As Published on Forbes.com

I was speaking at a recent event in Los Angeles. One of the participants asked an all-too-common question: “I’m very proud of our team. If we don’t win the deals we pursue, we at least come in 2nd place. What can we do to get more victories instead of silver medals?” My answer and suggestions followed the theme of why you never want to finish in 2nd place in business and sales.

The Buyer’s Perspective

Let’s say you were a customer who just went through a lengthy procurement process. You selected your vendor of choice. Now you have the dubious task of contacting the vendors who were not selected to tell them the bad news. As much as you hope that your selected vendor will do a tremendous job, you don’t want to burn bridges with the other vendors in the mix. When you call the vendors who “lost the deal,” are you going to tell them, “Of the five vendors we examined, you were clearly in last place?” Of course not. You want those vendors to stick around and share their ideas and proposals on the next opportunity. For that reason, procurement professionals often tell anyone who was not selected that they were a close second place. The reality is that everyone who didn’t get selected was tied for second place.

The vendor who did not win the deal might ask “Why weren’t we selected?” At that point, as the buyer, rarely will they say, “Your proposal was horrible and we don’t like you.” Instead, the buyer is likely to say, “The other vendor was a better value.” This sets up the vendor to focus on price in the next opportunity.

The Seller’s Perspective

Nobody wants to tell their boss, “We had a competitive race. We came in ninth place out of eight.” If you are in the business of selling products or services, you deal with plenty of rejection. It feels better to have lost and “almost won” than it feels to come in last place. Somehow, we think that losing at the end is better than losing at the beginning. Yet, that’s not accurate in business.

In any poker hand, the person who wins the hand clearly has the best outcome. Who has the 2nd best outcome? The 2nd best outcome is the person who did not put any chips into the pot. Which place came in last place in the hand? That would be the person who came in 2nd place. The same holds true for business. If you pursue an opportunity all the way to the end, you will have invested considerably. At that point, you better win.

How To Maximize Results

The greatest impact you can have on the outcome of a deal happens at the beginning NOT the end of the process. The most proficient sales professionals know that time invested early in the process will setup the end game. Here are specific steps you can take early in the process.

Qualify With Impact – Be sure that you and your client have a mutual agreement about not only what they hope to accomplish, but what happens if they don’t solve the issue. In essence, you need to understand WHY they need you. Then compare the relative importance of solving this issue compared to other priorities. The biggest failure is when the seller is more passionate about solving the issue than the customer .

Define Results – Once you are in agreement that the issue is worth solving, then mutually agree on the measurable results you’d see if successful. If you can’t quantify the results, then they won’t be able to either. Once you are in agreement with your client on Impact and Results, they will want your help. Why? It’s simple. Sellers tend to focus on the sale. Customers want results. When you have a shared vision of the results with your customer, you stand out.

Write Down Why – Don’t just say it, but create a physical document that spells out why the customer would do business with you. Also write down the reasons they would not do business with you. You’ll have to honestly evaluate each situation. Rest assured, if you can’t make a compelling argument why they would do business with you – from their perspective – they might be at a similar loss for words.

In Upside Down Selling, I profile a company that doubled its growth rate in one year while pursuing fewer opportunities following the principles above. There is more to this concept in detail found within my latest book, Same Side Selling, in chapter six, Focus On The Fit.

Conclusion

Recognize that 2nd place is a bad place to end up. It might make you feel better as the seller, but the buyer might just be trying to be polite. Follow the guidance above, and you’ll waste less time chasing opportunities that are not the right fit. This will allow you to focus proper attention on the right deals. It takes some discipline. Yet, just like a skilled poker player, those with the greatest skills and discipline tend to get “lucky” more often.

It’s Your Turn

When have you told a vendor they were in 2nd place when they were never in the running? Have you ever been more passionate about solving your customer’s issue than they were?