Asking “Where Are We in This Deal?” Won’t Give You a Clue


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Sales Manager: So, where are we in the MegaCorp deal? What do we need to do to get them to the next step?

Salesperson: We’re in good shape. Based on our last meeting there, I think their VP Operations will recommend a closer evaluation of our products.

Sales Manager: That’s great! We really need this one to close! What are our chances?

A sales nail biter! Do you think MegaCorp will buy? Hard to tell. But based on the manager’s questions, I’m not bullish. He’s worried about conforming to his sales process, and he doesn’t have a clue about his rep’s situation. Based on what he’s asking, he’s not on track to find out. Without situational awareness, his rep is just another weak-kneed, wobbly fawn in an open field–prey for opportunistic competitors.

If you happen to be reading this in an airplane, you don’t need to ask your pilot about the importance of situational awareness, because the answer is obvious. It takes more than knowing the distance to the airport to perform a safe landing. Whether you fly a plane, command a tank, or sell complex products and services, situational awareness is mission critical. So why do so many sales executives take a process-centric view of managing sales opportunities, and fail to perceive the bigger picture? There are probably many answers.

But maybe my personal sales horror story will persuade even the most zealous process stickler to consider a different model, which I’ll describe in a moment. Several years ago, I pursued a large opportunity, and met with the buying team for the final step—the closing call. Everything’s fine, until a person I’ll call Frank raises his hand from the back of the room. “Does your solution work on token ring?” he asks. I respond “no,” and Frank exclaims “Over my dead body will this company buy any system that doesn’t work on token ring!” (true story). I never considered hiring a hit man to win an order, but for a moment, that gremlin shamelessly landed on my shoulder.

Frank was a blind-side tackle. “Ouch! That had to hurt!” Yep. Sure did, because Frank single-handedly killed my sale. My token-ring touting competitor won the order. Sales process-wise, my opportunity looked good—excellent, in fact. But before my closing call, I didn’t know that my prospect had token ring installed. I didn’t know about Frank’s influence. Heck, I didn’t even know Frank! I especially didn’t know that my Ethernet-connectable hardware was a show-stopper, because I never experienced the issue before. But my competitor did. Forget about the process steps—I had no clue about my situation! My experience is all too common. In a sales risk survey I conducted this year with CustomerThink, 43% of respondents reported that “unexpected situations” played a role in sales opportunity losses. Like mine, many are preventable.

There’s hope. If The Endsley Model isn’t a part of your monthly sales meeting PowerPoint, consider including it. The Endsley model has three components: the perception of inputs, comprehending the inputs, and projecting outcomes. Subtract any part, and there’s no situational awareness. Not surprisingly, it’s borrowed from the military domain where the Endsley Model is tested in the context of complex, dynamic environments. Granted, for us, it’s not life and death, but I challenge anyone sitting in a sales meeting to say “complex and dynamic isn’t us!”

One company, Holden International, has adopted a strategic view of using situational awareness to win. In an interview with SellingPower CEO Gerhard Gschwandtner,Holden International president Ryan Kubacki said “your focus is on your competitor . . . the customer becomes the battlefield. You’re not trying to take down your competitor, you’re just trying to beat your competitor’s strategy at that particular time.” Kubacki’s deal-by-deal approach to winning requires situational awareness, and it trades off slavish devotion to process.

Holden International’s approach makes sense when there’s known competition in every opportunity. But in many sales situations, competitors aren’t present, or they’re harder to identify because unrelated initiatives can vie for the same project capital. In such circumstances, situational awareness includes competition, but also encompasses other key categories:

1. Forces. What conditions or situations are exerting impact on the prospect company right now? Which ones are perceived as having the greatest impact?

2. Changes and triggers. What’s happened since our last account review that presents a significant new opportunity or major risk to our strategic and tactical direction? Which issues have surfaced? How can we capitalize on the opportunity or mitigate the risk?

3. Competition. What other initiatives are contending for the same funding? What are their strategies for getting it? How do those strategies play against our strengths and weaknesses? What changes have developed in their strategies, and why? What new competitive vulnerabilities exist, and how quickly can we exploit them?

4. Biases, attitudes, and sentiments. What evidence have we received regarding changes in perception toward our company, personnel, product, solution, or proposal?

5. Communication channels. Which communication channels are available to us, and are they adequate for capitalizing on our strategic opportunities and mitigating our risks?

6. Networks and access. Are the people who are most important in our collaboration part of our network, and do we have access to them to share ideas? What changes are taking place, and what new risks and opportunities do they present?

7. Assumptions. Which assumptions are we making right now, if false, will jeopardize this sales opportunity?

You’ll reduce blind-side tackles like I experienced when you understand what information your sales team must perceive or capture, know how to make sense of it, and make intelligent predictions. Sure, go ahead and ask about how to get to the next step. But situational awareness will raise the odds that you’ll get there!


  1. Great discussion starter, Andy
    Here is what I experienced in a case not so far back:

    My sales team was trying to win a bigger project with one of the big tech companies. We were well set and had a solution that would be a perfect fit to their situation.

    The team flew down to southern California and presented the solution. We had great reference customers, some of their customers even used the solution and a lot more to offer than most competitors.

    VP Sales, sales manager and product expert where excited. Top presentation, 8 people from the prospect attended… One of those perfect situations.

    One thing however bothered me: “We had almost no detailed discussions, I felt they didn’t share all the details. Something told me is not going so well.

    2 Month later the competition got the deal. What was wrong? Some person at the customer was a very good friend with somebody at the competition. We lost very simply because of two things:
    1) We didn’t have that intimate relationship.
    2) We didn’t “read” the situation well enough.
    Got instinct was the only reason I never put it in “me” forecast. But “situational awareness” was very low in our team at that deal.

    It was actually one of the incidents that motivated us to add “Relationship Strength” as a KPI in our system.



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