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Sales warfare strategy: In every major war “the victors always chose to battle indirectly”

The sales warriors of today may be missing a trick. According to history, an indirect approach is the ultimate "grand strategy".
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The origins of personal selling dates back to Ancient Greece, with documents describing selling as “an exchange activity”. Some of the written work from philosopher Plato have also included the term ‘salesman’. Arguably, however, the first people to gain money from the art of selling lived in the UK  in the middle of the 18th century. 

Author Thomas Ingram suggests that “as the Industrial Revolution began to bloom mid-18th century, the economic justification for salespeople gained momentum. Local economies were no longer self-sufficient, and as intercity and international trade began to flourish, economies of scale in production spurred the growth of mass markets in geographically dispersed areas. The continual need to reach new customers in these markets called for an increasing number of salespeople.” 

Sales historians first noted a change in personal selling in the early 20th century. Charles Hoyt, who wrote one of the first textbooks on sales management, stated: “The old kind of salesman is the ‘big me’ species. He works for himself and, so far as possible, according to his own ideas. There is another type of salesman. He is the new kind, At present he is in the minority, but he works for the fastest growing and most successful houses of the day. He works for the house, and the house works for him. He welcomes and uses every bit of help the house sends to him.”

But the modern sales strategy only emerged in World War II.

Ingram explains that “during the Great Depression, business firms, starved for volume, often employed aggressive salespeople to produce badly needed revenue. Then, with renewed prosperity in the post-World War II era, salespeople emerged as important employees for an increasing number of firms as they began to realise the benefits of research-based integrated market programs”.

That’s when selling became more professional.

Since then businesses have employed various sales strategies, from being assertive and persuasive, to asking positive questions. But those employed in the past increasingly became barriers to success.

So what is the right sales strategy today? 

Steve W. Martin, author of ‘Win More Business with an Indirect Strategy‘, suggests that looking back at what transpired in World War II is key.

He references a classic book called ‘Strategy‘, wherein military historian Lidell Hart “detailed the ‘indirect’ approach to war.”

“In painstaking detail he described the superiority of the indirect strategy over the direct strategy, using examples throughout the history of warfare,” Martin said. “He theorised that the outcome of every major war from Roman times through World War II could be attributed to the grand strategy the parties selected. Instead of a brute force direct attack to overwhelm the enemy, the victors always chose to battle indirectly. When forced to fight, the indirect strategy involves using surprise, intelligence, logic, and human nature to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses.”

Martin compiled five principles that could make the indirect strategy work for your business:

1. Psychological operations

“The first and foremost principle is that the indirect strategy is a psychological operation (‘psy-op’ in military jargon) based upon understanding, predicting, and influencing human nature. In sales, winning requires earning the trust, respect, and friendship of another human being. The victor builds the strongest customer relationship while inflicting mental and emotional trauma on his enemies. The secondary psychological goal is to elevate the enemy’s combat fatigue and skepticism about winning because a halfhearted warrior is more than halfway to losing.”

2. Plan a strategy

In his mind, all salespeople are generals who should create a strategy to win their wars long before the first battle begins. 

“The successful military leader pre-plans how and where he will attack in accordance with the resources at his disposal,” he said. “The victorious commander achieves his objective through calculated manoeuvres to gain the advantage and counter tactics to neutralise his enemy’s advantages.”

3. Be the first on the battlefield

“As a rule, it is always best to be the first salesperson in an account. The chance to understand a customer’s environment first, establish relationships, and set the criteria for the selection process are obvious advantages. But if you work for an underdog company that competes against industry favourites, being the first on the battlefield is the difference between success and failure.”

4. Spy on the competition

“Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote about the indirect strategy.

Tzu noted that “Knowledge of the enemy’s position can only be obtained from other men. Hence, the use of spies.” 

Martin continued: “These words are still true today. In order to win any complex sale you need proprietary information that only a spy can provide. These spies are members of the selection team, other company employees, or business partners. They provide valuable information about the internal machinations of the selection process and inform you about the thoughts of the various selection team members. Without a spy, you never know how well you are positioned in an account or what the enemy’s next move will be.”

5. understand how the objective is organised

“All battlefield commanders need location-based information so they can map the way to reach their objective. Similarly, salespeople need a complete understanding of how the evaluators are organised within their company because political power during the decision-making process goes far beyond the lines and titles on an organisation chart.
It’s critical to map out the political interrelationships between evaluators and their respective departments of the organisation.” 

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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