4 Competitive Strategies for Complex Enterprise Selling

Tony Hughes


Many draw comparisons between sport and selling but I prefer analogies that focus on military strategy. Yes, being pumped-up and working as a team is essential for success, but for those who consistently win large enterprise deals, cunning strategy is the force behind tactics and action. There's nothing noble about leaping out of the trenches and running at machine guns - that's just plain stupidity and a waste of life.

Strategy is actually a military term but essential in professional selling for managing political relationships and outmaneuvering the competition. Sales strategy can be defined as developing an effective plan or campaign after fully evaluating your strengths and weaknesses, understanding the competition (including the customer's internal options), understanding the business drivers and mapping the invisible political structure within an organization.

Strategic enterprise solution selling demands that you engage early at the most senior levels and align with political and economic power to address the most serious problems or profitable opportunities. Solutions are then crafted with unique compelling value while setting an agenda that disadvantages or eliminates the competition.

I've always been fascinated by military history and I've also been a student of two great authors, Jim Holden (Power Base Selling, published by John Wiley and Sons Inc: 1990) and Keith Eades (The New Solution Selling, published by McGraw Hill 2004). Their thought leadership in adapting military strategy for the world of complex enterprise selling was brilliance. The following is adapted by me from their concepts and I also recognize Art Jacobs and his fine work: STRATEGY, The Art of Winning. ?All three of these authors have preceded me and I acknowledge them in this derivation of their work.

The four potential engagement options are:

- Head-to-head: Direct strategy based on product strength or market dominance

- Change the rules: Indirect strategy altering the selection criteria or agenda

- Incremental: Focus on a small divisional piece of business 'under the radar'

- Containment: Engineer a non-decision so you can engage under new rules later

This flow-chart will help you decide the best competitive strategy in any given situation and detailed explanations follow the diagram.

Head to head. This is a direct or frontal strategy that works only if you have unequivocal product, service or solution strength with acknowledged market leadership. You use it when you are not afraid of 'slugging it out' against the competition because you have best brand, solution offering and market presence. Most sales people adopt this mode of engagement, and the competition's price is often their main point of concern. This strategy is attractive because it is simple but demands superiority at every level. To be effective with this strategy you must have clear leadership with product and reputation, with a well established and positive customer base. This superiority must be validated from the customer's point of view. Be careful with smaller customers who often associate product strength or market dominance with unnecessary functionality or service levels and excessively high pricing. If you are not the industry giant or leading niche specialist, consider the following strategy.

Change the rules. This guerrilla, indirect or flanking strategy is essential when you do not have the leading solution or leadership market position. This strategy is an ideal default position because it necessitates the gathering of information and forces you to search for unique value that matches the client's specific requirements. This strategy should always be employed when nothing about your product, corporation or industry presence gives you a compelling edge. This strategy is essential when you cannot succeed based on the current engagement rules or selection criteria, typically because you were not there first. For this strategy to succeed you must have strong personal relationships with senior influential members of the buying center and power-base. Beware of fighting the good fight only to have a mystery senior executive veto the recommendation for your product, service or solution. Recommenders will often falsely give the impression they are embracing your strategy only to revert back to their original criteria at the last minute to placate the real decision maker further up the line.

Incremental. This 'on the beach', divisional or departmental strategy can be part of changing the rules in a large opportunity. The goal is to establish a beach-head or divide and conquer the competition by securing a limited piece of business and support within the broader organization from which you can expand. This strategy should be employed when you cannot win the whole account but there is a worthwhile piece of business that will give you an internal reference and influence for larger decisions at a later time. It is also useful when you are not seeking to displace another vendor but rather enhance the customer site (or market) by providing a complementary solution or additional functionality not offered by the competitor. This strategy is also appropriate when you decide to coexist with the competition and temporarily share the account.

Containment. This kill the deal strategy is a valid option if you are certain you cannot win and your goal is to prevent someone else from taking the business. It is designed to delay the buyer so you can re-engage under new rules at a later time. Rather than seeking to change the basis for a buying decision, you work to have the decision itself postponed. This strategy is high risk and should be used with thoughtful caution because customers do not take kindly to anyone seeking to interfere with their procurement process. A containment strategy has two major problems: firstly, it can be perceived as negative interference; and secondly, it can force you to invest further in scoping studies, trials, pilots or other resource-intensive activities. This strategy needs positive senior relationships and time to execute. The focus needs to be on how deferring is in the buyer's best interests, and the message is ideally delivered by a credible third party.

Ask yourself these questions when considering strategy:

  • What is our relationship strategy and are we aligned with the power-base?
  • Do we truly understand the decision driv­ers and business case?
  • Do we understand their corporate mode and personal agendas?
  • Who and what is our competition and how will we position against them?
  • Does the customer have other projects competing for funding?
  • Which of our competitors is engaged with the customer?
  • How will our competitors seek to position against us?
  • What are our compara­tive strengths and weaknesses?
  • How will we engineer the customer's focus on our unique value?
  • How will we prove or validate our capabil­ity and lowest risk?
  • Where will we position price to leave room to negotiate?
  • Do we have all necessary information and what don't we know?

Whatever got you to where you are today is no longer sufficient to keep you there. Strategy is essential because political effectiveness demands strategy and relationships alone are never enough in complex selling. Relationships with the wrong people actually wastes time and inhibits success. A tactical plan is only as good as the intelligence and strategy that leads to it.

Competitors also learn every time you beat them and they formulate strategies designed to defeat you. Product features never win a deal but they can eliminate you. Benefits need to be positioned strategically; matched against the customer's business needs and potentially set as 'traps' for competitors.


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at www.TonyHughes.com.au or his sales methodology website at http://www.rsvpselling.com/.

Main image photo by Flickr: Adrian Askew


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