Out of B-School and Into the Sales Call: Why Porter’s Five Forces Beats Triggers


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What sparked these decisions?

I suspect that each didn’t follow a single, cataclysmic event. “Steve in South Dakota lost the keys to his truck! We’re changing everything!” Instead, these decisions were influenced by many developments that percolated over time. Wal-mart felt pressure to demonstrate corporate social responsibility and to overcome consumer perception that management doesn’t care about economic parity for women. Rolls Royce realized that luxury car exhaust was as objectionable to people as emissions from Fords, Fiats, and Suzukis. And UPS recognized that the lingering global recession required the company to achieve greater logistics efficiencies.

Major announcements keep sales adrenaline flowing. Who can’t spot one or more right-now selling opportunities in these announcements? There are good reasons Jill Konrath dedicated eight pages to explaining how to capitalize on trigger events in her popular book, SNAP Selling. “Trigger events shake the status quo to its core,” she writes. Go us! Keep those newsfeeds rolling!

But there’s irony. Salespeople are moved by status quo-shaking news, but frequently, more subtle forces shape, influence, and motivate major business decisions. That disconnect creates strategic sales problems: what to do when you don’t know about golden opportunities, and how to avoid the risks that result from being late to the buyer-seller collaboration. If your selling strategy fails to get your salespeople plugged into buying networks earlier than your competitors, you’re missing opportunities that emerging forces sent into motion weeks, months, or years earlier. You hear the symptom every time a prospect tells you “we’re already working with another provider on that project.” Translation: your competitor got a clue before you did.

And although it’s borderline impossible to pinpoint conception for a buying activity, I’ll wager that it falls between the moments when someone in an organization becomes aware of an escalating force, and when he or she believes that a strategy must be adapted in response. Which probably explains why there are no Senior Managers of Panic, and no Vice Presidents for Unplanned Capital Acquisitions. I just checked on LinkedIn.

Sales Triggers vs. Strategic Forces

You already sense the conflict: opportunistic, alerts-monitoring salespeople, swooping in on the prospect at the ideal moment—the more dire the motivation, the better. “Press hard, fifth copy is yours!”—except now it’s done on an iPad. Call them ambulance chasers. You won’t hurt my feelings. Salespeople wouldn’t suffer from that ugly image if their radar were tuned to longer-term developments, and if they followed a strategy of opening relationships before everyone begins to hyperventilate.

Opposite the ravenous salesperson sits the strategy-driven prospect—frustrated, angry, and disappointed with street smart, but strategically clueless salespeople whose problem-solving zeal lasts just up to his or her commission check. Environmentalist author Rachel Carson wrote over 60 years ago, “. . . events are much easier to spot than trends. But fixing the problems isn’t necessarily better or easier.” A prescient observation in many ways. Perhaps she foresaw customer-vendor friction as a component of global warming.

Teaching salespeople about forces and their impacts can be difficult. Forces are not always apparent, and once forces are recognized, they combine in nearly infinite permutations, creating outcomes that are fiendishly hard to predict. Forces unfold in what seems like geologic time. Yawn. If you want excitement at your next sales kick-off, remove the Emerging Forces slide from your PowerPoint deck. Instead, just announce the latest customer or executive defections at your archrival competitor. No one will be playing Angry Birds or checking email while you have the podium.

But force effects are quickening. According to The Economist, “… in today’s world, gale-like market forces—rapid globalization, accelerating innovation, relentless competition—have intensified what economist Joseph Schumpeter called the forces of ‘creative destruction.'” Add frictionless interaction platforms (I just call it Social Media), next generation mobility, social network effects, information superabundance, inherent transparency and openness, rise of social capital, Green (and all that comes with it), outsourcing, virtualization, and cloud computing. The list goes on.

Forces—and the risks and opportunities that accompany them—keep decision makers up at night. No need to ask. Most of all, forces drive change, and change creates uncertainty, which executives, their bosses, and shareholders eschew passionately. Think of the trillions of dollars spent every year to make things more predictable! Hello! People coalesce around ideas that are influenced by forces. (Check with your prospects. It’s happening as you read this.) Force effects remind us that the customer decision mega-cycle has a longer timeline than we once imagined. So quit assuming major events like plant openings or new executive hires initiate buying momentum or catalyze purchases.

