By Tim Searcy

I have referenced before that the CIO for Nortel made a keen observation that “companies no longer buy from companies, they buy from supply chains.”  Supply chain management is a buzz word concept that has actually had some staying power.  More of our clients are finding themselves in presentations in which they have brought in “partners” to assist in selling to a whale. Multiple- team selling can be a way in which your company can combat the “whale’s” natural fear that your organization is too small.  As in all things, the devil is in the details.

There are some good reasons to sell with partners.  There may be a set of capabilities that required by the buyer that you are not able to deliver.  Additionally, sometimes a key relationship may exist between a potential partner of yours and the polar bear (economic buyer) inside the whale.  It could be that the partner you are working with brings the necessary local office and physical proximity that the whale demands.  Finally, whales will occasionally tell you that a specific partner would make your offering more appealing to the firm.  Regardless of the reason, if you have decided that you will take on partners to sell the whale-sized deal, you need to keep some things in mind:

1. Who owns the chain? A supply chain or a multiple partner solutions needs to have someone in charge.  If it is you, the strength of the chain link and your ability to manage the chain are paramount.  You do not want to be in a position that a partner can somehow go around the relationship that you have and secure the business without you.  Contracts must be in place to clearly specify that for this particular pitch, your partners cannot compete separately or with a competitive solution.  If you are the subordinate in the relationship, it is important that you only select the very best partner to hunt with.

2.    How do we control the pitch? Often times, powerful salespeople or forceful personalities can take over the strategy and pitch approach of a supply chain seeking big business.  If you are in the lead, control needs to be set for items like venue, agenda, speaking times, message that will be conveyed and stories that will be told.  You will also want twice the number of rehearsals that you would normally use because the players have not worked together, and a seamless presentation will be a key way to alleviate the whale’s fears.

3.    What is the brand we are pitching? When you are selling as a supply chain, figuring out your brand can be complicated.  Will the lead firm own the contract?  Who will handle collections?  For the prospect, the question becomes “who are all of you people anyway?”  For the very biggest deals, I recommend having business cards printed that have the prospect’s logo on the card along with the lead firm and a clear title for everyone as the client’s team member.   Remove the confusion about who you are collectively by focusing on the prospect as the point of connection.

If we have concerns about trying to sell into a whale as a team of teams, imagine how the prospect feels.  One of the important points we make at HBS is to never scare the whale.  When you come at the whale with multiple players representing multiple firms, you could easily scare the whale.  Here are the come things that may be on the whale’s mind that you need to address:

  • “Why is there a chain to begin with?” It is very likely that the whale starts with a one stop shopping approach to establishing a new business relationship.  The natural bias may start with opposition to a collective of providers.  Reasons that may offset that concerns include that you have selected the best of breed in individual component provision, or that single sourcing does not make sense in this particular case or that specialty requirements that move the work from the mainstream demand a unique solution.
  • “Am I paying for redundant overhead?” It will be no surprise that multiple firms implies multiple hand offs and higher costs.  It will be your responsibility to clearly lay out the economics of the multiple team approach and explain the financial advantage.
  • “What if this all goes bad, but I like some of the links?” Although prospects don’t always communicate their interest in some of the individual partners, it happens frequently.  In very clear terms, you need to let the prospect know that you have come together as a team and will stay together as a team because that is what is in the client’s best interest.
  • “Do these people know how to work together?” Or “Am I going to be first?” Few things scare whales more than transition costs related to communication or ignorance of the new provider of business practices, business needs, market conditions etc.  We scare whales when we give the impression that the necessary training to get up to speed will have to cross multiple companies and multiple cultures.  It is important to emphasize any historical pairings that have been successful with the teams you choose.  If this is not possible, the process of making the delivery painless to the customer and with single contact point account management should be used to convey simplicity and service delivery.

Supply chains are an effective way to deliver service.  Whales can appreciate the value of multiple smaller firms positioning themselves as a superior combined solution.  The key is to make the actual work look like one firm is performing it instead of a jigsaw puzzle of individual pieces.

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