A prior article set the scene. This one makes you privy to an explanation that most people in my company haven’t heard.
First, a quick review of the situation.
I’d been working on a million-dollar deal for about five months. Jim, a senior executive in our company (and my boss’s boss), slid into the driver’s seat on my deal when it came time to meet with the customer’s key decision maker.
When I returned from a weeklong vacation, Jim told me the deal was ready to close. He said he was confident we were in good position to drive across the finishing line in a week or two.
Jim gave me a short briefing on the meeting he’d had with the senior decision maker while I was gone. He told me exactly what he thought we needed to revise our proposal.
I wrote up Jim’s suggested changes and sent the revised proposal to George, my main contact in the account.
It wasn’t going to be quite as easy as Jim had made it appear. Jim was still holding the keys to the car, and he wasn’t quite ready to let go of them.
Months later, the deal still hasn’t closed.
Some people in my company (Jim among them) wonder why I can’t bring in an easy sale after he’d put me in such a great position.
The Pace Slows
A few days passed after I’d sent George the proposal. He didn’t respond to my calls or e-mail messages for days.
When I finally reached George, he told me that Sven, the senior executive and primary decision maker in George’s company, had been so busy that George couldn’t get on Sven’s calendar to discuss our proposal.
George said Sven was preparing for a quarterly earnings call with analysts that week. He was also trying to adjust the company’s cost structure after its revenue took a sharp turn downward when the economy slowed dramatically a few months earlier.
I sensed that our deal might be at risk. I also knew this could also be a negotiation tactic to raise our anxiety so we’d make bigger concessions.
Reading Tea Leaves
I listened to Sven on the earnings call. He and the company’s chief financial officer confirmed the continuing importance of solving the problems they’d engaged us to help them with.
Their comments seemed to suggest a commitment moving forward with the project we had on the table.
But in the two weeks that followed, George said he couldn’t get any further direction out of Sven. George’s explanation was starting to feel like a dodge.
Finally George told me he was planning to take a week-long trip with Sven. George said he was sure he’d have plenty of time to talk with Sven then.
Jim Jumps Back Into the Driver’s Seat
Meanwhile, Jim was asking my sales manager for daily updates on the status of the deal. I didn’t have much news to report because George wasn’t communicating with me. We were going to wait until George and Sven returned from their trip.
Jim knew — rightly — that the longer the deal “stays on the street,” the more it would be at risk of not going our way. He wanted to bag it right away.
Jim drafted his own e-mail message to Sven and George. His message opened by telling them what a great deal he thought they were getting. He also said how enthusiastic he was about forming a partnership between our two companies.
Jim’s wording also implied he was impatient that we weren’t moving forward faster. For good measure, Jim threw in a few more goodies to sweeten the deal. And he hinted that our new “special offer” couldn’t last forever.
My Judgment Overruled
When Jim ran his message past me for review, I told him I thought it would be a mistake to send it.
First, I said, it was inconsistent with my agreement with George. I thought it showed too much eagerness on our part, and they might read it as a display of our neediness. It could make it harder to negotiate a deal.
Second, Jim’s deal sweetener was groundless. We were bidding against ourselves, before we’d even heard any specific objections from George or Sven. We had no idea why the deal was stuck, so we were in no position to propose new terms to try to get it unstuck.
Third, the language of Jim’s message was all about us. It opened with the word “I,” it closed on the word “us,” and it talked entirely about our company throughout.
I told Jim I thought we needed to focus on what they need and what they want rather than on ourselves and our deal. I suggested revisions.
Jim swept them aside and sent his message anyway. It went directly to Sven, without copying George.
I was pissed. Jim had crossed a line.
I felt he was being egotistical, insensitive, stubborn and unreasonable.
I was also concerned that he appeared to lack confidence in my sales judgment and ability. He wanted to close what he now saw as his deal. And he apparently wanted to be able to claim bragging rights.
How could anyone hold me accountable for keeping this car on the road if Jim was going to grab the steering wheel at crucial moments?
How could we build an effective sales organization if he and his sales managers feel they have to take over a sale every time it appears to be going sideways?
As angry as I was, I knew it wasn’t worth losing my job over it. When I leave this company, I want it to be on my terms.
I Get the Insight I Need
A few days passed. Sven didn’t respond to Jim’s latest e-mail message and special deal.
My big problem now was my lack of first-hand information. I called George for a heart-to-heart. By rare chance, I caught him in his office.
George said their meeting with Jim had not gone well. He and Sven both thought Jim was a poor listener. He likes to hear himself talk, George said. Jim came across like a used-car salesman.
George said Jim wasn’t the kind of senior executive they had expected to meet from our company. He reminded them of sales guys they didn’t like from other vendor companies.
Finally, George said, he and Sven were unimpressed with the revisions to our proposal. They said they had told Jim very clearly that our price was too high, and it still was.
They also didn’t like they way we had structured their payments. They wanted to capitalize the cost and depreciate it over several years. We proposed payments that would require them to expense the cost over multiple years.
A Clearer Path Emerges
George made me promise not to tell Jim or anyone in my company about their disappointment with Jim. If they were going to do business with us, they didn’t want to have a poor relationship with a key executive in our company.
Armed with this fresh information, I now had a much better idea of where we stood and what I had to do. Jim had irritated them, and we needed to repair the damage. I needed to get Jim out of the deal and take back control.
They Put Us Off Again
I asked George if he and Sven would be open to letting me take another shot at the proposal before their trip. I suggested that we could leave Jim out of it this time.
George said there would be no point in revising the proposal until we know specifically what it would take to get Sven back on board. We agreed to wait until after George and Sven returned.
A Cooler Head Prevails
My first impulse was to vent to my boss about how badly Jim had screwed things up. Fortunately, I waited until I had calmed down.
Jim and my boss have been personal friends for decades. Instead of making confrontational or accusatory statements that would force my boss to go against either Jim or me, I asked him for his advice.
I told my sales manager I was concerned about my ability to run the deal when we had multiple lines of communication with the customer. I couldn’t read the nuances properly unless I was involved in every communication.
Without going into specific detail, I shared some of what George had told me about the disappointment they felt after their meeting with Jim.
I appealed to my boss’s sense of principle. How is it possible to run an effective negotiation, I asked, with free agents (i.e., Jim) doing their own thing with no accountability?
How can we build an effective sales organization when managers seize control of deals?
I told my sales manager I would respect his decision if he wanted to put someone other than me in charge. I invited him to be honest if he or Jim lacked confidence in my abilities.
My boss supported me. Together we worked out a diplomatic way to sidetrack Jim.
Both Jim and my boss were going to be out of the country at the same time as Sven and George. I was to take advantage of the timing to update my account strategy during the interim.
A Bloodless Coup
I sent everyone on our account team an e-mail message with a revised account plan. I said that all future communications with the account would flow through me, effective immediately.
Our relationship with the account had moved into a delicate phase, I said. We appear to be in a negotiation where every nuance counts and every shred of information could be valuable.
I was back in the driver’s seat, with full support from my boss.
Because I could now claim to have the most recent insight and most complete information, Jim would be less likely to work his own plan or challenge my judgment.
We appeared to have engineered be a peaceful transfer of power within our sales team, but I suspected that my struggle to bring in the deal wasn’t over yet.
Where We Stand Now
Boy, was I right.
Are you curious to know where this is going?
So am I.
We still have no deal. We have a revised proposal on the table. And we’re trying to figure out whether we’re in or out.
Look for updates in future articles.
How might you have handled this differently, and why?
– Scott Silverback