For decades, salespeople have used Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” as a guide to the competitive sales environment. Many business schools use it as a textbook, and generations of sales leaders have used it to guide competitive strategy. To some, sales is the Art of War.

But, the Art of War for sales has two major flaws. First, the customer is treated as the battlefield on which one company wages war on its competitor. Second, much has changed in how salespeople sell. Today, there are more tools for communicating with customers and the market, and there are more ways to gather information, track buying behaviors and influence decision-makers. Email, instant messaging and CRM systems didn’t exist in Sun Tzu’s time, let alone LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.

Military strategy has been central to sales strategy, and it is time for a new Art of War for sales. Luckily, we have a guide. The “U.S. Counterinsurgency Field Manual” (CFM) has had a major impact on the military over the past 12 years; many believe that it rivals Sun Tzu in revolutionizing military strategy. The CFM is can offer an approach for today’s marketplace that Sun Tzu does not.

Changes in selling have paralleled changes in military engagement. In sales today, winning salespeople and winning sales organizations focus less on winning the war with the competition and more on winning the hearts and minds of the customer. As a result, there are valuable new lessons that salespeople need to learn to succeed in today’s environment. Below, you’ll find five lessons from the CFM that can be applied to your sales strategy.

1. Learning Is Your Greatest Weapon

Most lessons are paraphrased and put into business, not military, language. However, the first lesson comes directly from the CFM: “The army that learns faster and adapts more rapidly usually wins. At its core, it is a learning organization.”

Salespeople and sales organizations that are not continuously learning will likely lose the battle for sales. If you wait for a competitor to show itself in your client’s organization, you have probably already lost. If you wait for the customer to tell you about major changes in his or her business, it is too late. If you are an experienced salesperson and feel you have little to learn about how to sell, you are wrong.

2. The Disrupter Advantage

In military terminology, the insurgent has become a major factor. In business, we call them disrupters – the rise of the small, nimble organization; the new start-up; or the organization that entered a market from a different value proposition. Several years ago, who would have thought that companies like GoToMeeting or Adobe Connect would take sales away from airlines? As companies replaced face-to-face meetings with online meetings, that is exactly what they did.

In the beginning, disrupters hold the strategic advantage. If you think that because you are the preferred provider you are safe, you may want to rethink that position. Being the biggest, with the best reputation, does not give you the advantage you once had.

Any group beginning from a position of weakness must initially adopt a covert approach. Small players should not announce their presence in a new client’s business, and current providers should not wait, but must hunt out the disrupter.

3. The Customer Is Not the Battlefield

Cultural knowledge is essential to waging a successful sales campaign. How well do you know the work culture of your client? How well does your competitor know the culture? The salesperson who knows the culture better will have greater success.

Every action has an informational reaction; you must assume that your deeds match your words. Do you know what your technical expert is saying to your clients? How about customer service? Are invoices confusing, or do they arrive late? Do delivery dates keep shifting? Each of these actions communicates information that will either help or hinder your sales efforts. Knowing that there was an error is bad; not knowing is worse.

Your campaign is conducted by the people in the client organization; you need to provide security. Any sales opportunity that requires changes in the client organization’s behavior will be met with efforts to undermine that change. The more you can do to help the client’s workforce feel safe and fairly treated, the less resistance you will experience.

4. Winning Hearts and Minds

The decisive battle is for peoples’ minds. While a decision-maker makes a buying decision, the whole organization ultimately makes the decision to use the product or service. How many great long-term sales efforts died out because they did not enlist the “hearts and minds” of the broader organization?

Selling is a battle of ideas, and disrupters try to create misperception. An account executive I know recently lost a sale because a competitor posted a seemingly innocent message on a LinkedIn group the customer follows. The message raised some questions; questions turned into concerns; and concerns led to a delay and, ultimately, a cancellation of the project.

Your internal champion’s doing something tolerably well is better than your doing it perfectly. Building visibility and self-esteem for your client contact will do more for your long-term success than a “perfect” sales pitch delivered by you. Salespeople need to be effective coaches of their customers and act more as “the guide on the side” instead of “the sage on the stage.”

5. Offense/Defense Is “and,” Not “or”

Every sale is a combination of offensive, defensive and stabilizing operations. The old notion that once you win an account, you move primarily to a defensive strategy is gone. You are always on a three-pronged approach to keeping your clients.

Every part of a sales campaign must work with a unity of effort. Today, many parts of the selling organization are in contact with many parts of the buying organization. Letting each operate independently opens you up to a disrupter.

Sales Skills for the New Art of War

With these new lessons comes the emergence of important new skills for salespeople. While not an exhaustive list, some of the new skills include:

  • Building relationships at multiple levels: The old Art of War promoted separating people with power from people without power – the “foxes” from the “sheep.” Today, you cannot ignore the fact that a sheep one day can be a fox the next or that a herd of sheep can overpower the will of the fox. By developing relationships throughout the organization, salespeople can win hearts and minds – and more sales.
  • Competitive vigilance: The old Art of War tells you to gain a beachhead and build walls to protect your relationship. Today, no wall is high enough to keep out disrupters. Salespeople need to use their relationships to gain knowledge about the actions of potential competitors and guard against insurgencies.
  • Multidirectional information flow: The old Art of War treats information flow as “top-down.” Today, salespeople have to pay attention to all sources of information. Often, a message communicated from below can be more powerful than information from the top, especially in this era of social media.
  • Turning information into knowledge: In the old Art of War, information was power. Today, information overload is more of a problem than an asset. Salespeople’s success hinges on their ability to turn information into knowledge and knowledge into action. They need skills for interpreting information quickly and accurately.
  • Managing accounts: Most salespeople follow an account management process that emphasizes identifying potential buy points and gaining access to decision-makers. While these salespeople are hunting down new opportunities in the account, a disrupter is slowing and secretly building support.

While many of the lessons from Sun Tzu are still valid today, it is time for a new “Art of War.” New technologies bring new challenges and opportunities. The “U.S. Counterinsurgency Field Manual,” while an unusual source, can provide many lessons to large embedded providers as well as to the small upstarts (the disrupters) trying to gain access to a client. In modern sales, size and strength have their disadvantages but, if used well, can also have their advantages.

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