Sun Tzu’s” Art of War”, dating back to the 5th century BC, is no doubt the most read book about military strategy and tactics. It is still read and examined today.
You’d think that what’s written in the book, which was translated into English only in 1910, will not apply to modern warfare. The questions are not if the spear is mightier that the arrow in our world. But if you strip away the ancient words and the instruments that disappeared from the world, you’ll find an interesting study of human nature.
The book is about outmaneuvering competition and strategizing for success, and its wisdom is useful to B2B salespeople today as it was to warlords in ancient times.
Since sales are the bloodline of all B2B businesses, when it ceases or is reduced drastically the business is in peril. It is a matter of life and death for the business.
The Art of War has 13 chapters and every chapter can be applied to B2B marketing and sales strategies. Just replace enemy with prospect and army for your sales force. How many parallels can you find?
Chapter 1: Detail Assessment and Planning
“If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
It’s all starts with planning Sun Tzu says. Knowing and understanding the (enemy) potential buyer is a crucial aspect of the sale process.
The internet has become too big these days to allow us to find relevant, up to date information quickly. The salesperson is the one who has to have all the details on the tip of his/her tongue. Sales intelligence is what’s needed today to know the prospect better. What was once the domain of big corporations – business intelligence – is now, with new developments, open to many.
But not only that. The salesperson has to know the competitors’ products as well. He has to know what others offer and why his product is the best for this client.
On the other hand – know yourself. What you are capable of, what you sell and how it works. You have to be able the weather tough questions and come up with solutions. You have to be able to explain the purchasing process clearly and map it out for the customer. Planning and training your forces are the first steps any general should take.
“To rely on rustics and not prepare is the greatest of crimes; to be prepared beforehand for any contingency is the greatest of virtues.”
Chapter 2: Waging War
“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
This chapter talks about understanding the economy of warfare and how success requires winning decisive engagements quickly. Winning by strategy and not by force. Selling the value of your product and explaining how it will improve the buyer’s life better than anybody else’s product.
Often, B2B sale people try to conquer battles through brute force, throwing out discounts to get a quick close. This might also lead to a price war with inferior competitors and devalue the product.
Sell value, and there might not be a discussion about price. You will win the war without fighting.
Chapter 3. Strategic Attack
“He who knows which battle he should engage in and which he should avoid, will win.”
Or as parents all over the world call it “choose your battles”. You can allow yourself not to engage or even lose some. There are battles you should stay away from because they’ll suck up much time and effort and at the end set a precedent. Beware of unintentional consequences for your actions. Know the difference between being persistent and being pushy.
This chapter talks about the importance of leadership and about the strength that comes from unity, not numbers.
“You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if only you attack in places which are undefended”
Chapter 4: Disposition of the Army
“The highest form of generalship is to foil the enemy’s plans.”
Learn how your competition does business. What are they selling and how they are selling it? Know also what they say about you because that can turn into a weapon. If they say you are too expensive, you can say “Others say we are too expensive. Here’s why it’s not the case.” You can also arm the clients that are going to meet with a competitor with questions about aspects of their product you have found lacking.
Chapter 5: Forces
“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”
The use of creativity and timing in building on a momentum. The structure of the team (the army) and the communication between them. It talks about winning battles regardless of the size of the team.
Chapter 6: Weaknesses and Strength
“The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”
Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming enemy will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second and has to fight immediately will be exhausted.
Chapter 7: Military Maneuvers
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
This chapter explains the dangers of direct conflict and how to win those forced confrontations. Just like marketing and sales that work together, so do the strategy and the tactics.
In war, he says, the general receives his commands from his leader. You have to understand what motivates the people that are working for you in order to know how to approach them and motivate them. Is it for money or a sense of accomplishment?
Chapter 8: Variations and Adaptability
“If officers are unaccustomed to rigorous [training] they will be worried and hesitant in battle; if generals are not thoroughly trained they will be inwardly quail when they face the enemy.”
In his teaching, Sun Tzu reiterates the importance of preparations and the need for flexibility. He talks about how to respond to shifting circumstances and names the five dangerous faults which may affect generals (leaders): Recklessness, cowardice, a hasty temper, sensitivity to shaming, over-solicitude for his men which expose him to worry and trouble.
Chapter 9: Movement and Development of Troops
“The winner, after careful preparation, is confident he will win the war before he wages battle. The losers, without preparation, engage the enemy first, hoping they will win the fight.”
Confidence that comes from extensive preparation of the marketplace and the place the product has in it. Sales people have to know the right person, have the right message and approach at the right time.
Going after a prospect without knowing what the outcome might be, is not the right way.
Chapter 10: Terrain
“The natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally”
This chapter looks at the general areas of resistance. Each of the 6 field positions he mentions have their advantages and disadvantages.
In order to succeed you have to ensure that:
- People are matched to the jobs they perform
- Everyone is trained and knows his role
- Make sure there’s a demand for the team talent
- Make sure all the plans are in place
- Be prepared for the worst.
Chapter 11: The Nine Battlegrounds
“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”
This chapter explains the 9 stages of a military campaign and the focus the leader will need in order to navigate them.
Unified effort improves the likelihood of success. Finding the right “ground” will give you the best advantage.
Chapter 12: Attacking with fire
“In order to carry out an attack, we must have means available. The material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness.”
The use of the environment as a weapon. It explains the 5 targets for attack and 5 types of environmental attacks and the appropriate response to any of them. The correct resources must be at the hands of the ‘soldiers’ and there should be a backup plan in case things go wrong.
Chapter 13: Intelligence and Espionage
The importance of developing good information sources. Sun Tzu describes 5 types of intelligence and how to best manage them. Not all of them are applicable in the B2B sales and marketing world today (like business espionage) but the principle of having good intelligence about your prospects and your opponents still stands. Being updated on the latest development in your field and knowing what customers are happy or unhappy with is very important. Today, what they say about you or your product on social media is very important.
“To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape”
Enjoy your victory, not your opponent’s demise. Know how to win and better yet, know how to lose. If nothing else, it’s for good karma. Your paths may cross again, sometime, somewhere, maybe in different positions and career path. Make sure you can look this person in the eye and he can look at yours. Winning a contract is like winning a battle, not the whole war.