Which forces matter, and which ones don’t? I’ve wondered the same thing. Happily, if you have a mobile device or laptop, or read a newspaper, you’re never far away from knowing. (For some ideas, click here or here. )

But for salespeople, knowing about forces is one thing. Conversing about them, and uncovering what they mean to prospects is another. Add to those talents the ability to prove to your clients that their business strategy will flat-out fail without your company’s products and services, and you’re one step closer to owning Irresistible Value! And that’s where the Porter’s Five Forces model can help.

Porter’s Five Forces

When I was in graduate school, a PowerPoint slide of this model grabbed my attention, and provided a Eureka moment. “This is what keeps my prospects awake, reduced to five boxes!” I immediately knew it packed power for sales.

Porter’s Five Forces model organizes forces, places them into strategic context, and enables people to identify the impact of change. Porter’s Five Forces was originally developed to analyze the profitability potential of an industry—something any VC or investment analyst would love. So you’re probably wondering why salespeople should care. I’ll cover that at the end, but the answer will become apparent after I explain the basics, which I promise to keep mercifully short.

The five forces are: 1) intense rivalry among existing enterprises competing in a market (red box), 2) bargaining power of suppliers to those enterprises (left box), 3) bargaining power of customers (right box), 4) threat of new entrants to the market (top box), 5) threat of substitute products (bottom box). So far, so good? Great! You can relax, because you’re already about 80% of the way toward mastering the model.

The horizontal axis represents the Value Chain in an industry. The vertical axis represents the new players considering entry into a market, and helps capture which developments might rip apart or replace the dependencies between members of a value-chain community. Forces influence change on both axes: the power of the trading partner relationship on the value-chain, or horizontal axis; and the vulnerabilities for companies entering a market as direct competitors or providers of substitute products, or vertical axis. The forces connect to each other, but all have impact on the central box, Industry Rivalry. By recognizing forces, and how they fit in Porter’s model, you can understand the stresses, fissures, fractures, destabilizations, and general tumult that cause your prospects to keep a bottle of antacid within arm’s reach. And you understand the risks and opportunities your prospects perceive—or should perceive—along with their magnitude.

I already sense the questions that are flowing. What meaning do the forces of virtualization and cloud computing have on how executives view barriers to entry? How do they threaten or enhance strategic goals? How do the efforts of women to achieve global economic parity affect the retail value chain? What do the Clean Energy and Green movements mean for the transportation choices consumers are likely to make? What does e-commerce, globalization, and transparency mean for changing relationships in a value chain? Why wait for a trigger to get in touch with a prospective customer who needs the love right now?

Limitations of Five-Forces Selling

Porter’s model is not perfect. When I’m working in the Washington, DC area, people often ask, “Where does government regulation and compliance fit?” No worries. If you’re more comfortable, add a Sixth Force, and personalize the model by substituting your name for Porter’s. This is sales, so why be constrained by rules? Besides, a model’s strength rests in its ability to extend its explanatory power to new situations.

There are some other limitations you should know about. According to Wikipedia three not-always-true assumptions underlie Porter’s Five Forces:

  • that buyers, competitors, and suppliers are unrelated and do not interact and collude.
  • that the source of value is in creating barriers to market entry
  • that uncertainty is low, allowing participants in a market to plan for and respond to competitive behavior

Valid observations, but nothing that should cause people to give the model a heave-ho. And there’s nothing wrong with assumptions, so long as you know what they are.

I’m bullish on Porter’s Five Forces, despite the warts. If I could sum up what Porter’s Five Forces model does best, it’s connecting things in a meaningful way, and providing a better crystal ball. Think of what it can do for your prospects. The model helps salespeople work more intelligently, offer far greater insight and value to customers, and hold discussions just a tad earlier. Trigger events don’t do that. Call me a snob.

You’re already asking the right questions:

  1. Which industries and companies offer the best selling opportunities?
  2. Which developments are most likely motivating change for my prospective customers?
  3. How do I formulate questions, discussions, and communications with my prospects so that I’m perceived as valuable to them?

Take Porter’s Five Forces to your next sales meeting, and find out if you get closer to answering them.

