To Close a Deal, Find a Champion
In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman who guides souls across the river Styx to the underworld. Those who do not employ his services are forced to wander the shores-lost for a hundred years.
Dealmakers who try to “go it alone” can expect to suffer a similar fate. Closing a major deal with a Fortune 2000 company is seldom straightforward. Large organizations are so complicated and diffuse that frequently even the people working there are unclear about what is required to make something of consequence happen. Without a guide, time and effort are squandered and the deal goes nowhere.
In a previous article, I wrote about the triangle of players involved in getting a major project green-lighted: Champions, Blockers, and Decision Makers. Here, I will show how to identify and win over a suitable champion-the crucial sponsor who can help you navigate the labyrinth of opinion, prestige, and politics between you and the approval of your project.
Although champions are not the ultimate decision makers, and they rarely have substantial power within their organization, they have four things that make them irreplaceable in developing and closing the deal: credibility, connections, company intelligence, and motivation.
These were all true of Charlie, a champion I met in 2004 just as the tech world was beginning to show signs of life after the dot com implosion. At the time, Charlie was an internet security specialist at IBM, and I was running business development at a company called Zone Labs.
Zone Labs was an upstart internet security software developer aspiring to disrupt established giants such as Symantec, McAfee, Check Point Software, and Cisco. It had a free consumer product that was downloaded by millions of users as well as a modestly successful premium product that sold online for $49. These assets resulted in roughly $2 million in annual revenue-not bad for a young enterprise. Yet, the real money in the space was being made selling to large IT organizations with significant security concerns. Zone Labs needed a name-brand customer.
Charlie came into our line of sight following a routine product inquiry from IBM. After a few meetings, it was clear that he was a champion who could bring Zone Labs and IBM together. He had credibility-he was a well-respected staffer and a 25-year veteran at IBM. He had connections-he had a deep understanding of how IBM functioned and he knew scores of people in the organization. He also had company intelligence. We learned through Charlie that there was a major undertaking underway at IBM to determine which security-related products they would invest in for the following year. The existing short list was comprised exclusively of large, well-established companies and their marquee products.
Credibility, connections, and company intelligence are the table stakes-they are the attributes that all suitable champions possess. So, how does a dealmaker align with someone in command of these assets and capture their interest? That’s where the fourth element comes in: motivation.
Zone needed a major name to establish its credibility in the marketplace and set it up as a viable alternative to the usual suspects. But what did Charlie need? Figuring out a champion’s motivation can be difficult, but the exercise is compulsory. Why? Because understanding human nature is a primary part of doing the deal. In many cases, it is more closely linked to getting the green light than even financing and business fundamentals.
The champions that I have known, Charlie and numerous others, have been motivated by various (but often overlapping) objectives that can be boiled down to five key words:
Innovation. Some champions are visionary types with deep domain focus. They want to explore, experiment, and break new ground. I call these champions “the dreamers” because they are motivated by progress and exploration. Advantage. Other champions hope to use the deal to improve their company’s competitive position within an industry. These champions are “the lions,” because they are motivated by a desire to advance their company’s competitive position and aggressively dominate an emerging trend or market. Advancement. These champions strive to improve their own career prospects. As “the climbers,” they are motivated by opportunities to solidify their position within an organization or gain a lead over a rival individual or business unit. Respect. Many champions are seasoned professionals who feel underutilized by their organization. I call these individuals “the loyalists” because they are the heart of every company-valued for their know-how but universally under-celebrated. These champions are motivated by status: they want someone to pay attention to them and value their experience and input. Order. Many, many other champions simply want the numbers to work. Deeply rigorous, “the Vulcans” are motivated by logic, evidence, and proof of concept.
Like most champions, Charlie had a mix of motivations. During his lengthy career at IBM he had been consistently passed over for the big jobs (making him a loyalist). Although he knew his potential for advancement was limited, he had a deep desire to gain prestige. Charlie also cared deeply about his work and was looking to bring in new business that would offer IBM something above and beyond what the bigger security players had in-hand. He wanted to help create a competitive advantage (like a lion).
Understanding his underlying motivations, and knowing that he could help us navigate the mammoth IBM organization, we embraced Charlie as our champion. He got us on the short list (ostensibly to use us as a lever against the more established players). He identified the decision-makers and told us who the deal-blockers would be and why. And he was our inside man-delivering the details about what our competitors were doing. With his help we put together a solid story about why this little company, Zone Labs, was the future and could be trusted with a mission-critical component of a 300,000-person organization.
In this particular case, the decision-makers were a small group of IT professionals headed by Chris Matthews, the then-CIO of IBM. Matthews personally hosted regular visits from the CEOs of Cisco, Symantec, and others who lobbied for IBM’s business. We knew that, if Zone Labs prevailed, its product would need to sit on the computer of every employee next to the products of these competitors and would require additional support effort above and beyond what they were already managing.
In the end, Zone Labs beat out all the usual suspects and got a $1 million+ purchase order, plus a follow-on order for another $1 million for the next-generation of the product which, at the time, hadn’t yet been released. The company also made a strong connection with the service side of IBM, which became a major distributor of its product. Charlie earned lasting prestige within IBM and was credited with finding an unlikely yet extremely high-potential data security solution.
Champions are only one, crucial side of the deal triangle -you also have to align the deal’s blockers and the decision makers. All three must be managed with an understanding that people make decisions based on personal and professional motivations that are often hidden to the rest of the world. But once you get a champion in your corner, you’ve made a major breakthrough. You’re ready to enter the ring.
Harvard Business Review
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