Escalation Dominance
The Art of Playing Hardball
By Marc Trezza

You’re probably sick to death of those “touchy-feely” articles about the sales process.  So what do you say we take a no-nonsense look at the leadership skills it takes to be a “growth warrior”-  Let’s look at managing growth in military terms.  Let’s talk “Escalation Dominance.”

The US military is the finest management training in the world.  Period. Compared to OCS (Officer Candidate School) training, Harvard and Wharton are all form and no substance.  Approximately 40% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are ex-military.  Why?  First of all, US military officers learn by doing.  They learn the fundamentals and application of the principles of leadership.  Officers learn the differences between strategy and tactics.  They don’t just learn how to run a complex organization.  They learn how to achieve a mission objective.  They learn how to plan for it; how to prepare and train their troops for it; and how to focus the assets available in the most effective manner, while minimizing losses.  The price of failure is horrific.  The training is so intense because the stakes are so high.  That kind of training develops real leaders.

If you’re organization is not sufficiently growth driven, here are the methodology and leadership skills needed to achieve explosive growth - this is where it starts.  The perspective of the man or woman “at the top” is what determines the perception and approach of every organization.  We have approach A and we have approach B.

A”: “The primary goal (objective) of our company is profitable growth.”
B”: “The primary goal (objective) of our company is one or more of the following:

i. To deliver quality,
ii. To out-perform our competition, and/or ...
iii. Cut costs to improve profits.”
The focus of B-Group is on internal operations.  “B-Group” companies focus the overwhelming majority of their resources on production, inventory controls, quality controls, etc.  Typically, a much smaller portion of those resources are devoted to training, state-of-the-art tools and support, and high technology, for sales and customer service.  Many B-Group companies do not have formal ongoing professional sales training.  Many don’t provide state-of-the-art tools and support for their sales force (a fancy brochure does NOT qualify).  Few B-Group companies analyze the quality of a salesperson’s queue.  One of the first things my company does when training salespeople is give them a test on their own company.  Over 40% fail.  Few B-Group companies treat their salespeople like recon teams tasked to bring back valuable intelligence regarding what’s going on “over the fence.”  Growth companies, through their salesforce, integrate that information into operational meetings and planning. 

“A-Group” takes a different approach.  No less effort is placed on a quality operation.  Delivery of competitive performance is critical for survival.  If you cannot compete, eventually, you cannot sell either.  But “A-Group” doesn’t stop at “operational issues.”   B-Group takes an inward looking approach.  A-Group’s leader is looking outward.  His focus is on profitable growth.  He’s focused on making an impact in specific vertical markets.  That means that A-Group is not satisfied just with a competitive product or service.  A-Group insists on equal quality and customer focus in sales as well.  A-Group therefore takes the same approach to growth as they do to operational performance.  Less than the best possible effort is not an option. 

So let’s look at this process in military terms, starting with (A) - planning, and (B) - execution.   There are several interlocking elements to planning and execution:

1. Identify Objectives (Strategy)
2. Target Acquisition (Intelligence)
3. Mission Planning (Logistics and Support)
4. Mission Preparation (Training)
5. Deployment (Attack)
6. After-Action Reports and Assessment
7. Re-Deployment

Step One: Identify Objectives (Strategy)

What are your vertical markets?  Who are your targets, in order of priority within those markets?  What is a reasonable goal in terms of volume and time to become a dominant factor in each of those markets based on your capabilities?

Step Two: Target Acquisition (Intelligence)

What, specifically, do you know about that target that is of value in planning to acquire them as a client?  If you do not have sufficient information, it must be acquired NOW.  How does the target go about hiring companies or buying your product or service?  How many people and departments are involved in the decision-making process?  What mistakes have your competitors made in trying to acquire this prospect?  What did the successful companies have in common?  Are you missing any critical information regarding the prospect’s process?  Are you missing critical information regarding their needs, requirements, likes, dislikes, and expectations?  How will you acquire the information that you need?

Step Three: Mission Planning (Logistics and Support)

Based on your Intelligence, how will you utilize that information to help your assault team to acquire the objective?  What support is available?  What weapons and tactics will you employ?  Who will be assigned the mission?  How much of your resources will you commit? 

Step Four: Mission Preparation (Training)

Are all personnel prepared?  Do they understand the objectives and the tactics to be employed?  Have they familiarized themselves with mission goals and parameters?  Is this a recon mission to gather intelligence or an assault to control or achieve an objective (such as close the deal)?

