HOW THE MINNOW BEAT THE SHARK…..A SALES TALE.

A small business can beat a large multinational to win big sales. This blog provides an overview of a sales process for a large software licensing and implementation project. The client is a large multi-national that is used to dealing with big vendors in the technology space.

How can a small company compete when faced with a well-known global multi-national chasing the same client? In this case, the minnow is a company that sells a software platform that is designed for larger organisations. The minnow’s software is feature rich and very capable. The minnow does not find it easy to engage with senior management in initiating or sustaining a sales cycle. The minnow is not widely known nor does it spend much on marketing. The minnow is one of our clients.

The shark offers a platform that is integrated across a full suite of enterprise software. The shark sells only to large organisations and typically has no trouble engaging with senior managers in any business unit thanks to their market stature. The shark spends enormous sums on marketing and events that run all over the world and attract large attendances.

Out of an existing relationship the minnow finds itself in the same tank as the shark. The steering committee is comprised of senior managers from seven business units within the corporation. The overall sentiment is the minnow will provide some needed comparison but there is no way the corporation would risk going with a small vendor.

The process began with a request for information, (RFI). The RFI contained a list of business requirements against which the vendors would respond with both a checkbox and comments. The business requirements were well within the capabilities of the minnow’s software, however as the team completed the RFI they added comments and suggestions that provided proof of their expertise as well as assisting the prospect with considering improved business processes and workflows.

Once the RFI process was completed the list of contenders was down to three. Two sharks and a minnow. The three competing vendors were asked to conduct demonstrations to the steering committee. The demonstrations were not highly structured and included some informal questions and answers.

The initial demonstrations reduced the number of vendors to two. The minnow was still in the tank against the surviving shark. The next step in the process was a detailed demonstration with data supplied by the prospect as well as configuration requirements to demonstrate specific workflows. The shark could share this preparation work across a team located in different parts of the world. The minnow was reliant on two persons who added this preparation work to an already bursting to-do list.

Up to this point there had been no discussion of price or request for a quote. It was likely that the familiarity shared between the prospect and the shark provided the prospect an expectation of what the pricing model may look like. The minnow may have been assumed to be a lower cost provider but at this point nothing could confirm that.

The demonstrations were both conducted on the same day and each vendor was provided two hours. The minnow received a phone call the next day and told they were the preferred supplier. How was this achieved? It was not based on superior technology or a larger feature set.

In speaking to the client after the buying decision had been finalized, I was able to get a clear understanding of what tipped this large complex deal in favor of the minnow.

As mentioned before, the minnow added comments and ideas to the RFI document and this was not lost on a few people in the steering committee. And this extra effort had even more impact once the demonstrations had been completed.

The first demonstration was mostly unstructured and included questions and answers. The minnow took this opportunity to demonstrate both the user and administrator interfaces in a methodical way and used examples of how other clients use the different features in ways that deliver the business outcomes sought by the client. The shark conducted the demonstration going feature to feature without any reference to use cases. The steering committee was unable to see a picture of how the platform could be used for their own requirements.

The minnow followed up the first demonstration with a PowerPoint document that included screenshots of many of the key points in the software demonstration. The shark followed up with some documents outlining features and benefits.

The second demonstration was a detailed scenario based workshop using data supplied by the client. According to the client this demonstration sealed the fate of shark and sealed the deal for the minnow.

The shark was unable to demonstrate some workflows and processes. This was due to the inability of the sales consultant to configure the demo system without help from a technical colleague and this help was not delivered in time for the demo. This raised doubts about how easy the system is to use and administer without relying on the vendor. The shark was unable to demonstrate workflows effectively and the presentation reverted to focusing on individual features.

Overall the impression of the steering committee was the shark’s sales consultant was nervous and not overly confident using the software. This became very apparent in the final 30 minutes that were devoted to Q & A. The sales consultant was unable to answer some questions and avoided using the software to demonstrate the answer.

The minnow spent significant time preparing for this demonstration. All the data provided by the client was imported. The interface was branded accurately and correct names were used for the different business units. The business requirements were analysed carefully and workflows were configured in the platform that conformed to the business requirements. This took a great deal of time and the minnow worked as a team to develop and test the configuration and workflows prior to the demonstration.

When conducting the demonstration, the minnow provided a roadmap of the presentation. The demonstration also included references to the business requirements at each point. The minnow also offered alternatives for workflows to demonstrate the flexibility of the system. One key factor was the minnow also demonstrated administrative capabilities that proved the client was not going to be dependent on the vendor.

The other piece of feedback was critical. When referring to the minnow, one key decision maker commented, “……she was confident and really knew the software inside and out. She could respond to questions and demonstrate the answers without any sign of hesitation or nervousness.” In contrast, this person commented on the shark, “……the consultant seemed so nervous and would often pause as if trying to figure out how to do something on the spot.” In such a complex high value sale, the outcome was based on a few very simple factors. These simple factors are within the capability of every sales professional. It is always the basics that separate the best from the rest.

Here are some pointers.

  • Invest serious time to understanding your prospect’s business and needs, (business requirements).
  • Take time to prepare for any interaction with a prospect. Do not just show up. In this example, the minnow spent considerable time responding to the RFI, creating support documentation for the demonstration, configuring the platform and testing workflows.
  • The sales consultant from the minnow understands her product very deeply. The only way a person can have such deep knowledge of such a complex platform is by committing time to learning it. There are no shortcuts.
  • The confident behaviour of the minnow translated into confidence in her company. This is despite her company being miniscule compared to a huge corporation with a well- known brand.

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