“That proposal you sent us last quarter . . . we need everything installed immediately! How quickly can you ship?” My prospect’s panic meant commission for me. Their large hardware and services order was the culmination of a spluttering two-year sales effort that began in 1995, and it wasn’t even on my forecast. What happened?
e-coli. In August, 1997, Hudson Foods announced the largest meat recall in US history. When the USDA couldn’t decipher the company’s production records, a small beef recall avalanched into 25,000,000 pounds. My prospect was a major supplier of hamburger patties to a large fast-food company, and the fallout from Hudson’s debacle spread faster than an oil slick. Ka-ching! Trigger events don’t get better than bacteria invading a food supply chain.
Trigger events are risks that have come home to roost, and less frequently, opportunities that are just too good to pass up. Jill Konrath describes them her book, SNAP Selling, as an “occurrence that shifts an organization’s priorities.” Highly motivated buyers are a clear outcome, which is why salespeople love triggers. Nothing’s better for an Account Executive than riding in on a white stallion, laptop connected, pen in hand, ready to close the deal. “Press hard, fifth copy is yours!” Coins jingling in his pockets, he rides off into the sunset, leaving a wake of choking dust for his competitors to inhale. On to the next!
But before I get a sugar high from this e-coli revenue story and others, I’d like to share some issues that make me less giddy about trigger events:
1. Trigger Events are not dependable progenitors of business decisions. As Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, said this year, “it’s a lot easier to change when you can than when you have to.” Not that Intel doesn’t have Trigger Events, but I sense that the company playbook doesn’t reward managers for waiting for something to break, or for a cataclysmic event to occur before sitting down to discuss what to do next.
2. Many salespeople have antenna pointed in the same direction. It’s unfair to compare salespeople to vultures, but come on! Who doesn’t have an alert for a new venture funding announcement, corporate headquarters relocation, market or territory expansion, or new executive hire?
3. Some triggers aren’t triggers at all—until there are two, three, four or more of them. All exerting force at the same time. The emergence of cloud computing, cheap processing and storage, and virtualization might not activate trigger-event alarm bells when considered separately, but the combination of these technological forces poses immense threats to entrenched business models across many industries. Looking for a single event before striking up a conversation? It’s already too late. By identifying converging situations, your competitor found the opportunity first.
4. Selling based on trigger events risks overlooking broader conditions. Consider, for example, opening an offshore factory—typically not an overnight decision. Which strategic goals were known before the prospect company announced its plans? What forces impacted the strategy?
5. Trigger event selling trades off building long-term relationships. Sure, a salesperson won’t waste time with prospects who aren’t highly motivated, and he or she can be more precise about who to contact, and when. But that playing field is level. Alerts are free, and everyone is pretty good at using them. If a salesperson pounces on an opportunity around the same time as his or her competitors, what is the probability of success? Prospects have told me “we’re already working with a company on that project” enough times that I know the value of getting to the right place just a little earlier.
In 1997, I was sold on trigger events. Back then, if you saw a car speeding North on I-95 from Richmond with two madly-flapping e-coli flags stuck to the roof, it was probably me. But while trigger events drive some business decisions, B2B decision making has evolved into a more complex chain reaction of events and situations. Motivating salespeople to become trigger event ambulance chasers will yield some quick wins, but at the cost of missing the big picture. The stresses and fissures that precede trigger events can occur weeks, months, or even years before.
In her seminal book, Silent Spring, environmentalist Rachel Carson said, “events are much easier to spot than trends. But fixing the problems isn’t necessarily better or easier.” In my next post, I’ll discuss how salespeople can recognize forces and trends that influence strategies, and how business decision making is impacted.
Further reading: The Case Against Trigger Events , by S. Anthony Iannarino