There are a few times in my career in B2B sales, an endeavor in which I am still engaged, when I have made a very serious error. It forced me to operate on my back foot, defending, instead of selling on my front foot, playing offense and causing my competition to defend what was already theirs. Military history lessons strongly suggest that defending is easier than attacking, which seems to be true in attempted competitive displacements; it can be incredibly difficult to eject your competitor from a client.
However, my experience is that defending your client from external threats is made much more difficult when your competitor gains a foothold in a sister company or the parent company and decides to roll up the whole conglomerate. In these cases, relationships with those higher up in the organization can cause you much bigger problems in related companies.
The mistake I have made several times is not pursuing a client’s related companies, playing defense trying to avoid a bad outcome.
Land and Expand
When people talk about the strategy of land and expand, they refer to the idea of winning a small part of the client’s business and identifying new opportunities that will increase your wallet share. Once you have contacts and contracts, you have the run of the place. You meet with your contacts, and since you are in your client’s account payables system, and they are in your billing system, it’s easier to grow the business, as you have eliminated many of the obstacles.
Once you are working with your client, you are family, even if only a second cousin, twice removed; you still get invited to the annual family picnic, even if, like your Uncle Enrico, you don’t get invited to Thanksgiving anymore.
For some reason, the idea of land and expand tends to end at the edge of the parking lot in the building where the people you serve work. It’s a myopic view of expand, even if the wallet share available to you is more than most of your territory’s accounts. By not pursuing a larger concept of “expansion,” you leave yourself open to being displaced.
Who You Don’t Know
Who you don’t know can hurt you. In every case where I won a location or division of a large, global company, the threat that later emerged was driven by a person within their company at some faraway location. What was also true is that every time there was a threat, no one on my team knew the person sponsoring the opportunity that would have displaced my company.
It is incredibly easy for a person to decide to buy from a person who is creating value for them while removing someone they have never met, that doesn’t know them, and has never created any value for them. This is true even when you are creating massive value for the group you serve. It’s a clinical decision, one driven by efficiency, cost savings, and streamlining the operation. Rarely is the value proposition isn’t great value for the local group you work with every day.
How to Play Defense
The only way I was able to maintain the clients that were under threat was by always working to build strong relationships and consistently communicate while also being proactive about creating new value for the people with whom I worked. Part of that strategy included teaching my contacts how to defend the threat that would have surely displaced my company, their preferred partner.
This truth is why I believe that relationship selling is not, and never will be, dead. The only people who would ever say such a thing would be those who have lacked the relationships that created such a preference to work with them that they couldn’t imagine a group of people fighting to keep their supplier, even if they had to spend political capital to do so.
Front Foot Selling
On a few occasions, I have worked to expand way beyond the one division my team was serving by asking my contacts to make introductions and vouch for our results to take over additional parts of their business. In those cases, I was able to displace competitors by getting in front of the right people because I had relationships with people they trusted.
Where the strategy of my competitors was always efficiency, my strategy was always better results. As it turns out, what corporate offices want is efficiency and cost savings; what the people on the ground want is better results, a partner that cares, and someone who will help get them what they want.
In situations where you may experience a threat, you are better off playing offense than trying to play defense when people who don’t know you will decide whether or not to remove you. Even if you fail to expand your footprint, you are known.
There is never a reason not to maintain the relationships that are going to allow you to maintain your business. There is also never a reason not to operate on your front foot.
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