Is planning pointless?

b2b collaborative selling planning prospecting sales selling Dec 20, 2023

In a military style…

.. is how Colonel Hathi the elephant in the Jungle Book encouraged his ‘pachyderm parade’ to behave. And it is something salespeople can learn from when considering sales.

I think we sometimes need to be careful using military thinking in the commercial world but if we are talking about instilling discipline, particularly when it comes to aspects of planning then the lessons can be extremely valuable. Many commercial endeavours will also be ‘fought within a competitive environment’, so clues may also be gleaned about effective approaches to overcome the ‘enemy’. Keep in mind though that the modern approach to sales, the one about selling through partnering skills encourage collaboration with customers, not combat.

Sun Tzu and the Art of War

For years business schools and professional consultants have turned to this 2500-year-old text and I want to do same. There are a variety of topics a modern sales professional can gain insight on including leadership, strategy, organisation, competition and cooperation. I will focus on the ‘positioning’ aspect of strategy and look at it relevance to selling.

Sun Tzu said “A great general establishes his position where he cannot be defeated. He misses no opportunity to exploit the weakness of his enemy. A winning general creates the conditions of victory before beginning the war. A losing general begins the war before knowing how to win it. A great commander first cultivates his own character and develops a strong organisation. In this way, he effectively manages those factors that are crucial to his success or failure”

Of particular interest here is the concept of ‘positions’, a concept that successful a successful sales approach can be built on. I will explore this in more detail later but first a little more from Sun Tzu.

“The elements of strategy are first, measuring; second, estimating; third, calculating; fourth, comparing and fifth, victory. The terrain creates measurements. Estimates are based on measurements. Calculations on estimates. Comparisons on calculations and victory on comparisons. Thus, a victorious army fights its opponents like a heavy weight versus and light weight, or a larger river rushing through a narrow gorge. It cannot be stopped. Success in war is a matter of positioning”

A modern interpretation of this is that developing a strategy is about identifying opportunity, gathering information, analysing alternatives, judging appropriateness and taking action. This is true in many environments not least in selling.

Understanding positions

In their best-selling book ‘New Strategic Selling’ Robert B Miller, Stephen E Heiman and Tad Tuleja provide a robust framework for salespeople to plan and make decisions based on

- appreciating how their customer operates and how various internal and external factors can influence that.

- understanding their current position with respect to their specific sales objective.

- generating more insight and options about their possible alternate positions.

- selecting a position that would best secure their objectives

- undertaking appropriate activity.

The roots in Sun Tzu’s strategy making are clear to see so the ideas are far from new. In fact, the ‘New’ was only added more recently when the book was updated as it was originally published in the 1980’s. The original framework is still very much at the core and highly relevant, encouraging salespeople and their teams to understand:

  • What are we trying to sell?
  • What is our current position?
  • Is the customer a good match for what we offer?
  • Who are the buying influences (people involved in the decision), their roles, openness to change and level of influence?
  • What does each buying influence get out of what we are proposing?
  • How do we rate each buying influence and how do we know this is an accurate rating?
  • What are the factors that strengthen our position and what do we need to address?
  • What are some possible actions we could take to strengthen our position?
  • What information do we need?
  • What are the best actions to take? By whom? When?

Thinking about positions and activity to underpin then works well in the world of sales as demonstrate by the longevity of the Miller-Heiman approach. An approach which benefits from the power of planning.

No plan survives contact with the enemy

Whilst we are looking at military themes what can be translated into sales activity it is worth thinking about what we can learn about planning.

The idea of planning not being worth the effort as they often fail anyway is a poor excuse for not doing it. The original expression from Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke translates from German as "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength” and it should be considered within the context of his wider premise on military strategy. This is that it should be understood as creating a number of options early on since it was only possible to effectively plan at the beginning of an operation. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to involve the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes.

This is useful for the mindset of a salesperson involved in an opportunity with high levels of value and complexity and works neatly with the idea that:

Plans are worthless; but planning is essential

This paradoxical statement has been widely attributed to Dwight Eisenhower, an army general prior to becoming 34th President of the USA, though was probably used in one of its various guises a good time before that. It is based on the idea that most plans are rendered useless almost as soon as they are put in motion. However, there is still some value in the original plan in that it defines the goal or desired outcome. Good plans should also have options and indeed the very process of obtaining and synthesising information is valuable as it will help decision making further down the line.

So, we can appreciate that “fail to plan, plan to fail” is correct and that “proper prior plans prevent pretty poor performance” also rings true (as does the original military version using more fruity language).

(Extract from 'Selling Through Partnering Skills' by Fred Copestake)

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