It drives me crazy to hear complaints about lost business opportunities when there was very little understanding about how to land that big fish. If you’ve got something of value to offer and are approaching the right buyer, reeling in the big ones isn’t rocket science. It’s a proven process based on doable steps and learning moments.

I often hear partners blame missed opportunity on issues like price pressures or competition. But I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard, “You know, Gale, I blew this one.”

Recently I got a call from a CPA I had coached years ago who eventually left public accounting to serve as CFO of a large, publicly held company. He couldn’t wait to tell me about a request for proposal that he and his company sent to their current provider, as well as some of the other largest CPA firms in the country. Breathlessly he exclaimed, “I just walked out of the orals, and you’d be shocked and horrified at what I saw!”

He described an anemic sales process and pathetic presentations by all of them that demonstrated no understanding of the client. When he asked several pointed questions, none of the presenters could muster a substantive response.


Tired of landing in the ditch?

He and I had a good laugh, but neither of us were shocked. He said, “These firms haven’t innovated their sales process since the 1970s.”

In the mid-market where I reside, this is life as we know it. Partners call me after the fact, constantly in despair, having watched one and then another opportunity roll into the ditch. It’s especially disheartening to see this happen to partners who hear what they need to do, but constantly revert to dated approaches — like poring over records rather than interviewing senior executives, including the CEO, to shine light on what the business seeks to accomplish, and learning everything possible about context and strategy.

Listening for the main mega-themes in the interviews is the clue to a winning strategy, not the fact that you (think you) have better auditors.

Instead of conversations with executives about the company and the context of the decision, contenders often come to the conference table with a well-dressed entourage and lots of technology. They mistakenly assume that chest-thumping and digital bells and whistles will secure the opportunity.

When I was with IBM, we called this approach “spray and pray.” The tactic involves showering your prospect with information about how wonderful you are, and praying they find something relevant to grab onto. What clients really want is something solid and relevant to them — value, innovation and customization. To achieve this, you have to crawl into your buyer’s head to uncover deep, often hidden needs. The name for this is strategic solutions selling, and I describe the process in detail in a document I call the “Big Fish Emergency Toolkit.”


Listen close

Truth is, your prospect knows something about you or you wouldn’t be a contender. Instead of the “me and us show,” you need to become the producer of the “you and your challenges show.” The way to do this throughout the sales process includes key principles such as:

  • Qualify the opportunity. Make sure it’s worthy of pursuit by going one-on-one with decision-makers, influencers and others who have a vested interest in the outcome.
  • Get comfortable talking about your competitors. Ask the prospect about the competition, which helps put you in a consultative, rather than a vendor, position. During your one-on-ones, don’t hesitate to learn about other firms under consideration and what they bring to the table.
  • Find an advocate. Identify and cultivate someone who can help you navigate the minefield of confusing and wrong information that will come your way. Like the real estate agents say, “Buyers are liars.” It’s not that they’re bad people, they just sometimes forget to tell you the truth or may not know it! An advocate can come from anywhere in (or sometimes outside of) the organization.

These techniques will serve you well as you pursue opportunities of all sizes, not just the big ones. Also, note that strategic selling can be especially useful down market, where fewer of your competitors will know and use the approach.

You’re not going to land that grown-up fish using a kid’s rod and reel. You need big ideas, robust tools and fresh solutions that distinguish you from the crowd. There’s a big ocean out there, and there’s no reason the biggest fish in it shouldn’t be yours.