Sometimes your back is against the wall, and for whatever reason, you just have to win this business. You do all you can, pull out all the stops, eat your pride, and remain laser-focused. Sometimes, when failure is not an option, you dig deep and do whatever it takes to succeed.
We’ve all faced this situation at one time or another. I once was forced and under pressure to do whatever I could to win a contract. In my case, the future of the company and all 100 people who worked there was at stake.
Here’s the story: I was director of sales for a company that had been through hard times, mostly due to the ineptness of the new owner and his cronies. They were as incompetent as hell.
For years, we had been doing business with a large electronics aerospace company. We normally booked between a half-million to a million dollars of business a year with them. But they were worried about us— and rightfully so—since we had recently filed for Chapter 11 to give us time and protection to rebuild the company. I’ll save that story of mismanagement and misappropriation of funds for another day.
The problem, though, was that we were in a publicly-declared bankruptcy; when that happens, your customers tend to lose faith in you. They don’t feel so kindly toward giving you more business, if you know what I mean.
I was the lead salesperson and to say it was a daunting task would be an understatement. Without more business, the company would fold. This defense/aerospace legacy customer had a new and very large program that could save us for the time being. Winning that program would mean everything—keeping our people employed for at least another eight months. We had to win this contract.
But there were a couple of problems. First, the customer was sure that the technology for this program was beyond us; second, the program was intended for our stronger, bigger, and more financially stable competitor, and we only knew about it because my salesperson for that customer had built up a solid relationships with their engineers who then shared the news with my salesperson.
I knew this job was a perfect fit. I immediately called the buyer and told him—not asked, but told—that I wanted a proposal for that contract. He declined, but I was prepared. I used every guilt-packed fact I could. I talked about our long relationship, all the favors we had done for his company, and I even told him he at least owed us a chance. Reluctantly, he capitulated and sent me the proposal.
Now all we had to was win the project. We worked up our best possible proposal package for this program. It consisted of more than 70 part numbers and was worth almost $1 million. I then had our trusted salesperson hand-deliver the proposal, hoping to get some immediate feedback. He spent the next few days wining and dining his friends in the know, all the while, lobbying for us to get the contract.
Despite his best efforts, it wasn’t looking good. His friends in the company still felt our competitor was a shoe-in. So, I called the buyer and invited him and his team for a site visit. I wanted him to see that conditions at our company were not as bad as it had sounded and he should see for himself. Fortunately, he agreed.
We prepared by scrubbing and cleaning, making our little shop look the best it ever had. We even hung promotional banners of the customer’s products all over the shop, and we made sure that everyone on our team would look and act their best. I asked the employees to engage with the customer team as they walked through on their tour. I wanted this to get personal.
Finally, I gave the presentation of a lifetime. I threw at them every statistic and milestone about our long relationship. It was no longer just a business deal to me; this was personal. I showed them the important role they could play in saving our company. (Remember I said I was desperate?) By the time they left, I was pretty sure we would get their business.
But the next day, and just a few days before they would announce the awarding of the contract, my salesperson called me with the bad news: His connections at this defense company told him that while they were impressed by their visit, our Chapter 11 still loomed too dark and large; they would give their business to our competitor.
I was devastated, so I went out for a long walk to think it over. Soon I came back to my office and wrote the buyer a letter. This was the letter of all letters. It was so heartfelt and genuine that no one would forget it easily. I wrote from the point of view of the entire company. I made it personal. Then, I had every single person in the company sign it. Some even wrote little notes, asking for this company’s business. I sealed it up and sent it overnight to the company.
What was the result? My salesperson told me that the letter had a huge impact. It was copied and passed around the entire division. Everyone we dealt with read a copy of that letter. The best part was that it worked.
Later that day I got a call from the buyer. He started out by calling me a “son of a you know what” and then said, “Okay, you got the damn business. You guys better not screw it up.” Which we didn’t—and that’s a story for another day as well.
This is just but one example of what you can do when it’s all you’ve got. It’s when you see that failure in not an option.
It’s only common sense.
Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Management Group.