Monday, August 26, 2013

VC Mark Suster recalls a painful sales loss, and what he learned from it

This is the second story from Mark Suster's 2010 post "Embrace Learning: It Will Make You Stronger." Suster recalls how one of his startup companies, a collaboration software maker, lost a deal it thought was all wrapped up. I a similar experience almost 20 years ago and many of the lessons are exactly the same.

In the 2003/04 timeframe I was living in the UK and running my first company. I had been competing to win a contract at Thames Water, the largest water company in the UK. They were looking for a collaboration tool to manage all of their large water development projects. The initial contract was worth about $500,000 and the whole value of the contract would have been worth a couple of million over the years. I was working hand-in-hand with my close friend and associate Stuart Lander who was running our UK office and with one of our local sales reps.

We had initially been told that we had no chance because they had previously purchased Documentum and it would mean changing the system entirely. They had a team trained up in Documentum and we certainly had enemies from the inside. But we worked the account tirelessly for months. We helped the write out their requirements for a system. We met everybody in the organization. We had every reference client we worked with call their senior team members (we had already won a major project at Scottish Water, Anglian Water and another at a large water company in Paris, France).

There were about 8 initial contenders for the work and in the end it came down to just 3 of us. As the founder & CEO I personally went and met with as many people at Thames Water as I could. We felt this was a marquee account and one that would help us take our collaboration tool global as Thames owned assets all over the world. Winning the contract meant that we would hit our quarterly revenue figure and be in good position for our annual sales target.

And then the news came. A woman named Trish Hannon called me with the good news that we had won the project. I was to tell noone until the contract was signed. I immediately put a full team on contract management and another on drawing up an implementation plan.

DefeatI later learned one of my biggest lesson in sales. You are most vulnerable right after you have won a deal. It is when you’re competitors have nothing to lose. It’s when the people who are part of the decision making process who don’t support the decision seek ways to undermine you. That is when you potentially become complacent.

Two weeks after winning the deal and well into implementation planning we released a new version of our software. We had made the decision that we would no longer be supporting IE v 5.5 (we would support 6.0 and 7.0, which was in beta). Even Microsoft publicly said that there were security flaws with 5.5 and that people should upgrade. But Thames Water was still on version 5.5. We assumed they would take our advice and upgrade. We had discussed this with Trish.

An internal resource inside Thames Water used our upgrade and lack of 5.5 support as a way to re-open the decision. How could a company like ours be so callous as not to support their software (even one more than 4 years out of date)? Did we really have good change management procedures if we were willing to launch products without backward compatibility. And so on. They decided to re-open the competition for 3-4 more weeks. I knew THEN that we had lost. We fought hard to stay in the game.

They hired a consultant to help them with the review. They stopped allowing us to contact them directly. The momentum had shifted. Something happened and it was clear to me that this IE issues was just a smoke screen. Somebody had gotten to somebody senior in the Thames organization. It just so happened that the consultant they hired to chose a software vendor worked for a company that had owned one of our competitors. It was a tiny little collaboration company that only had a presence in the UK (and therefore couldn’t meet their international needs). And surprise, surprise the decision came back 3 weeks later than none of the preferred 3 vendors had won but rather this tiny little competitor owned by the consulting company charged with doing the review.

Outrage. Scandal. Surely inside Thames they would see it for what it was. Given that it was a public tender the chairman of our board had encouraged us to think about launching a complaint with the UK government agency in charge of such reviews. We talked with lawyers. We felt totally deflated. We decided it wasn’t worth the fight. We licked our wounds and moved on.

I am still not over that loss. I sometimes call Stuart and we recount what happened. But that loss was really important in my career. It taught me a lot of lessons. We spent enough time dissecting it to really learn.

Here are my take aways from the loss:

1. In a sales campaign you always need to call as high as you can. If you don’t, your competitors will. If you don’t know them, somebody else does. They may not overturn decision, but they sometimes do.

2. No deal is ever done until the ink is dry and the money is in your bank account. Never take your win for granted.

3. You are most vulnerable right after it has been announced that you won (I will write a separate post on this). This is the most important lesson I learned from this experience. All other lessons were sort of obvious. This one was eye-opening.

4. We in the tech world extol the virtues of lots of product releases and rapid innovation. I hear Silicon Valley firms bragging all the time about how often they release software. In the consumer world, maybe. In the corporate world this strategy is flawed. Many large clients prefer stable technology and no changes – even sometimes when there are known security flaws. When I was at Salesforce we launched a new version of our UI. We gave users the choice to upgrade or keep with the classic UI. Years later 10% of users were still on classic. Go figure.

5. In every deal where you have serious competitors there is always somebody on the inside against you. You need to find out who that is and neutralize them.

6. No matter how much your customer tells you that they love you and that they favor you it is possible they are telling other people the same thing or some variation of this. (you would have thought I would have learned this lesson in high school ;-)

7. No matter how much large clients tell you they want transparency in pricing, they always seem to fall for the same old trick. Competitors price low to get in the door and then nail them with scope control, change orders, product extension costs and other hidden items. You can try to convince them of your “pay no more once you’ve signed up” model but they fall for the other guy’s pitch every time. Low numbers are sexy. I stopped trying to win this argument and chalk it up as some sort of human condition that I can’t change (like thinking that $14.99 = $14).

8. Time is the enemy of all deals. If you have a chance to close something – don’t let it drift.

9. Losing sucks. But at least it has made me a better competitor.

No comments:

Post a Comment