Marketing lessons from Sun Tzu

The Art of War” is an ancient Chinese military handbook written during the 5th century BC by Sun Tzu. Probably only few people have read the entire book, but there are plenty of great takeaways in it for business leaders, executives, and strategists.

And though a customer should never be your enemy, and a sales presentation should never be a battle (not even with yourself), Sun Tzu’s enemy may be regarded as a metaphor for a business opportunity to pursue, and the war as the process of conquering your audience’s heart, mind, and wallet.

sun-tzu

Below are a handful of my favorite Art of War quotes (taken from the 1910 English translation by Lionel Giles), and how yours truly interprets and applies them in his daily job as a corporate marketer, business developer, and B2B storyteller.

First, always make sure you know your customers, the environment in which they work or live, and the opportunities and challenges they face prior to addressing them:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” (from chapter 10: Terrain)

As Sun Tzu clarifies at the beginning of his treatise, “Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons,” and “Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.” But also, know your own strengths and weaknesses as they may set limits to what you can tell, do, or commit to.

Based upon this knowledge – of both your audience and yourself –  you can then adapt your sales strategy and customer value proposition properly:

“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)

Preparation is key. It’s all about you being ready to face the market and the customers. Build a message house, define your pitch, craft your presentation, and plan your meeting carefully.

“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” (from chapter 8: Variation in tactics)

Support your presentation with proper visuals and multimedia testimonials (a.k.a. gongs, drums, banners, and flags)

“On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.” (from chapter 7: Maneuvering)

But, always remember – as I have emphasized many times before in my blog posts – look and feel matter! Be direct and indirect. Be creative and consistent. Be subtle and clear.

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

“There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

“There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

Finally, always choose your battle and don’t waste your (or your customer’s) time if there’s no real opportunity for growing your market or creating new business.

“The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.” (from chapter 3: Attack by Stratagem)

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” (from chapter 7: The Attack by Fire)

I realize that making connections between ancient warfare and today’s business environment is not straightforward. Still I see Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a timeless and priceless masterpiece that may help marketers and sales people to develop successful strategies, make better decisions, run effective campaigns, deliver powerful presentations, and consequently generate more business.

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One mouth and two ears

In last week’s post I wrote about 3 ways to change the conversation with a  customer. While preparing my arguments, I stumbled onto a video we used a few years ago for a sales training. A funny sketch about a sales rep who doesn’t listen to his client and keeps on pushing the wrong message.

Have a look at it yourself:

Watching the movie reminded me of a quote by the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus:

“We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

And that’s what this sales guy forgot to do. To listen to his customer. To listen with his ears, his eyes and his mind wide open. To be receptive to the signals his interlocutor was sending out – the verbal ones, but also the non-verbal ones.

donkey_ears

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading:

Change the conversation

Yesterday, a sales colleague of mine was complaining about price (and consequently margin) pressure from competition on a product maintenance deal. Although our company is an industry leader with a best in class products and services portfolio, some industry players tend to systematically undermine business by lowering their prices to an unrealistic level, resulting in customers expecting us to “drop our pants” as well.

But from the same chat I also learned that this sales team was almost exclusively talking to our customers’ purchasing and procurement departments. No wonder that most of their meetings were only dealing with terms & conditions, volume and pricing issues. So I gave my co-worker one single piece of advice: CHANGE THE CONVERSATION!

I told him the story of Harvey’s, a small commodity hardware store that manages to obtain a revenue per square meter almost four times higher than its large-scale competitors. An inspiring example that I already made reference to in a earlier blog post about “the perceived value of value”.

Nuts-Bolts

And though high-tech hardware, software and services are certainly a different sell than nuts and bolts, these are the 3 tips I gave him to change the conversation with his customers:

  • Change the audience: different parts of an organization may have different business objectives. As such it’s obvious that your customer’s purchasing and procurement departments will try to negotiate the lowest price for the products or services you are offering them. So, if you want to change the context from cost to value, then you’d better start talking with some other stakeholders, who might better appreciate your business proposal (in the case of the maintenance proposition: the operations and customer service people.)
  • Change the vocabulary: in everyday language, “cost”, “price”, “worth” and “value” are often interchangeable, but emotionally (as well as economically) they have completely different connotations. So carefully consider the words you use when presenting to and discussing with customers and business partners.
    Mind that not only words like cost and price may have a specific undertone, but also many business and technology terms have a specialized (and predetermined) meaning. Therefore, we decided to start a dialogue with our customers about providing an “Extended Life” for their infrastructure, and not simply discuss the delivery of “maintenance” services – emphasizing the fact that we are helping them to optimize their assets and save money, rather than being a burden on their budget.
  • Change the perimeter: price-wars are seldom good battles to fight, and you can better engage into a value than into a cost discussion. For the opportunity mentioned above, this meant turning a debate about the cost of outsourcing maintenance activities into an enumeration of the benefits of getting  the right services, people and practices on board.
    And, very often, one business opportunity may also hide another one. As such, product life-cycle (including maintenance) discussions are often linked to a strategic exercise about infrastructure evolution or business transformation. So don’t limit the conversation topic to this one single product or service you absolutely want to sell, and start addressing the big picture – you never know what pleasant surprises may come out…

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading:

A tale of two talks

This is a true story that happened a couple of years ago when two executives of competing companies delivered a plenary keynote address during the opening session of a large industry conference.

The first presenter of the day was deliberately a charismatic speaker. He brought a broad and interesting slideshow about his company’s vision on emerging market trends, the challenges and opportunities these pose to customers, and gave examples of how his people were providing the right solutions to tackle the problems.

Forty-five minutes later, the second speaker talked about largely the same industry topic, but addressed it from a technical regulation perspective – with lots of acronyms, jargon and details. During his speech, he made at least five references to the preceding presentation, acknowledging the trends, challenges and opportunities earlier listed by his competitor. But he forgot to mention his own company, and neglected to talk about the products and solutions they were building and selling.

Both keynotes were interesting, complementary and well presented, but IMHO speaker #2 made a few notable mistakes:

  • By taking a dry regulatory stance, he missed the opportunity to inspire the audience and position his company as a thought leader and market leader in the domain;

  • By making so many references to and confirming what was said by the previous speaker, he provided free publicity for his competitor;

  • By not explicitly mentioning his own employer and their solutions, he missed a great opportunity to promote them to a large audience or potential buyers.

Although I am not a fan of hard sales talk (particularly not at public events), the first keynote speaker certainly did a better job in selling his story, his employer and his products.

plenary

More keynote presenter advice may be found in this blog post by Mike Brown.