Inteview about Sales Strategy with Brazil's VendaMais Magazine

Since I spent all of this morning answering questions about sales strategy for an article VendaMais Magazine is doing about our sales books in Brazil, I thought I would pass it on to everyone. VendaMais Magazine's questions are in bold italics.

1. When did you first read the Art of War? What did you think of it?

I first started studying The Art of War 37 years ago, when I was an aimless college drop out. Having no real skills, I found myself working at a series of jobs in sales, but I was not very successful until I started studying Sun Tzu. Coming from a military family, I immediately saw the connections between Sun Tzu’s view of strategy and selling. I started implementing Sun Tzu’s strategy, avoiding conflict, leveraging opportunities and immediately my life changed dramatically. Not only was I selling more, winning sales contests and awards, but because I was also using these ideas not only in sales but in my career, I began getting promoted on an average of every eight months with larger and larger companies. At first, I only understood a little about of Sun Tzu's strategy and was perhaps as skeptical as anyone. As students, we too often start as cynics, but as I studied Sun Tzu, read other works and connected their ideas to his, and especially practiced these ideas, I learned how they well they really worked in the world of sales.

2. What made you think that you could adapt the book to the world of sales and sales management?

My own success in sales lead to my being in a position to start my own software company (Sun Tzu’s strategy is all about using positioning.). As our company grew, I wanted my salespeople to understand how I thought about strategy especially its use in selling. I found that most salespeople couldn’t make the connection between Sun Tzu’s military terms to the way that sales is normally taught and discussed. So I did my first line-by-line adaptation of The Art of War, creating my earliest version of The Art of War for the Sales Warrior about twenty years ago, explaining how this form of strategy is used within the ways that the sales process is normally taught--prospecting, qualification, demonstration, overcoming objections, closing, and on. This worked dramatically well, first in our company and then in the companies of our customers. Our software company became one of the Inc. 500 fastest growing companies in America. Our salespeople started giving out copies of the book to our customers, so that they could understand our view of business strategy. Our customers, companies such as AT&T, Motorola, and Pepsi started inviting me to talk about these ideas to their salespeople, managers, and key customers. It wasn't until years later, when companies all over the world started using my book for their salespeople, that I began to get requests for a sales management version, which is why I did Strategy for Sales Manager as a companion work.

3. How Sun Tzu’s ideas can be effectively applied on sales?

Sun Tzu teaches that we can constantly improve our position if we make our decisions based upon conditions in the environment. In a competitive environment, we cannot execute a plan as we can inside of an organizations where we control the people and resources. In competitive markets, the most critical people and resources, our customers, our competitors, and their money, make their own plans and decisions. Buyers’ and sellers’ plans collide resulting in situations that no one plans. Instead of executing a predictable step-by-step process as we do in production, Sun Tzu taught that we must constantly adapt to changes in the environment. The market is complex, chaotic, and constantly changing, so we must have a system that allows us to instantly access the situation, identify opportunities, and respond appropriately. Strictly speaking, Sun Tzu’s book teaches three sets of related skills: position analysis, opportunity development, and situations response. The idea is to make better decisions every day, decisions that better predict the reactions of others and which are always ready to deal with situations that arise unexpectedly. Sun Tzu’s system is an adaptive strategy, a loop (sometimes called the OODA loop), for continually learning about a situations and improving our position within it.

4. You claim the title translation is not exact. Instead of Art of War it should be Art of Strategy. Does this means that the principal teaching of the Chinese autor to reach the success is the strategy? Explain.

Ancient Chinese characters were not words (verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc), but concepts. Each character has an array of meanings and implications. Especially in Sun Tzu’s work, they are much closer to the concepts in scientific equations. In the original Chinese, the work is titled “Bing-Fa,” which literally means military or competitive methods or procedures, but through the course of the work, Sun Tzu defines the concept in detail as a system of recognizing the key characteristics of competitive situations and responding appropriately. Our work “strategy” comes originally from the Greek, strategos, which literally means “the thinking of a commander.” Unlike most other military works, which deal with the use of specific weapons and types of forces, Sun Tzu’s work deals with the most important weapon of all: the human mind. In reading Sun Tzu, you will not learn if the Chinese of his era fought with clubs or machine guns or if they fought in a phalanx or on horseback. He deals totally with the mental contest of strategy, the thinking of a commander who wants to outthink other commanders on the battlefield as chaotic, complex situations develop.

5. Why is the enemy the customer and not the competitor?

One of the things that Sun Tzu was is redefine the concept of “the enemy.” He did not define victory as beating one’s enemies. Instead, he defined it as reaching our goals with as little conflict as possible. He taught that a general that fights and wins a hundred battles in not a great general. A great general wins without fighting a single battle. In the original Chinese, Sun Tzu used two characters that get translated as “enemy” in Western languages. One means “opponent” and the other means “fellow nobleman.” A fellow nobleman can be an ally or an enemy based totally on how we position ourselves. In The Art of War for the Sales Warrior, we work from the original Chinese and concepts that apply to the “enemy” in a direct translation might apply either customers or competitors depending on the context. Since The Art of War for the Sales Warrior focuses specifically on sales contact with customers, the only place that the salesperson usually meets the enemy is on the battleground of the customer’s mind. So the strategic principles relating to how to deal with enemies have to be applied to a customer and the customer’s thinking.

