What do you need to know before going into battle for a big deal? The HBO hit has a few lessons that might apply.

The popular series Game of Thrones chronicles the battles, intrigue, alliances, betrayals, and power struggles in a mythical land. I’ve been finding a lot of parallels with selling large contracts to big organizations. In the world of commerce, the shorthand term for this business game of thrones is “politics.”

Politics is a game of influence. Any large sale (and many medium-size deals) will involve people with competing interests. As in Game of Thrones, the politics question is simply how to win.

The hit HBO show and the book series that inspired it offer some lessons for highly charged selling environments:

1. Understand the players. You cannot successfully develop a strategy for a large sale if you do not know the key people and their interests.  Learn all of the people who will be affected by a change from the vendor or approach the company is using now. In big sales, influence over the final choice can come from unexpected places. It is better to know all of the players than just the perceived power players.

2. Acquire information. Information is coin of the realm for large sales. The person with the most and best information will make the best sales decisions–even if that decision is to exit an unwinnable sales process. My recommendation: Do not ask questions about politics or people, which tend to make a respondent defensive or deceptive. It is better to ask questions about process. Those questions–such as “How will this decision be made?” or “What process will you use to onboard the winner?”–will tell you a great deal about the politics and people effected.

3. Seek alliances. To get information, you need friends, trust and frequency. Inside of the company you are selling, you need to develop as many sources of information and support as you can. In the selection process, the power to say no often trumps the authority to say yes –so the more people you ally with, the better your chances.

4. Avoid battles. Repeated friction with people in the buying company–over information, access or time to meet with people–creates enemies. Do the best you can to accommodate, hold your tongue and maintain your professionalism, even if they do not. Remember, these same people who resist you now will resist you later if you do not handle yourself well.

5. Know your rivals. There are lots of moving pieces in a big sale. Among the potential obstacles: rivals inside the prospect company, competitors in the marketplace, and the uninvolved who want to control the budget. If you plan your strategy with only your supporters in mind, you risk being derailed later in the sales process. As you map out the players, make sure your strategy takes your rivals into account.

6. Victory is rarely certain. Only the paranoid survive. Too many deals are 99% done and then fall off. Often this happens because we trust the information of just one or two of the decision-makers in the process. But people who have been supporters along the way are not the only ones involved in the decision–and as you get closer to winning, your rivals and detractors will pull out all stops to win. The closer you get to a conclusion, the greater your risk of losing.

The bigger the company, or deal, the greater the amount of politics involved. As one of the Game of Thrones characters puts it: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Make sure you play well.


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