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6 tips for landing that key account

Image courtesy of Flickr user @Doug88888

(MoneyWatch) The big con is on: Salespeople at small and midsize companies are getting fleeced every day by their counterparts at big-name companies. The game of choice? "Chase the key account."

Most don't know it, but all salespeople are professional gamblers. They gamble their time, energy, and resources on making a sale. Here's how not to make a sucker bet when competing for a key account:

1. Play fair. When it comes to selling, are any deals truly "fair"? The problem is that the sales game is usually rigged against salespeople from smaller organizations. What most prospects call a fair deal is really a stacked deck, a set of rules that favor the status quo of doing nothing or staying with the current provider. Try this: By all means, go after the key account, but do what it takes to tilt the odds in your favor.

2. Don't play with a stacked deck. In gaming parlance, a stacked deck is a set of playing cards arranged in a preset order so that dealing the cards produces a specific outcome. In the Oscar-winning movie "The Sting," Paul Newman's character goads Robert Shaw's fictional gangster boss into cheating, which he does with a cold deck ("Stack me a cooler, Floyd!"). When you are going after a key account, sometimes the prospect just wants to hear your ideas and get a peek at your research. Try this: Set expectations up-front about urgency and what information you're prepared to share so you know you really have a fair shot at landing the business.

3. Avoid the big con. In the sales world, most stacked-deck sales competitions are created by the incumbent player, who is trying to preserve his or her position. This means that the alleged opportunity to win the business is inherently unfair to anyone who competes for it. You would have a better chance of winning a street-corner game of three-card Monte than of winning one of these sales deals. Try this: Don't enter the game unless you have an executive sponsor that is high up in the organization.

4. Know the rules. The smaller organization that seeks to unseat the incumbent always has the deck stacked against it. The current provider -- whether it is an internal department, a competitor, or another business initiative that competes for resources -- is entrenched and holds all the cards. This means the current provider has access to unique information, people, and discreet decision-making processes, all favoring the status quo. Those are the rules. Try this: Be direct and ask them how high of a priority it is to make a change.

5. Don't fall for the "level playing field" angle. No buying process truly creates a level playing field. When the process is established for considering new ideas and providers (as with a request for proposal), all parties are supposed to get a "fair and equal" shot. However, fairness is impossible given the entrenched competition. If you play by the rules when the deck is stacked, you will lose every time. Try this: Know when to fold 'em. If there is no urgency and you cannot engage the prospect's team, the deal may be un-winnable.

6. Change the game. As the factors above make clear, it is your responsibility to change the game. Let the other suckers chase after prospects when they face a clear disadvantage. You have the power to change the rules. Try this: Get an executive sponsor agreement in writing early in the process. Does it have to be in writing? Yes, but a simple one-page document will suffice. You are not writing your version of the official "Rules According to Hoyle."

W.C. Fields, the comic film star from the 1930s, often portrayed a gambler. In one movie, Fields was playing cards when a rube asked, "Is this a game of chance?"

"Not the way I play," Fields replied.

Eliminate fortune (or what passes for it) in chasing key accounts. Do everything you can to win as long as it is not illegal, immoral, unethical, or might compromise the future of the business.

Image courtesy of Flickr user @Doug88888