The Tao of Sun Tzu in Sales

Tony Hughes


"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

Great sales leaders can take a simultaneous macro and micro view. They can select the sharpest arrows in the quiver. Ready - fire! - aim. They course correct and adjust to the target in near real-time. Tactics never get in the way of a powerful strategy but a strategic mindset will not preclude diving into the details of how, once the why is identified. Don't fall in love with only social selling, or solely the phone, colorful slide-deck presentations or the latest e-mail template. Build a cohesive strategy that spans across multiple channels (not every channel) that is refined for its receipt point. This could be the key executive you've researched, a provocative message tailored to solve a challenge within a specific vertical industry, or a genuine insight relevant to the person you're engaging.

"You have to believe in yourself."

Even in 500 BC, Sun Tzu knew the power of self confidence. Keep your own counsel and be guided by a reliable compass. This is not to say you shouldn't look to mentors and trusted advisors within your own leadership and sales mastermind group. Trust your gut instinct, an intuition cultivated over time and experience. Make a decision and strike with fervor in the direction of your vision for navigating the account. There are many maneuvers to run on the battleground of an enterprise sale and several may indeed work. A strong strategy coupled with intention and belief is unstoppable against an unseen counterstrike. With buyers who come to you being 55% - 70% through the decision process, they are looking to be lead to the promised land of increased revenue and efficiency and will choose a sage guide who can manage their risks and deliver for them.

"Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance."

Never interrupt your enemies when they're making a mistake. They will set traps and plant fear, uncertainty and doubt about your solution. There are always hidden factors in the deal, unseen competitors (just do a Google search), working clandestinely to sink your ship. Let them think they're winning because their overconfidence exposes weakness and creates your greatest opportunity. Use your creative brilliance to innovate as you see solutions to problems. They may be working one or two targets in the account but you may up-level to the head of IT to win the technical buy-in whereas they've grown complacent as an incumbent with the strategic buyer alone. While they're banking on a tacit close at the end of the fourth quarter, you've uprooted, disrupted and planted the seeds of change with willing leaders in the established fabric behind the scenes.

"Let your plans be dark and as impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt."

Advanced selling is similar to a three dimensional chessboard. You must think fifteen moves ahead. You must be prepared for anything. The biggest risk is 'do nothing' or the status quo. The sales eagles fly with speed and dexterity. They respond to trigger events. They exude almost a sixth sense for knowing what's going to happen, even before prospects do. They watch satisfied clients in one company move to another company and work within that new company to foster a technology renaissance. Be decisive. Shut off all the electronics, think deeply, white-board out the power base and map the account. Test several scenarios and plans. Then act swiftly! Do not doubt yourself as there is no time when you're dodging an arrow.

"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win."

In the realm of new business development, it's smarter to play the games you know you can win. You have the luxury to continuously create pipeline and set stringent criteria for prospects with whom you engage. Improve your ability to segment and target, to qualify opportunities that make sense. My theory has been that the best farmers are wolves in sheep's clothing, hunting in named accounts. You need to understand that every account is at risk unless you build rapport at multiple levels of the organization to indemnify against stakeholder churn. You must also understand that even a happy client is still playing on a battlefield: anything can change in an instant and competitors are calling incessantly to infringe upon your territory. Disruptive new upstart technologies that may undercut you on price or exceed your solution capabilities in one area emerge like water multiplying Gremlins. You can protect against these threats through consistent value creation, communication and active listening. Walk the halls, get a desk at your customer's office; literally and figuratively. Continue to educate your existing clients through content marketing excellence.

"If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles."

Understand where you are weak. This is equally important as where you are strong. Partner up with internal resources inside your organization who can fill out your skill set. This may be a highly technical solutions consultant who can help to tailor the technological business case. This may be someone who has a highly developed statistical analysis abilities enabling them to build business cases that will lend power to your insight based approach. Take the time to study the competitive landscape, exactly who the executives are that you're up against selling into your accounts. Understand how they typically engage, the messages they deliver, the agenda and traps they seek to set. Most importantly, know their weaknesses, without lapsing into 'negative selling'. Stay on the cusp of where technology is going so you can bring the new new thing to the table.

"Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death."

A leader is only as good as her team. Because 'they' are 'us'. Leadership is an inverted pyramid, it's about empowering the troops. Serve your team members, empower and enable them. Help them to serve their best customers as helping transcends selling. You will build loyalty by building up people. Focus on their strengths and help pair them up with others on the team that can make them stronger with complimentary skill-sets. When you set big, hairy, audacious goals for a team, they can become achievable harness the synergy that is created by moving as a united force. When the chips are down, the numbers are being missed, hold meetings as a group and one-on-one. Invest ample time into providing training and coaching. Exhibit passion into ensuring their success. It's a throwback of an idea but ride along and go into the field with them. Sell alongside them and even roll up your sleeves to collaborate on proposals and calls. Stand united by a common vision in your go-to-market strategy and be sure to include marketing in your cohort.

"Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?"

We only use a fraction of the capacity of our brain. Even in Sun Tzu's day he was talking about the unlimited power of living up to our own potential as human beings. Avoid the 'busy fool' syndrome which is the height of folly. Doing everything at once is diffused effort. But applying effort in a focused direction and putting your back into it, your heart and soul into it and making your life's work your magnum opus, is seldom seen. The greatest leaders focus, stay humble and give their all each day in serving others. They inspire this level of dedication and intensity in others though purpose in their cause. They enjoy maximizing effectiveness and efficiency toward an achievable goal. This is how they are able to consistently exceed the target.

"Opportunities multiply as they are seized."

Winner's win. It's as simple as that. As you carve out turf inside an account, you can land and expand. Revenue growth becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Once you topple the status quo and help a client realize the inefficiency of their wasteful legacy systems, you'll often see a domino effect where they're looking to have you leverage you expertise as a budding trusted advisor to fully transform their entire business, applying your full suite of solutions across the board. Up-sells and cross-sells then materialize as a complex suite of solutions provide the answers within a trusted buyer-seller relationship.

Success in sales is similar to sports. You are exercising a mental muscle. Those that win are never satisfied. Yes, one must pause occasionally while summiting the mountaintop. Take in the fresh air and the view. In the panoramic distance is the next vista which is always yours to seize. It burns into your psyche, fueling your self-mastery. In the execution phase of fulfillment, clients often get even more excited about the value you can bring as a partner. Even as the ink is still drying on the contract, keep going because closing a sales merely opens the relationship to a new abundance of possibilities.


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: Johan Sisno


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