The less you know, the less you’ll get.  You must know as much as possible about the individual(s) with whom you will be negotiating, as well as the organization they belong to, and their goals, needs, likes and dislikes, and requirements.  Research is key. 

Why have they fired companies in the past? 
What do their successful companies have in common? 
What will you need to offer them that will justify hiring your firm?
If you’re going into an unfamiliar environment, recon the area.  Do an area assessment.  When you go to their office, make observations about who the people are, what the atmosphere is like.  Start your meeting by asking for a tour of their operation.  Information keeps us strong.  By employing both pre- and post-engagement detailed, thorough assessments and continued efforts to gather background knowledge, you will be armed with intelligence that will better enable you to marshal and wield your forces and resources into a coordinated and effective force capable of providing the prospective client with everything they want.  You will also have a handle on your costs up front.  At the very least you will know what your are dealing with in a fee negotiation.  Who are the Decision Makers or Purchasing Influences for this prospect?  Do you have a plan to address the needs, requirements and concerns of each one?  That is how you close deals. 
Gate Keeper - (MIS Director, Legal Department, etc)
Economic Control - (CFO, Controller, VP Finance, etc)
Hands-On User - (The manager of the department who will be dealing with your product or service on a day-to-day basis).
Have you identified each of these individuals or groups, and do you have a plan that specifically addresses each of their individual issues in a way that demonstrates the advantage of hiring you vs. everyone or anyone else?

The competitive nature of sales requires a higher degree of preparation in pre-deployment than other less competitive environments.  This is particularly true of intangible business-to-business services.  That means selling a promise that you will perform at certain levels for the foreseeable future.  You sell confidence and trust.  You can’t see it.  You can’t touch it.  This is a complex-sale that requires empathy and abstract reasoning.  It requires asking intelligent questions that are not motivated purely by self-interest, and then really listening to the responses.  A buyer can almost always sense when a salesperson sees him or her as just a potential commission check.  If it’s a customized service, you can’t see it, touch it, or  smell it (well, maybe if it goes bad).  In a sense, you must separate combat intelligence from strategic intelligence.  Strategic intelligence has to do with the potential client as a business (background and history, economic concerns, philosophy and approach, corporate culture, purchasing trends and methods, etc).  These are basic qualifiers that help you to decide how much time and effort to invest in them to bring them on board as a client. 

Combat intelligence (tactics) has to do with:

What do they look for in an ideal company? 
What is their perspective on companies (partners or adversaries)?
How does their hiring / selection process work? 
What is the level and capability of their internal operation?
What kind of services do they need?
Step 5: Deployment (Attack)

Coordination of efforts with operations is key.  Team-selling works. However, training Operations Managers how to conduct themselves in a sales presentation is critical.  It is just as unreasonable for you to expect that an untrained, unprepared operations person will perform like a top salesperson as it is to expect a salesperson untrained in operations management to run a production  floor like a top manager.  Providing training to operations staff on how to deal with clients and prospects can put you miles ahead of your competitors.  The time, money and effort invested in giving key Operations Managers sales and customer service training will come back to you 100-fold.

If you know in advance what the prospect is looking for, you can work to develop an Operational Plan.  Know what you are willing to do for this particular client regarding his specific needs and wants before you go in.  Discuss an implementation plan with operations management.  Cover work standards, time frames, the boarding process, “delivery” strategies, etc.  Know what your variable ranges are.   If your salesperson becomes an “omelette” with egg all over his face, because operations refused to honor a promise this salesperson made to a client, you got what you deserved - you’ve lost the client, and your credibility.  Salespeople must be trained to know the difference between your capability and your “willingness” to provide certain levels of service, (after all, do you do for your smallest client everything you are willing to do for your largest?) and they must be trained how to uncover each prospect’s needs, wants, likes, and dislikes –  up front.

After-action reports and assessment
Constantly assess and re-evaluate where you are at in the process.  The four tactical questions you must constantly ask yourself are:
Where am I?
Where do I need to be?
What do I have?
What do I need? 
This applies to internal management as well as the sales process.  With respect to sales (new client acquisition);

If you have gathered all the information you need to present a business plan to a prospect (that explains specifically, step-by-step, how you will provide them with what they are looking for) in a way that separates you from the pack;  you are prepared to close a deal that will be a win-win situation for everyone.  Donald Trump is wrong.  There does not have to be a loser in every deal.

