The Element Of Surprise

Tony Hughes


Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. - Napoleon Bonaparte

Human brains are hard wired to react strongly to the sight of a cute baby. So would you designate the above image as baby link bait? I think not because I'm proving a point apropos to the subject above. You were probably a bit surprised that I unleashed a perfectly off-the-richter cute level of baby gloriousness in the haven of all things dry and B2B [LinkedIn] that got you to click. My point?

To succeed in complex B2B sales, we must utilize the timeless element of surprise!

Timing is the Z axis of any effective strategy. Timing is everything in comedy. Understanding this hidden component in big deal strategy will give you a phenomenal degree of pattern recognition in facing competitors. As Craig Elias states, understanding trigger events allows us the advantage to be 'first in'.

No-one seems to ever have enough time - especially flummoxed executives. So there are these mythical Gryphons of time management and work life balance. There's 'come back another time' moments when prospects decide to 'do nothing' and stick with the status quo. So it's about time I bring back an old standby...

The element of surprise.

It's critical to understand that every modern enterprise deal is a bizarre love triangle of sorts. Based on the anatomy of any Google search in that ZMOT (Zero Moment Of Truth), as customers ourselves we always land on multiple competitors. Our customers are rarely ever only seeking us. If we do reach them upstream with insight we have a chance to be given preference going into the crucible of the deal but that's about the best we can do.

Effective B2B email campaigns and effective automated drip campaigns with lead scoring allow us to bubble up and stay top of mind, until trigger events occur. If we truly understand what differentiates our value as a solutions provider in industries that have been decimated by the downward pressure of complexity and commoditization, we have a chance to leverage timing to win.

Timing and who we are is about all that's left. Frankly, many senior executives are incensed about how complex even outright goofy the technology ecosystem has become and will reward you for being a guide. Perhaps it's more like a Museum docent. You can make their lives much easier by preventing them from making a mistake and shortening the time to the correct data set.

There's something to be said for the Bransonian version of a leap frog in the context of an enterprise deal. In my book, I paint a fairly accurate and plausible scenario of a salesperson who goes after the coveted meeting with the CEO in order to secure buy in from the top to win a massive sale. This is a courageous, out-of-the-box, backflip of a move into the wild blue yonder but orchestrated properly, effectively marshals the correct resources and ends up winning him the deal.

Expect your competitors to be weak in places where you are phenomenally strong. Get in early and far upstream by connecting to the power-base in your top 50 to 200 dream accounts. Watch the still water in its serenity before the salmon breach. How can we be there before it happens? How can we get upstream and uncover latent demand or even create it? Timing with insight is a key piece of this.

One of these posts I'm going to unpack a tender bid with government where I was axed out and actually worked my way back in to win in the 11th hour by way of an independent consultant.

Another way I look at timing, is through the prism of the fundamental constructs of disruption. Customers are typically solving something currently in a haphazard and inefficient way. Your technology, be it a point solution or incumbent version 12, will systematize and invoke order into the chaos that is their hamstrung backward base of business practices from a bygone era.

I expect my biggest enemy to be do nothing.

I expect that I'll have several savvy competitors but they'll invariably make a mistake. These include but are not limited to: revealing too many requirements therefore causing fear that any solution is going to be too complex, paradoxically increasing friction in the deal as they've deluded themselves that they are adding value. Another peak offender is getting cocky in the deal. They're too big to fail and oh how the mighty can fall. They don't customize enough, tailor the use case and dig deep enough into the details of how the numbers work, running through delivery scenarios, personas of the buyers, etc. It's imperative to truly walk a mile in your customers' shoes. Never celebrate until the solution is live.

Your competitors will most likely only dive so deep. You need to dive 10,000 feet faster than you can say Jacques Cousteau. So what if they've read this and share your philosophy for the attack? What if they are embedded in the account higher up than you? There is actually always a way to win it. It's like a three dimensional chess board with one side that's chess and another that is backgammon. When you move your piece, the enemy flips the board and entices you to play backgammon; stay on the chess board!

Engineering a win into a deal regardless of all obstacles is usually possible. Just like in chess, unless it's checkmate, there's always another move. That's where tactics and strategy separate the sales arm chair philosopher from the artisan.

You may work your way into a meeting with the same CXO who holds the keys to the power-base. Perhaps there are several stakeholders to meet with individually. You may be able to grasp a set of political factors that are hidden in the deal and you can pull that string. For example, many executives are given the most leeway and budget in the first 90 days of their new position. CXOs often spend untold millions in the first 90 days of appointment. If you're working with an advocate who will literally get promoted if this works, leverage it. You have eyes and ears in the account so be aware of who can supply information and see every situation from the viewpoint of advantage.

