What Sigourney Weaver Would Say About Selling: The Alien Competitor

You remember the movie “Alien” with Sigourney Weaver playing the protagonist Ellen Ripley? She’s trapped inside a spaceship with a highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature that stalks and kills the crew of a spaceship. The crew battles the alien several times, only to be knocked off, one after another while the beast grows and grows until it’s over seven feet tall and immensely strong.

Like the alien that Ripley rarely sees, there is a hidden foe challenging every sale we work on. It too, seemingly hides out of view in the shadows, grows rapidly and can eat other sales campaigns without any witnesses.

The Alien I’m referring to is the “alternate use of funds” sometimes camouflaged as a no-decision outcome. Your sponsor reports back that they decided not to do anything at this point in time. Part of you is relieved you didn’t lose to one of your direct competitors, but the other part of you is in despair about working so hard on an opportunity, only to lose twice. The first loss is the time you spent on the opportunity with nothing to show for it, and the second loss is because you could have been working on another opportunity that had the ability to make a purchase.

However, unlike a real no decision, where the prospect isn’t compelled to purchase your solution, in the case of an alternate use of funds, or alien use of funds as I’ll call it, your sales campaign is squashed by a more important issue. It gobbles up the funds intended for your sales campaign and your forecast accuracy along with it.

Recently, in a follow up conversation for a win/loss analysis we were conducting for a client, we called the contact of a forecasted opportunity that was reported as a “no decision” and removed from the forecast. When we spoke to the contact, he elaborated that although he communicated they weren’t going to buy any solution like the one sold by my client, the real reason they didn’t make a purchase was because their general manager decided to cobble together several buckets of unspent budget to fund the building of a new parking lot. As a result, the sales campaign my client ran for several months was dead.

It may seem like it’s impossible to fight an unseen competitor like a parking lot, but don’t despair, just like Ripley, we can neutralize or defeat the predator. The key is to uncover and understand the current issues that have the attention of the prospect’s senior executives. I call these Current Business Issues (CBI). Every company has one or more CBIs they need to address. For the lucky ones, it’s usually a good kind of problem, like scaling issues such as hiring more staff, finding outsourcing options to meet the demands of a popular product, or a new parking lot to accommodate the many new employees they’ve hired to expand a new business line as in the case above. For the not so fortunate, there’s a roulette wheel of common issues; difficulty getting products to market, cost management, new competitors and so on.

The way to neutralize the alien is to get your solution connected to a CBI. As the satirist Thomas Carlyle once said, “Our great business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” We need to seize the relevancy power of the CBI to elevate the priority of our sales campaign and prevent the Alien Use of Funds from sucking the blood out of our campaign.

In the parking lot example, if the seller knew that scaling was the primary CBI, he could have retargeted his messaging to connect to that topic rather than cost savings, as was the theme of his generic, one size fits all, sales campaign. I call this more productive approach agile selling.

So how does one uncover the CBI without planting a listening device in the boardroom? It’s much easier than it seems. In most cases, CBIs are born from outside pressure; unsatisfied investors, new competitors, disgruntled customers, new government regulations and such. All of which publish their expectations in some form. Most of these instigators can be uncovered with the Internet. A few simple search terms like “problems”, “issues” or “challenges” combined with the name of the company can usually turn up several potential issues to leverage. It’s advisable to run the issues by your contacts to confirm the relevance. Also keep in mind, the I.T. department may not be aware of the issues, so branching out to personnel on the business side is valuable.

So let’s say you’ve uncovered a potential CBI, now what do you do with it? We need to align it with your solutions. If you sell an enterprise solution it probably delivers multiple value propositions. It probably helps to reduce costs; get something completed sooner, enables higher throughput, or some other positive outcome. It’s a matter of connecting the CBI to a set of underlying challenges or problems that your solution can address. It’s also valuable to tie in the key metric the customer has attributed to their CBI and is watching closely. Then it’s a matter of publicizing the value proposition in several communications; emails, proposal summaries, and presentations. Eventually, your message will make its way to the top, even if you can’t.

After working with many companies around the world to improve their key selling metrics, I have witnessed this discipline work very well and some cases where it was not implemented well. Most often, the poorly implemented attempts were due to a wishful CBI, meaning the seller proposed a CBI that he/she assumed everyone cared about, with a corresponding metric obtained by averaging out several prior customer successes. Unfortunately, this is like stabbing in the dark. Most of the time you won’t hit anything, but the one time you do compels one to keep stabbing blindly. Keep yourself honest and find out what current business issues your prospect is pressured by, confirm it, then use it to align your solution to the most compelling topic in their closed meetings.

Let’s get back to the title of this piece. If we did get a chance to ask Ms. Weaver, or more properly, Ripley, about combatting our alien, I envision her saying, “be agile, pick the right weapon, be diligent, and don’t give up.

Kevin Temple is the founder and President of The Enterprise Selling Group. Kevin has consulted for companies like Cisco, Dell, Polycom, Gartner, VMware and many others. His specialty is helping companies achieve a measurable improvement in key selling metrics like average contract value, largest transaction size and others. The Enterprise Selling Group is a world leader in sales training, sale enablement and sales effectiveness.

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