Further reading:


  1. Andrew,

    Thank you for an excellent and well laid out article. It serves as a reminder and refresher that some “truisms” hold true no matter the introduction of new tecnologies and concepts that can amount to fads. Porter’s five forces is one such “truisms” that stands the test of time amidst all the hyperbole that can surround the Internet, Social Media, and Content Marketing. I too can remember a eureka moment as well and had the good fortune of working for a CEO who was an evangelist of Porter’s five forces. Thank you for refreshing us all on the importance of understanding these guiding strategic forces and how sales can play a role in helping companies to meet them. It is easy to forget as well as shelve such “truisms” when we live in the chaos of constant bombarding of the latest trends and technologies – and whatever concept may be the darling of media. Trigger events, when seen in the context of the five forces, can be helpful. However, I agree that if they are used to turn sales forces into ambulance chasers, then responding to them in such a way can do more harm than good.

    Great article and thank you!
    Tony Zambito

  2. Despite the hype about salespeople being marginalized and customers having “all the power,” there is a great unfilled need. Customers need vendors who can think and collaborate strategically. Porter’s Five Forces is a useful model to enable that.

    Buyers and sellers will get along much better when buyers quit thinking that purchasing success basically means squeezing every dime out of a vendor’s price, and vendors recognize that opportunism gets in the way if their sales tactics don’t go beyond that.

  3. Andy,

    reading you article left me with the impression that you view trigger events and Porter’s Five Forces as juxtapositions.

    In my humble opinion, they are complementary though.
    Yes concentrating on the five forces is a more strategic approach. What if you are too much ahead of the customer in your thinking and your argumentation for the need of action does go unheard. This can happen more often than one thinks. I have been in the strategy definition business long enough and one would not believe the inertia one sometimes finds with leaders until they accept the relevance of new trends for their business.
    Abrupt discontinuities (trigger events) can thus be a signal that the relevance of trend is finally accepted.

    I would thus argue, that focusing on the five forces makes one more sensitive to detect potential trigger events earlier.

    In any case, whether you focus on triggers or trends, the key is to be the first to discuss it with the customer in order to gain competitive advantage.

  4. As someone who  first learned of Porter's Five Forces during his 2 year Executive MBA program (specialized in New Venture Creation & Technology Commercialization) and who now teaches Entrepreneurship 201 and Entrepreneurship 401 at the Haskayne School of Business I agree that Porter's Five Forces are something to be aware of BUT   …

    Kurt Lewin – an equally smart but not quite as famous academic – did extensive research on forces (Check out his Force Field Analysis) and how they are in equilibrium (think of this as the status quo) and it's not until a Trigger Event creates a change in these forces that the equilibrium point moves and executives start thinking of changing.

    Remember it's after the first event makes the decision maker want to change and they enter the Window of Dissatisfaction and start thinking of changing.

    Get to these decision makers before your competition and you help the decision maker define the problem, design the solution, and  start developing the relationship and your odds of winning the sale are 5 times higher than if you wait until the second Trigger Event comes along and the decision maker can now afford the time or money to solve the problem.

    If you want to figure out what the best Trigger Events for what you sell, you can conduct a http://WonSalesAnalysis.com.

  5. Christian: thanks for taking the time to post your comment. Forces, trends, major events, and triggers must be understood, and it is worthwhile for salespeople to be students of all of them. An informed salesperson can only be more valuable to his or her customers compared to one who lacks a complete understanding of a prospect’s industry. The situational awareness so crucial for sales success requires knowledge of many variables.

    Which brings me to the point of this article, which is a response to what I perceive as an imbalance not only in what salespeople are taught, but in the processes they use to engage with customers. While discrete major events do have the capacity to produce significant upheaval (9/11 being an undeniable example), my experience in B2B sales is that most executives are not sitting around thinking “business as usual” until triggers happen. Today’s CIO, for example, is much more business-oriented than his or her predecessor. They’re paid to understand longer-term implications of cloud computing and the legal ramifications of widespread use of social media, and more.

    Does that mean that it’s not valuable for salespeople to be informed about a major corporation that’s just experienced a DNS attack? Of course not. But salespeople shortchange themselves and their prospects if all they’re tuned into are “Code Red” problems, and if they don’t know how those issues fit into the context of business strategy.

    That’s opportunity lost for vendors that have pinned their sales approach on tuning into alerts-tripping events before unleashing their fearsome team on a prospect that they assume is sitting there waiting for them like confused deer in the headlights.

    An understanding of forces won’t correct every problem salespeople experience with customers, but it will help salespeople address issues that are regularly discussed at strategy meetings. Why not help salespeople better prepare for the conversation?


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