied wherever opposition to new ways of thinking exists. He said, The direct assault of ideas provokes a stubborn
resistance, thus intensifying the difficulty of producing a change of outlook. For example, The suggestion that there is
a bargain to be secured is far more potent than any direct appeal to buy. Below, you will find seven principles of the
indirect strategy and their business-to-business sales application.
1. Employ psychology. The first and foremost principle is that the indirect strategy is a psychological operation (psy-
op in military jargon) based upon understanding, predicting, and influencing human nature. In sales, winning requires
earning the trust, respect, and friendship of another human being. The victor builds the strongest customer
relationship. The secondary psychological goal is to sew doubts among your enemies, because a halfhearted warrior
is more than halfway to losing.
2. Plan your overriding strategy. During a long sales cycle of several months or more, its easy to focus on individual
battles and lose sight of winning the war. The sales cycle is reduced to a series of battles without an overriding grand
strategy. Salespeople become fixated on the next customer interaction, proceeding from the initial sales call to the
sales presentation, then on to the product demonstration and evaluation. However, all salespeople are like generals
who should create a strategy to win their wars long before the first battle begins. The successful military leader
preplans how and where he will attack in accordance with the resources at his disposal. The victorious commander
achieves his objective through calculated maneuvers to gain the advantage and counter tactics to neutralize his
enemys advantages.
3. Know your enemies. How well do you know your competitors? How much time do you spend studying their
websites, products, and marketing collateral? Do you take the time to perform an honest win-loss analysis after each
engagement? Most salespeople argue that they simply dont have enough time for these types of activities. However,
history repeats itself for those who dont learn from the past.
4. Be the first on the battlefield. As a rule, it is always best to be the first salesperson in an account. The chance to
understand a customers environment first, establish relationships, and set the criteria for the selection process are
5/12/14 Win More Sales with an Indirect Strategy - Steve W. Martin - Harvard Business Review
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obvious advantages. But if you work for an underdog company that competes against industry favorites, being the first
on the battlefield is the difference between success and failure.
5. Get privileged information from spies. Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote about
the indirect strategy when he said, Knowledge of the enemys position can only be obtained from other men. Hence,
the use of spies. These words are still true today. In order to win any complex sale you need proprietary information
that only a spy can provide. These spies are members of the selection team, other company employees, or business
partners. They provide valuable information about the internal machinations of the selection process and inform you
about the thoughts of the various selection team members. Without a spy, you never know how well you are positioned
in an account or what the enemys next move will be.
6. Understand how the objective is organized. All battlefield commanders need location-based information so they
can map the way to reach their objective. Similarly, salespeople need a complete understanding of how the evaluators
are organized within their company because political power during the decision-making process goes far beyond the
lines and titles on an organization chart.
If you are involved in selling an enterprise solution, you already know the importance of understanding the inner
workings of the various departments within a company. Your product might be purchased by the information
technology department and used by accounting and manufacturing. Therefore, its critical to map out the political
interrelationships between evaluators and their respective departments of the organization.
7. Create turning points. The indirect strategy is based upon creating turning points which cause enemies to lose
momentum they can never regain. Like a battle, every deal has a critical moment, or turning point, that determines the
winner and the loser. In sales, information can be used to create turning points that eliminates competitors. Your
expertise on the customers industry, understanding of best practices, knowledge of unflattering facts about your
archrival, and the willingness to raise critical issues the customer is unaware of can be used to create turning points.
For the sales warriors of the business world today, the difference between being hailed as a hero or branded a failure
hinges on winning. But in order to win, you must know the steps it takes to develop a winning strategy. Winning is
everything in sales as it is in war. In the words of master strategist Napoleon Bonaparte, Glory is fleeting, but
obscurity is forever.