Great musicians and artists are thought to have one piece of work that is their personal opus. It is the ultimate accomplishment that defines their skill and craft at the height of their artistic abilities. It is the culmination of their artistic genius in the form of an artifact that can be appreciated and admired for generations.
If you’ve been in sales longer than ten years and have achieved some modicum of success, then you too should have an opus. Your sales opus. Your greatest piece of selling. Your signature sales win. You know exactly what I’m talking about; it doesn’t require any thinking because it is indelibly etched in your memory banks forever.
A sales opus is like classic literature. There is a hero, a villain and a confrontation or struggle that the hero needs to overcome to achieve success. The sales opus always builds to a crescendo with riveting plot twists and turns. And it concludes with our hero feeling the utmost sense of gratification at conquering the villain, overcoming great struggles and achieving success.
My sales opus is the Intel deal. We worked on it for 18 months and it was the first legitimate enterprise deal in terms of dollars and scale that our company ever won. Our villain was a VC funded, white hot silicon valley competitor complete with their cliché “patent pending” artificial intelligence technology. They were genuine arrogant assholes. In sales, it’s always good to hate your foe.
We were a boot strapped software company from Boston, Massachusetts. My father has always referred to me as a glutton for punishment, as I’ve always embraced the biggest challenge. The challenges that no one thinks you will win or be successful at. Except you:-)
My sales development rep was putting together a trip to California and asked me for some target companies to try and set up introductory meetings with. I put Intel at the top of the list. We crafted an email and sent it to the key stakeholders. After a concerted follow up calling campaign, we managed to generate some interest in a meeting.
The intro meeting was nothing spectacular and Intel is a very reserved company to work with. We accomplished our initial goal of starting a sales dialog with them. We also found out that our biggest competitor was already on the scene and being considered as well. We initiated our discovery process and Intel gradually brought more people into the process and gave us access to higher-level execs.
I’ll compress the story a bit by simply saying that we went through a very typical, long drawn out enterprise sales process complete with an RFI, graduated to an RFP, countless demos to different audiences, submitted proposal after proposal, went through technical deep dives with our alpha geeks and their techies. We talked vision, integration with other back office systems, implementation plans, professional services resources, etc. Numerous customer referrals and site visits to see the software working. They sent an exec team out to visit our corporate headquarters in Boston. There were times during the sales process when we were ahead of our biggest competitor, and there were times when they were ahead.
In all candor, we were lagging behind our competitor in most of the evaluation teams minds until the very end. Intel told us that they wanted to do a two-week bake off between our competitor and us. Intel is nothing if not an engineering centric culture, so they even produced a Bake Off Rules of Engagement Guide and distributed it to our #1 competitor and us. They took extraordinary lengths and measures to ensure that the bake off was as objective and fair to both parties.
We put together our Sales Special Ops team that would compete in the bake off. We rehearsed, strategized and worked our tails off to ensure that we were best prepared for anything that would come up in the bake off. Neither vendor was allowed to touch the computer keyboard or mouse during the bake off. Each vendor had to install their software, prove some integration with their back end PeopleSoft system and then let two teams of Intel users actually try to do their jobs with our software vs. our competitor’s software. We could coach the Intel users on how to use the software, but they audited both vendors with bake off cops that ensured the Intel bake off rules of engagement were followed to the letter of the law by each vendor.
We flew out the SF bay area two full days prior to the bake off commencing so we could practice our coaching and review our strategy, as well as acclimate to the time zone differential. The night before the bake off started my cell phone rings in the hotel. It was our CEO telling me to pack up and tell the team to come back to Boston. My brain was racing and I asked why he wanted us to come home. He replied that he had learned that the bake off was rigged and that Intel had already made their decision. It turns out that our competitor shared a board member with Intel, and one of our competitor’s sales directors was drunk at a conference and was bragging to one of our other sales reps that they had the Intel deal in the bag.
I was furious and immediately told the CEO that we were not coming back and the day that I walk away from a deal because a drunken competitor sales rep is bragging would be the day that I quit sales. I used some very colorful language and was quite emphatic that I disagreed with his logic and we were prepared to win the bake off and Intel as a new customer. It turns out that our CEO didn’t fire me and agreed to let us stay and compete in the bake off. My competitive juices were never flowing as highly as they were when we arrived at Intel’s corporate HQ to start the bake off.
Our incredibly arrogant competitors were set up in the next conference room and we glared at each other whenever we saw them in the hallways or restroom over the next two weeks, as we fought tooth and nail to win the bake off. We were ready and laser like focused at executing our sales strategy. Our team operated like a finely honed machine hitting on all cylinders with German engineering like precision. The Intel evaluation team maintained a perfect poker face disposition the entire two weeks of the bake off.
We worked ridiculously long hours trying to get an edge. At the conclusion, we flew back to Boston not knowing what the results were. Intel had compiled a spreadsheet with a pivot table like any proper spreadsheet should have. They evaluated across seven areas such as ease of use, reporting capabilities, ease and automation of integration with their back end systems, ease of deployment, etc. Under each of those seven categories were sub topics, so in total each vendor was graded across 42 different areas/categories with a score of 1-10. Everyone on the Intel evaluation team had an equal vote.
I got the call from Intel’s project lead and acted as calm and nonchalant as I could. The words were truly music to my ears, we won the bake off decidedly and they wanted to move forward to procurement with us (story for another day:-) as the enterprise solution provider. I replied that we were thrilled and really looked forward to working with them as a customer because they were really doing some innovative things and at a scale that we had never done before with any other customer.
I asked if they could share the bake off results with us, it would be beneficial for us to learn where we fared well and where we didn’t. He said that he would check with Intel legal and let me know. Surprisingly Intel agreed to provide me with one paper copy of the bake off results. We were expressly prohibited from giving the bake off results to prospects or other customers, but they agreed to let us share the bake off results as long as we took them back with us. They were incredibly powerful as they contained color charts, graphs, painstaking detail and description of their evaluation process and how they ensured objectivity in their findings and results.
We won by a huge margin in 37 of the 42 areas. And the ones that our competitor was rated better than us on were considered not to be the most important decision criteria. Intel was smart and they knew that they were taking a risk by going with a boot strapped software startup based in Boston but they believed in us and trusted us. They “agreed” to let us share the bake off results because they knew it was very impressive and would help us grow the business by selling new customers.
Over the next year, we competed head to head in 18 bake offs against our arrogant competitor. We won 17 out of the 18 and the only reason that we lost was that deal was rigged. We led our sales campaigns with the Intel bake off model. Our competitor stopped refusing to compete saying it wasn’t a fair evaluation of their technology. They had their lawyer write several threatening letters to Intel demanding that they take back the bake off results from us. Insinuating that it violated their non-disclosure rights. This only served to offend Intel and they would do speaking appearances with us and support us at major conferences. Intel would do their own brown bag software showcase days and invite other companies from the SF bay area to see their world-class systems in play.
We were the direct beneficiary of Intel’s commitment to us and support in our growth and continuity as a business. Our competitor had already filed their S-1 and were planning to go public at the time of the bake off. They pulled back because their revenues dropped precipitously and ended up agreeing to a fire sale acquisition. We ended up going through a successful IPO 18 months after the bake off and the Intel deal was cited as the key driver that made it happen.
And to think that my CEO told me to bring the team home the night before the bake off began….things might have turned out very differently had I complied.