Playing the Long Game

Playing the Long Game

It went down as one of the greatest drives in Super Bowl history. Down 16-13 with 3:10 left on the clock and the ball on the 8 yard line, Joe Montana and the 49ers methodically marched down the field to score the game winning touchdown. It cemented the 49ers’ legacy as a dynasty and Joe “Cool,” Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig as all-time greats.

What most people forget was the struggle they had that season. The 49ers were fortunate to even have a winning season. They were in deep with a brewing quarterback controversy. They had crawled to a middling 6-5 record midway through the season and had been embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs the previous two seasons. Their road was an uncertain one, a hard one, and a long one.

While the sales and sports analogies are well-trodden ground, it made sense to talk about something that has been a common theme in many of my conversations of late. Namely entrepreneurs and salespeople looking for the fast close and quick win.

We all want the deal that just lands on our laps. We think it is like some movie where deus ex machina magically comes to the rescue and save the day. Boom, there’s a big, juicy deal ready for us to snag, and all will be right in the universe. Maybe that happens once in awhile, but that is like relying on hope as a strategy.

Recently I met a salesperson who was just starting out in her career. We initially connected through a LinkedIn invite she had sent, and not more than ten minutes later, I get this message that is all product pitch. It immediately reminded me that a recent post had been making the rounds on LinkedIn.  She immediately apologized after I replied with a rather terse response with some corrective advice.

Many weeks later, I agreed to meet when she asked for some help. Her biggest fear was the big number she had to meet. It caused her to push hard, but she was going for the volume play. It seemed easier and less work. Use automation and leverage templates. Blast out messages to the world and see what sticks. I told her to stop looking at the big, hairy goal and forget the automation for now. Instead, personalize the hell out her outreach, focus on getting one client, then keep repeating and learning and building out her book of business. But focus intensely on the needs of the buyer first.

Everyone wants shortcuts. Vendors promise miracles. There is some tool out there that will solve your pipeline issues and close more deals for you faster. That is the biggest flaw I see, particularly with startups, with companies that gravitate to the shiny tools and sales methods that promise speed and scale. Everyone thinks “bigger” and “faster” when they need to start at “better.”

Social selling has become that new “bigger” and “faster.” The assumption is if I connect to enough people on LinkedIn and Twitter and whatever social network du jour, then I can just blast out messages incessantly. If I treat the platform like a billboard it doesn’t work — billboards are distracting. People eventually start to tune out. The channel gets crowded and noisy and the audience moves on.

Sales is a long game. This is especially the case for complex sales where sales rely on the currency of trust. There are no shortcuts to trust building. You can possibly shorten the time through credibility or market dominance or having the right timing.  Again, that is predicated on hope, and hope is not a great basis for building a pipeline or committing forecast.

Many have compared sales to a marathon, but I am not sure that captures the actual motion of managing deals. I like to think of the sale as more of a football drive. You will get blocked and tackled and pushed back. There are so many moving parts to monitor on your team and the opposing team. You may get penalized, fairly or unfairly. Momentum has an enormous impact and can swing widely.

To succeed in sales and win consistently, you need precision, patience, and poise.

  • Precision – You cannot chase everything. You need to be laser focused on your strategic objective and in the tactics you employ. That means being ruthless on the deals you work on and those you drop. Many salespeople entering a new territory or founders getting started tend to dilute their efforts targeting too many accounts, talking to too many people, and wasting cycles on middling opportunities. Sure you may miss some great deals that look ugly at the start, but you are not looking for exceptions, you are looking for repeatability in customer profile and buying process. You are looking for why you win so that you can bottle that up to scale the sales team. That will do way more to accelerate your growth than chasing after bad business and making poor guesses.
  • Patience – Not every indication of interest is an indication of intent. Prospects can show interest but have no underlying need at that time. That does not mean to simply wait till you get the RFP because it’s too late by then. Build trust and learn more about the prospect and the company. Gather intelligence to connect the dots so that you can position yourself as the obvious choice when the opportunity arises. The opposite of patience is simply wasting time on spray and pray demos, pitch decks, and tire kicking conference calls. That is what the amateurs do. The professionals understand when to deploy their resources for maximum impact and build mini-commitments from their prospects. Scrubs pitch you and lay down the hard sell right after inviting you to connect on LinkedIn. The pros add value in each interaction, establish credibility, and build a bridge of trust.
  • Poise – Sales has more ups and down than any other profession. It is easy to lose focus and let emotions drive, particularly when you are staring at a huge quota. Where are the deals going to come from? Will I have enough time to close the business? Are we getting squeezed in the marketplace? A lot of things you simply cannot control. You can only control you. Your ability to respond to the challenge is the grit that will prop you up when against the ropes. Grit is your forward momentum to drive to the first down and then some. The greats keep the situation in perspective and move ahead, sometimes using the playbook and sometimes improvising.  Stay in the game and find a way to win.

There are no easy formulas for sales. I do share tactics and tools and practices that can help correct the more egregious errors. Ultimately though, success in sales starts with the right mindset and the ingredients of the sales mindset are precision, patience and poise. Once you adopt that mindset, you can achieve much more consistent success and amplify the value of your successes. What do you think has contributed to your success?  Please do share how you have found success in the long game of sales.

***

If you found this essay personally helpful, I encourage you to sign up for the weekly Enterprise Sales Forum Newsletter where I share my thoughts on the state of B2B sales, practical tips for improving your sales acumen, and upcoming sales talks across the global Enterprise Sales Forum community.