However, you cannot close every deal.  When you fail to achieve your objective, re-assess.  Find out why you failed to prove your case.  You will either position yourself to resurrect a dead deal, or at the very least learn what mistakes not to repeat with someone else.

Ultimately, in a complex sale, you must convince a buyer why they should trust you, instead of the hundreds of others who historically have done and said the same things to them over and over again.  Significant growth will not occur if you are selling technology that everyone else has as a reason for hiring you, instead of selling “trust.”   You don’t separate yourself from the pack by offering to meet a buyer’s minimum requirements (technology, references, licensing, insurance, experience, etc).  Do you honestly think that any of your competitors do not make the same claims that you do regarding these things?  Why have they fired companies in the past?  What would they like to see improved?  In a perfect world, what would they be getting that they are not getting now?  The answers to THESE questions are the foundation for presenting your case as a win for the buyer.  Listing or explaining your attributes does nothing but lump you in with everyone else.

You must work as a team to develop responsive programs designed around the needs and desires of your clients and prospective clients.  This can only happen as a function of leadership. 

Command is not simply tough management.  The day-to-day pressures that companies face often push managers to turn up the pressure on their employees.  If it’s not done right (and very carefully) “tough management” just doesn’t work.  It alienates employees who are already under pressure, and creates an “us against them” mentality. 

Command is not dictatorial.  Dictatorial management is usually about a manager’s ego, not the good of the company (even when the manager is the owner).  Many people have heard me talk about the benefits of a military style of leadership.  This should NEVER be confused with authoritarianism and power plays.  Military leadership is “stewardship.”  Whether it’s military or civilian, there are good leaders and bad.  The military has its share of bad officers.  It’s the good officers we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about the leaders who inspire their subordinates to excel while meeting their primary responsibility – to get the job done.  They are demanding – fair - and empowering.  They understand that, to lead is to serve.

The key to effective leadership is training people to do their jobs well, and then through management guidance, helping them to do it (which means letting them do it).  It is NOT micro-management.  Leadership entails working to make those who work for you more effective.  It entails helping them to do their job better. When employees are properly trained and motivated - less is more. It’s the direct opposite of micro-management.  Good leadership is the ability to get everyone on board and pulling together for the good of the company in what would otherwise be a confrontational or divisive situation.  Authoritarianism and ego-based management create, at best, hostile obedience. 

For example, one company brought in Search Net because of management problems with a sales manager from outside the industry.  The manager was extremely bright, but facing a daunting task - managing both experienced and inexperienced sales people despite no personal  industry sales experience.  The manager created policies and procedures and dictated them to the salesforce without even attempting to develop a salesforce “buy-in.”  The problems or concerns this created for the salespeople were not addressed or considered.  The new procedures were policy, period.  While many of the procedures were based on necessary and sensible goals, they were dictated without input or advise from the people who not only had the most experience, but would have to live with and thrive under these new policies.  According to Sales and Marketing Management editor Jack Falvey, “Managing strengths and differences is far more difficult than pointing out weaknesses and requiring conformity.  This is particularly true of sales reps.”  The result was high salesforce turnover.  Salesforce turnover sends one or all of the following messages, and these are the ONLY messages it sends:

You don’t hire well
You don’t train well, or
Your firm is not a good place to work.
Are these the messages anyone wants to send?

This manager created built-in resistance to the program instead of team understanding, acceptance, and compliance.  Rather than look for ways to improve on the program and make it work, the salespeople became disgruntled grumblers.  That is not how to spur dramatic growth.  No input, advice, or feedback was sought or allowed from the more experienced salespeople.  They were handed a program focused more on the needs of the manager than on the needs of the salespeople, which required far more reporting than they were used to, and told that compliance was mandatory - period.   Leadership requires more of us.

Ultimately, it will come down to the level of professionalism you have demonstrated and the level of trust and confidence you have instilled.  If you’re a good company, but you do not know how your sales efforts distinguish you from other companies in this regard, you have condemned yourself to the ranks of mediocrity.  You have failed to provide your organization with the leadership it needs to achieve “escalation dominance” in the new millennium.

Marc Trezza is President and CEO of Search Net Corporation, which provides management consulting and advice to companies nationwide. For information, contact Marc Trezza at: (212) 874-6265 - Fax: (212) 496-1005 or  Email: .

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Copyright 1999 by Marc Trezza. All rights reserved.

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