Partner Sales: A Billiards Analogy

Creating an aligned sales message is a lot like pool. Not the swimming kind, the 8-ball-corner-pocket kind. The seemingly simple act of knocking one ball into another, actually requires thought, strategy, and deliberate action. The result is a predicted outcome, ball in the pocket - and real players call the pocket.

Sales is no different.

Sellers need to think about their products and services, choose the right message based on their customers' needs, and move the customer from where they are at to that predicted destination of a sale.

Creating sales alignment

The seller is the cue ball. The customer is the 8-ball. The pocket is the sale.

The shot is easy when the seller, customer, and product are closely aligned, like when the seller and customer have a trusted relationship (cue and 8-ball are near one another), there is a timely need (8-ball is in front of the corner pocket) and the seller has a product that can meet that need (simple straight shot). This is the perfect alignment and makes for an easy sale.

For those that have played the game(s), perfect alignment is rare.

Scan the table and make a plan

The seller and the customer may not have an established relationship. That means the cue ball and the 8-ball are far from each other, making the shot more difficult - a long shot to the corner pocket.

The pricing might not be favorable, so the cue ball and 8-ball may be at angles to the pocket, so the seller may have to find a different angle to position value to the customer - a cut shot to the corner pocket.

The customer may have a barrier preventing them from moving forward, there may be a ball in the way. The seller might make a different proposal, one that can avoid the barrier and keep the sale moving forward - bank shot to the side pocket.

Sellers are constantly evaluating the table and making decisions about how to hit the next ball.

The decision tree is almost endless.

Sellers have to decide on a catchy subject line for an email, the white paper, or an article to send… If they get the customer on the phone, what questions should be asked? What about an ROI analysis, should that be offered in the first conversation? When should pricing be mentioned? Should a partner be brought in? If so, when?

The table is so dynamic, each shot requires a re-evaluation of the entire table. Stakeholders, pricing, and product are constantly changing, not to mention the customer's needs change too.

What looked like an easy play two shots ago, now… may not be. For example, unexpected supply chain disruption. It goes the other way too. An impossible shot can turn into an easy play, like when inventory is finally available.

When the game is played at the highest level, sellers think about how their own actions can set themselves up for the next conversation.

That’s the advanced game. Now we are talking english (not the language, but sidespin).

This is where sellers focus less on their own products and are purely there to help their customers solve business problems. If they do this effectively, the clear shot will appear and the shot becomes easy.

Take it one shot at a time

The game of sales… pool… is won primarily by the seller-to-customer interaction. One shot at a time - and sellers have so much to consider.

Anyone supporting sellers such as sales coaches, sales enablement, marketing, partner vendors, and especially sales leaders - needs to know exactly what the table looks like for each seller they are trying to help.

Most of the time, support operates under the delusion that sellers are just making simple straight shots.

Their advice and supporting materials are oversimplified.

A sales coach may recommend some qualifying questions or a vendor may provide a battle card. These are for the simple shots, and simple shots as we all know are rare.

Think about the role of support teams as another ball in the shot-line – support team to salesperson, salesperson to the customer, customer to sale, e.g cue ball to the five-ball, to the nine-ball, corner pocket.

It’s a combo shot.

Support teams are, at least, once, removed from the actual customer conversation. They are playing a much harder shot. One that requires unforgiving alignment.

Being off slightly with the five-ball increases the error on the nine-ball shot dramatically. It multiplies the mistake.

This happens all the time.

Imagine a vendor does a product training for sellers that only focuses on what the product does without any consideration for how the sellers sell. Without consideration of the other products in their ecosystem, the rhythm of their sales motions, their incentives, their typical customer base, the state of their customer relationships etc…. This approach to product training has no attempt to align itself to the seller’s table.

If a seller talks about this product it may come off as random or opportunistic. A new product training poorly positioned could hurt an existing or future sale. One bad shot can lead to a series of setbacks.

Take the right shots

Good sellers know the shots they can make and that’s why most ignore the advice and support from those not directly involved in their sales conversation. That’s why there is pushback from sellers if the use cases or examples don’t exactly match up with the positioning of the balls on their particular table.

If a supporting role presents a use case for a product with an enterprise success story and a small business seller will reject it - even if the product will work for small businesses too.

If the qualifying questions are more appropriate for a business development manager than a front-line seller, no one will ask the questions - even if they are great questions.

If the training focuses on c-suite conversations and the sellers just work with IT and procurement, no one will attempt the conversation strategy - even if it would work for an IT manager.

If the materials say “business solutions” but the sellers focus on government - they won’t attach the materials - even if the content is also relevant to government.

These slight misalignments tell the sellers, “you don’t know the shots I am making.”

That's why, more often than not, sellers won’t even attempt the advice given to them.

They won’t even attempt it.

Those in supporting roles giving the “advice” need to think more strategically so the complicated combo shot can actually be executed.

Focus on high-value shots

Good support teams know exactly what the sales dynamic is for their sellers, and they build relationships with sellers so there is a high level of trust. This is the same thing that sellers are doing with their customers - build relationships and understand their needs.

The support process should be reflective of the sellers’ process.

This makes sense because, after all, everyone is a ball on the same table. The best case scenario for the combo shot has the cue ball (support team), the 5-ball (seller), and the 8-ball (customer) close to each other and aligned just like the straight shot. This means the support team has a strong relationship with the seller who has that with their customer.

The advice and materials provided by the support team are hyper-relevant to the shot at hand and the customer is in front of the pocket. This makes for a combo shot that's executable.

Making the combo shot count

Let's take a look at an aligned example of a combo shot.

Imagine a seller is working with a customer who is on the fence about switching technology platforms. They know they need to pull the trigger at some point, but migrating platforms is a big investment. They are thinking about waiting another year in hopes that pricing can be more favorable.

The seller needs some support so they go to their sales leader (5-ball) for advice. The sales leader, who has a good relationship with the seller, understands that pricing is the angle for this shot. The leader approves for special financing to move the sale forward.

The sales leader (cue ball) understood exactly where the seller (5-ball) was in relation to the customer (9-ball) and the corner pocket (sale). The approval was in alignment with the shot because the leader understood the table. This is a doable combo shot.

Let's say the situation was different.

A seller is working with a customer who is also thinking about switching technology platforms. They know they need to pull the trigger, but their concern is the migration itself. Their IT staff is slammed with work every day and they have been asking for more headcount for months.

Break it down into a series of easy shots

Taking on a major project just seems unrealistic right now. Waiting another year seems like the right move considering they’ve gone this long with the platform they have. In a year, their staffing situation will hopefully be better and there may even be better pricing.

The seller goes to their sales leader and the sales leader does the same thing - approves a special financing option if the customer takes action right now to create a sense of urgency. In this case, the angle is NOT price, its IT’s workload. This is a misaligned combo shot. Wrong move from the support team to offer financing as opposed to some sort of managed services or contract staffing to offload the migration and maybe earn more business.

Tell the customer where the ball will be rolling

If the seller communicates the pricing and urgency to their customer, they will likely miss the pocket. The customer will feel pressured, unheard and will mistrust the upfront pricing should a sales conversation come up again in the future. At the very least, they will feel bad about missing a great deal and blame HR for being so slow with hiring headcount. So the seller exacerbates an internally tense relationship unknowingly.

It’s a bad shot all around. And, it will not set the up later for a shot with that same ball later on.

Every seller has worked with a sales leader, a coach, or a marketing team or enablement team that uses the same tactic over and over and expects it to work with every shot.

This is why sellers get frustrated. And when the shots don’t go in the pocket, support teams blame the seller's ability to shoot - not their poor advice.

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