Predicated upon this article is that you have a well rounded fireproofed solution, you can truly help this customer and all is square with your integrity. If your competitors outflank you with their sheer size, flying in a legion of blokes in suits, leverage the selling point that if they choose the competitor, they'll just be a face in the crowd. If you're the incumbent, you can crush the point solution like a cockroach by running an end-to-end angle.

The dawn of social selling has opened up a snow flurry of competitive advantages in enterprise deals. Your fondest wish is your competitor will go nuts adding all the executives in the account, inadvertently tripping the wires and tanking the deal.

One of the most sophisticated strategies I ever witnessed was two fold. First, this master salesperson who was a total natural created a Venn Diagram on the white board. He did this when he pitched any client; and for 10 minutes he filled out what the concentric circles were: let's make it data, software and security. You could leverage any three with the center being his solution. He basically built this matrix looking map on the white board and transfixed prospects. I asked him what research had inspired this highly unique style and what had triggered the idea. He confided in me that he'd leveraged zero power points to close millions of dollars in new business in enterprise software over the last decade. In fact, he used this same exact diagram every time for ten years.

You should see the look of consternation and paralysis when he goes into a room filled with blue tooth, a projector and laser pointer, turns up the lights and starts scribbling away, stopping at times to ask insight driven SPIN questions. I actually took a picture of his white board it was so phenomenal.

The second part is even more bizarre. After blowing their minds by actually interacting - riddle me that - he simply sends the customer an order form. The full SOW or PO. Not kidding! Stripped of all polish, the genuine article of a cogent set of collaborative ideas, how they synergistically overlap and then a clear explanation of implementation coupled with a concise order form literally helped him to transcend from order taker status to someone that was instantly extremely differentiated, unique and valuable to the organizational power-base. You're talking about C-Level executives who are drowning in the same generic vanilla PPTs with the slick slides and 'look-at-me' format with dis-related case studies and empty promises of return.

Million dollar deals in under 90 days. It's just what he did. What will be your element of surprise? Will you ask them to turn the projector off. Will you come prepared with a series of questions that are 15 steps ahead. Do you get multiple ahas per on-site? Do you frequently hear: 'Wow, we never thought of it that way before.' Well, you should.

In H2H social selling, the greatest single determinant of success is interactivity.

You've got to love the element of surprise. The competition shows up with a 140 slide PowerPoint and printouts of unimaginative dross to the point of droll case studies, with ROI calculators, color coded binders, poster boards in triplicate dressed in matching suits and this other random guy walks in casually in a blazer, never sits down and starts to draw a bunch of Winter Olympics looking circles on the board, interacting with the clients to confirm each concept and turning it all into this giant two way dialogue sketching out how the solution could actually work. This honestly allows him to sell to the customer in their own words. It jumps the shark of the traditional arduous sales process which sand blasts a square peg into a round hole.

Now, am I recommending to you that you should sneak up and surprise your customers? Not exactly. This isn't really a treatise to give you carte blanche, throw out the sales process and go commando. Ultimately, what I'm encouraging you to see is the metaphor in all this. If every competitor is going one way, how about driving the other. This reminds me of the classic parable:

Two guys are in the jungle when they see a lion running towards them. Frantically, one of the men starts putting on his running shoes.

Surprised, the other man says, 'What are you thinking, you can't outrun a lion!'

'I don't have to outrun the lion,' said the man, 'I just have to outrun you."

The moral of this sales story is three fold. Realize you always have competition in the deal. Understand, there is always a next move. Remember, that if you outwit your competition with cunning and wiles, you can often win the deal by allowing them to make a painfully obvious mistake. The best part is, they often won't even realize they did!

Practice sales aikido. See every situation from the viewpoint of advantage.

In closing, I would just like to say that the extra mile is a place so lonely it's practically haunted. We all know that sales close on the fifth to twelfth touch. We also realize that so few reps (under 3%) reach the level of Trusted Advisor - truly. It's about going above and beyond with fewer, more qualified opportunities. In cricket, why wouldn't you only swing at the lollies? Knowledge is power and the more pattern recognition and deeper understanding of military strategy you can develop before going into big deals, the better the plays you can run - the stronger and more potent the tactics you can deploy.

Now it's your turn: How do you leverage the element of surprise in deals? Do you always have a clear sense of what the next move should be? Do you trust your gut or have a strategic compass born of a great deal of experience? Alternately, are you taking a more data driven approach?


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


Please Share: If you valued this article, please  share via your Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook social media platforms. We encourage you to join the conversation or ask questions. So feel free to add a comment on this post below.

Your Invitation: We invite you to subscribe to this blog. Subscription is free and it allows you to get access to all our subscriber only content and our periodic newsletter.


Are you searching for advice that will help you grow and manage sales - or lead your sales team? You are likely to find it here. This site brings you some of the latest expert thought leadership content on business to business (B2B) sales from the SMA Sales Masterminds.








SMA Masterminds
© 2018 All Rights Reserved.