If 6 was 9: The Anatomy of a Lost Deal

6 minute read

My favorite track from the Jimi Hendrix Axis Bold as Love album is Jimi’s individualistic anthem “If 6 was 9”. With Hendrix epitomizing the existentialist voice of the 1960s, the lyrics refer to constant change, and things not being what they appear. I was reminded of this song recently when asked to advise a company on what they could learn from a big deal they had just lost.

This is a true story and there are lessons here that we can all learn from. The target account was a Fortune 500 technology company.  The opportunity was big enough for the sales person Mark to make his annual quota from just this one deal. On the surface everything looked good. The opportunity was marked as 9/10 and committed to the sales forecast.

Mark felt that his solution was a great fit for the customer.  His product would reduce the customer’s costs in delivering HR services by reducing the required headcount, and he had met with two key contacts at the customer. Dan worked in the IT department, and outlined for Mark the performance factors that were being evaluated. Charles in HR was very open to discussing Mark’s solution with him, and said that he considered Mark’s product to be unique, with a number of distinctive features. Charles, as the business buyer, was the key decision maker.

As Mark discussed the opportunity with his manager Suzanne, he identified Dan and Charles as supporters, and felt he could rely on both of them to coach him through the deal. Mark felt pretty good.  He knew the customer had a compelling event, as the contract with their existing supplier was coming up for renewal.  The project was approved and the budget was allocated and authorized.

As he compared his solution with his competitor’s offering, Mark felt he could differentiate effectively and, through his interaction with Charles, was confident he had demonstrated the unique business value his solution could provide.  There was no doubt he could offer a better solution, and with the support he had from Dan in IT, and Charles, the business sponsor, all appeared to be in order. Mark put the deal in his forecast, and chuckled as he teased his wife about whether he would bring her to Sales President’s Club.

When we got the call from Suzanne, she was pretty upset. They’d just lost the deal, and Suzanne, having included it her forecast as part of her presentation to the Board, was angry: Angry at herself for believing Mark again – this wasn’t the first time; angry at the customer for making ‘such a stupid decision’, and really angry at Mark for landing her in hot water again.

So, here’s what we learned about the deal.

Mark was right about Dan. He was a supporter, and wanted Mark to win the deal. The advantages of the technology that Mark offered meant that his support overhead would be dramatically reduced, and the advanced automation would reduce the headcount needed in HR, he felt it would be good for his company.

However, one of the benefits that Dan valued caused a problem for Charles, the business buyer. He did not believe that technology could provide a solution that was as good as the service he and his team provided. In fact, while engaging with Mark, he was working closely with Mark’s competitor – a consulting services provider – to guide them to compete.

Charles did not overtly mislead Mark.  He answered questions when asked. This was a classic case of ‘happy ears’ – Mark hearing what he wanted to hear and never looking for vulnerabilities, not seeking the independent verifiable evidence.  Charles was a 6, but Mark treated him as if he was 9.

There were some fundamental issues to address because, as Suzanne wasn’t slow in telling Mark, this wasn’t the first time.  It was time to revisit the practice of constant qualification.

What we determined is that this deal was never a deal that Mark could win, based on the approach he was taking. Dan, as the business buyer, was the most influential player in the deal. He, in fact, was the decision maker, but the ‘unique value’ that Mark was proposing did not align with Charles’ business motivations.

As each sales campaign progresses, you’re either making progress, or you’re sliding backwards – things never stay the same.  The customer’s buying process rolls ahead relentlessly and the majority of buying happens when you are not with the customer. Constant qualification is necessary.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 4.39.36 p.m.

In this case, there clearly was an opportunity, but Mark did not do a thorough job of assessing whether he could compete.

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Had Mark leveraged the simple criteria pictured in the screenshot above (from Altify Opportunity Manager), he would have uncovered the reality that he did not in fact understand what Charles cared most about, his decision criteria, and therefore his product did not have unique capabilities that mapped to the customer’s perceived needs. Had he figured this out, he would then have had the opportunity to look at how he might work with Charles to address his concerns about the quality of service he could expect from using the software.

In Mark’s situation, he was acting on the basis that Charles was on his side without understanding his personal motivation, or without ever testing his support by looking for objective evidence.

Sales is tough – and trust is important.  The problem in this situation was that Suzanne trusted Mark, and Mark trusted Charles, but neither employed objective criteria to test the trust. This deal was at best a 6, but Mark and Suzanne treated it as a 9 – and that’s fatal.

Things might have been different in Jimi Hendrix’s world. “Now if uh, six uh, huh, turned out to be nine, Oh I don’t mind, I don’t mind uh ( well all right… ).”  But unfortunately, it never turns out that way. 9 may look like 6, but it can turn you upside down.

To guide your own qualification journey, download our eBook Win the Deals that Matter: The Ultimate Guide to Sales Qualification


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