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How to Close a Deal Like Warren Buffett


Warren Buffett might be catching a lot of flack these days, but I think if you want to know about closing big deals, he's still the guy to watch. Why? The man knows how to talk about money when he's dealmaking.

Buffett is famous for doing ginormous deals with as little information as a few pages of business plans and the standard financials a company would submit to a bank to qualify for a loan. What he has when he goes into any conversation is an encyclopedic knowledge of how businesses work financially. He knows "their money," "their wallet," and how investments and outcomes should work. Follow his lead and you will close more business.

Here are seven things I've learned as I've watched Buffett from afar:

1. Know the other guy's money - How they make it, how they count it, how they spend it. This is obviously much easier to do for publicly traded companies. For privately held companies, the numbers are fairly easy to estimate, at least the cost of goods sold and probably the cost of sale. These numbers are critical to discussing the possibilities of working together. Too often the discussion stops at budget. When you don't know, ask. Not the trade secrets, but at least the industry averages. This provides a basic framework for the discussion.

2. Know the other guy's wallet - How does this sale impact any of these critical numbers? The terms of the deal should be looked at from their side of the table first, then yours.

3. Start discussing the money early - You know you are going to discuss the money later. Early in the conversation, you do not have enough information for precision. Instead, you have an understanding of the economics of the prospect's industry, so you have enough to determine if a deal makes any sense at all. Use that economic information and industry knowledge to frame a shared understanding of the reality of the money for this opportunity.

4. Use ranges to qualify and disqualify - Understand early (and throughout the discussion) whether you and your prospect are in the same arena. By using ranges of prices, cost structures, yields, and performance you can both be sure that you are dealing in a shared reality rather than getting to the end and finding yourselves so far apart that there is permanent damage done to the relationship.

5. Speak the language of investment and outcomes - Every large sale is an investment on both parts in an outcome. When you move the conversation from price to investment and cost to outcomes you are focusing on the business impact rather than budget impact. This is the language of large sales.

6. Don't discount early - I regularly hear fearful "deal makers" use language like, "Let's not let money get in the way of working together." There's a word for this that is not used in polite company. This is the language of discounting before the scope has been clearly defined. The sales person believes that he is being clever by taking money off the table. What he has really done is to take margin off the table, his and his company's margin. If qualifying investment and impact has been made up front, then this point does not need to be made again.

7. Don't negotiate until it's time - Work on the deal points one at a time. Work through the investment and outcome ideas clearly, then negotiate. True, all of these points require negotiation. However, too often the conversation turns to negotiations too early before real scope and deliverables have been defined. Which means that the whole is reduced to the little parts before the shared picture of the whole has been established.

Side Note: I watched a deal unravel recently because the players did not observe these guidelines. The sale involved the installation of a point-of-sale system into a retail chain. The details are complicated as many large deals are, but the numbers were simple:

If you calculated the investment necessary for the system, the transaction cost was going to be >5% of the transaction revenue value. That's more than the cost of the charge card processing fee! Never going to work regardless of the reporting bells and whistles, speed to data consolidation and so on.

This violates rules 1-5. The selling team did not understand the fundamental money issues of their prospect. They had not asked, done their research or even estimated. They were focused on the features of their system and what they had heard the IT people say would be the selection criteria without working through the money issues. That always leads to disaster.

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flickr photo courtesy AMagill/cc 2.0