3 prospecting secrets from 'The Art of War'

Flickr user juliejordanscott

If the stakes are high in selling, they are even higher on the battlefield. Strategy obviously didn't start with Harvard Business School. That's why so many sales leaders read the writings of an obscure Chinese general from 2,500 years ago named Sun Tzu.

His book, "The Art of War," is a compilation of the Sun's thinking on the strategies that underlie military success. "Why destroy," he asks, "when you can win by stealth and cunning?" Sounds like good sales and marketing strategy to me.

Let's say you are prospecting to land a big deal. Once you have a list of prospects, big or small, how do you go about learning what the prospect's biggest problems are? Take The Art of War approach. You'll need to research the following three major resources.

1. Know your marketplace. Sun Tzu's advice applies to a staple in business -- know your markets. "Advance knowledge cannot be gained from ghosts and spirits, but must be obtained from people who know the enemy situation."

If you haven't already done it, identify who the players are in your marketplace and learn all you can about the challenges they face. Marketplace issues include a company's economic circumstances, new technology, and changes in regulations. You'll almost certainly find an emphasis on cutting costs and finding energy alternatives. Whatever the issues, you need to know them. It is around these issues, as they relate to your prospect, that you will form your solution.

2. Know their strategic plans. "The best approach is to attack the other side's strategy...." Sun wrote. Another way to uncover a prospect's concerns is through the company's strategic plan. I recommend it, but also have some serious reservations about that approach. New CEOs frequently update or totally revise a company's strategic plan in order to set a new course for leadership. So if they've been at the helm for fewer than five years and the strategic plan has been in place for two years, then the strategic plan is a great place to start your research.

But if the CEO's plan hasn't changed in over two years, it will probably be worthless. The business world is changing so rapidly that any corporate blueprint written two years ago is already hopelessly out of date. Still, a current strategic plan, recently written or revised, can give you valuable clues about the prospect. It tells you what is important to the CEO and where the prospect's money will be directed. That goes a long way toward helping you find the biggest problem to solve.

3. Uncover business issues and current initiatives. "Deeply investigate the true situation, secretly await their laxity," the general advised. Current business issues and initiatives are the best places to find your prospect's biggest problems. What are the biggest worries and frustrations? The way to find these answers is to have someone inside the prospect's company who can give them to you. If you identified a prospect where you have no contacts, you might want to reconsider that choice.

For your big sale, you need at least one friend or champion -- preferably more -- inside the prospect's organization. When a CEO first realizes the company has a problem, executives seek the kinds of solutions that will make that problem go away. They list those things that have to happen for the company to be successful. These become the company's business issues -- the "WHAT we have to do."

If you haven't already read it, take a peek at The Art of War. Sun's anecdotes and pithy sayings fill no more than 25 pages of text. Not everything he says is relevant to selling, but some encapsulate basic and universal truths.

Image courtesy of Flickr user juliejordanscott