The 6 Risks Sales People Must Manage

Tony Hughes


Complex enterprise selling is about lots of things - managing risk is near the top of the list. Here are six risks that must be managed if we are to win large complex opportunities.

1: Not knowing what it is that you don't know. I've won hundreds of millions of dollars of business by obsessing on this one. I'm always wondering what's going on in the client's boardroom, what politics are in play behind the scenes, what my competitors are up to, what could blind-side me. I'm not negative, just positively paranoid.

The ABC of complex enterprise selling is not Always Be Closing; it is Always Be Cogitating! Be a gatherer of intelligence, a plotter, a schemer, a planner. A strategy is only as good as the intelligence and thinking that leads to it. Always seek progression in the process (closing, if you like, for the next step or action) and advancement in your standing with everyone in the power-base.

2: Inertia, apathy and status quo. Despite a customer's desire to improve their business or department by implementing change, many a project goes nowhere. Amazingly, no one on the client side seems to damage their career - they instead see benefits in gathering lots of valuable information and, at the end of the day, saving the organization unnecessary risk: 'All a very useful exercise for when we go ahead in the future'.

So ask yourself: Are they really committed? Do they know why they are doing this? Is their senior executive commitment beyond a mere sponsor? Is there either a compelling business case or compelling event driving the project or initiative? Is their level of dissatisfaction strong enough or can the incumbent salvage their situation? Why will they change?

3: Any negative force outside your control. This is a tough one - how do you manage something outside of your control? We need to anticipate competitors and circumstance that can enter the scene to create negative pressure. In response, we also need to be able to rally the support of those who can influence should the need arise. Think about what could go wrong and who it is that you would need the support of to address the situation. For example, could you ask your key senior decision-maker: 'What will you do when our competition realizes they've lost and they offer you a deal that isn't commercially viable for them?' Understand the political power within the client organization and build relationships that can be harnessed to repel negative forces if needed.

4: Software or technology demonstrations. This risk is massive and for two reasons. The first is that it is very common for the seller to do a gob-smacking demo that completely misses the mark. Lots of features and functions intended to wow the audience with the capabilities of the product, simply cause concerns about training requirements, change management and complexity... "We don't need a Rolls Royce solution." The second reason is that vendors seem to have a crack cocaine style addiction to showing the very latest in their product - the beta code that has the very latest functionality... and bugs.

When you are forced to do a demo, ensure that you understand what the buyer expects and needs to see. Never demo in a vacuum. Never demo without a script unless you are masterful. Ask your buyer: "What happens next if the demo meets expectations?" Most importantly, never demo to create interest! Remember that features and functions can exclude you from a deal but they almost never win the day. Pushing features and functions can actually create price or total cost of ownership (TCO) concerns.

5: Reference customers. They are your best resource in securing new business. But they often feel compelled to be 'honest' when doing reference calls or site visits. They can feel compelled to balance the good with some honesty. Worse than this is when your published case studies or marketing reference customer database is out of date. Never use a reference customer unless you know them and what they will say when asked specific questions. Manage this real risk in the back-end of the buyer's process. Remember, reference site visits are all down side!

6: Your boss or other senior executives. I've lost count of how many times I've seen senior executives just decide to wing-it when meeting clients. This is despite briefing documents and the polite exhortations of those below them to prepare well for the meeting. The worst situation is when someone above you wants to 'touch the deal' or 'help you close'. There is no room for big egos in complex enterprise selling - everyone in the team needs to play their role. I recently helped a client win a $100M opportunity and the senior executives above the sales person were all amazingly brilliant in playing their role. It is amazing what can be achieved when no-one cares who gets the credit.

These six areas of risk are very real - you may have others. People within your customer's organization will resist or sabotage change, often for reasons they themselves do not fully understand. Obsess about managing every contingency as this is one of the things that sets great people apart from the average.


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 or his sales methodology website at

Main image photo by Flickr: Maria Ly


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