6. “The methods of Sun Tzu teach situations where the conflict is unnecessary and the enemy (the customer), surrenders/withdraws naturally”. How is this scenario possible?

The short answer is through the appropriate leverage of the situations and through the early identification of opportunities. Sun Tzu’s strategy teaches us simply how to advance our position as easily as possible. It is simply too costly to advance our position against an opponents’ strengths. A battle of strength against strength against strength is simply a war of attrition, too expensive to win. As Sun Tzu said, the secret is not victory, but making victory pay. So we look for openings, hidden opportunities to pit our strengths against the weaknesses of others. As salespeople, we look for new, unexplored areas of need that no one has yet recognized. There are always new customers that others are overlooking. Existing customer have needs that no one sees. This is what Sun Tzu defines as “open ground.” The job is to establish yourself on this ground first, out maneuvering others. If you do, others, neither customers nor competitors can challenge you.

7. Sun Tzu’s strategy’ five elements – Philosophy, Heaven, Ground, Leader, Methods – are the core of warfare. You transported then to sales field as economic tendencies, market, leader, organization methods and mission. Why are these elements the more important in a sale?

Making good sales decisions means making choices every day about the best way to spend out time. These five factors define the key factors that define the relative positions of others (both competitors and customers) in the strategic arena. There is an infinite amount of information that can be gather in the sales process, more than can be remembered or analyzed. We use these five areas quickly analyze this information, comparing our position to the positions of others. Most salespeople miss key information in one or more of these areas. They end up never knowing where they stand in the sales process. If we know how to use these five factors to create a well-rounded perspective on every sales situation, we can make better decisions about how to spend our time. We can see where our advantages lay. We can stop wasting our time in situations that are unwinnable and spend more of our time in situations where we have a clear advantage.

8. Can a salesperson develop the 3 key strategic skills (positional awareness, opportunity development, situation response)? How?

Salespeople all learn the same general sales process from qualification to closing, but the sales process can only take you so far. The dramatic difference between the average sales person and the sales star is not a difference in process. It is a difference in strategic skills, the ability to think on your feet, see situations, spot opportunities, and say the right thing and the right time. There are four stages that we call the four-Es in developing these skills. The Exploration Stage is when you discover that the skills of strategy lie outside of the sales process itself and that you need to develop those skills along with more traditional sales skills. The next is the Education Stage, where you learn technical knowledge the use of strategic tools and methods. The next is the Experience Stage where you practice using these tools at first in drills and exercises and then consciously in your daily sales routines. The final stage is that of Expertise, where the use of these skills becomes automatic, instant, and, to a large degree, unconscious. You simply see situation differently and make better strategic decisions effortless.

9. A story tells that Sun Tzu convinced a important leader about the effectiveness of the Art of War beheading the leader’s favorite lovers that refused to follow his military instructions. What’s the equivalent in companies and sales?

First, that story may be apocryphal. Sun Tzu started the first civilian armies in an age that only knew professional soldiers. This story of Sun Tzu’s boast to the king of Wu that he could train his wives to drill as soldiers may have been symbolic of that. However, one of the key points of the story is that success is only possible if you are seriously dedicated to your mission. The story makes this point in two ways. The first is that people don’t take training seriously unless they are properly motivated. At first the king’s wives did not learn because they thought it was a game. Once Sun Tzu beheaded the king’s favorite wife, they had all the motivation they. However, when the king bemoans the loss of his wife, Sun Tzu challenges the king about his own priorities. Did he put his personal pleasure in his wive’s ahead of the competitive success of his kingdom? Followers must be motivated to follow, but leader must also be motivated to lead and people judge by actions not by words.

10. You said that Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War for the initiates on the subject. Because of this, the book is not so easy to be understood by the general public. Should this be a problem for
The Art of War for the Sales Warrior?

As I have said, there are four stages in learning Sun Tzu's strategy. The Art of War for the Sales Warrior only address the first, the Exploration Stage. It can be read in literally just a hour or two, but the book is only designed to give reader a new perspective about what strategy is, what it can do for them, and how they can use it. Moving from Exploration to Education to Experience to Expertise required motivation and dedication. You can get education from reading the Science of Strategy Institute’s more advance books and taking our on-line and on-site classes. More and more our live classes focus on exercises and practice drills, while on on-line classes focus on teaching concepts. When people start down this path to developing their strategic skills, they find it rewarding enough that they usually want to continue. The challenge for our trainers at the Science of Strategy Institute is to make this process of mastery as easy and complete as possible.