Your New #1 Competitor

Who is your company’s Number One competitor?  Actually, it’s not who you think it is. In fact, it’s probably not “who” at all, but rather “what” that is taking away the most sales from your sales team(s).

We recently asked 180 IT salespeople with greater than three years of experience this question: “Thinking about the opportunities you’ve lost in the last 12 months, what is the most common reason for the loss?”  They replied that in 43% of losses the reason was “Lost funding or lost to no decision: customer stopped the procurement process.” 


Your Real #1 Competitor

Your company’s “competition,” more often than not, is actually buyers deciding not to make a decision at all.  You lose to a “no decision.” Your perceived competitors didn’t win either.  No transaction happened, no value was created; only cost was incurred by all parties involved. OK, so is this really a "new competitor."  No.  However, due to changes that I'll discuss below, it is a competitor that has gained far more of a foothold on business that you would like to have.  So what happened?


As a sales leader, I often found the overall opportunity pipeline stuffed full of these no-decision “opportunities” that got stuck at the proposal or business case stage (proposal submitted) and just never moved forward.  You’re seeing those right now right?  I call this a constipated pipeline.  It’s not healthy.  Ah, but hope rings eternal for salespeople.  So these were the opportunities that required tough management questions to ascertain whether they would ever convert to business.  Buyers didn’t choose a competitor, so for the salesperson, the opportunity was still an opportunity. Only it wasn’t.  The buyer had decided not to decide.  So managers had to help the salespeople understand why the buyer wasn’t moving forward, when all along they were agreeing that their “solution” seemed like a good idea.  Investing in “stuck” opportunities saps energy to pursue real opportunities.  Flush them. Let’s understand why salespeople lose to a “no decision.”   


Agreement Networks

The first reason is that your buyer’s world has changed, dramatically, in the new economy.  When I was a salesperson in the 1980s and 90s, Directors and Vice Presidents had substantial budget and autonomy to make decisions within their domains.  Today, there is vast scrutiny over what, in the past would have been considered modest, expenditures.  The result is that there are almost always numerous people involved in the buying process. So salespeople more than ever before must understand and navigate complex agreement networks and processes within the buying organization that span different altitudes and functional roles.  Because decisions are more cross-functional, every dollar is compared against how it could add value in potentially completely non-related areas of investment.

Therefore opportunities that result in a “no decision” are often symptomatic of salespeople (and their managers) that have not adapted to the complexities of the decision networks in their prospective customers’ organizations.


Perception of Value

The second reason, which is directly related to decision networks, is a lack of understanding of how the people within the agreement network perceive value.  There is no longer such thing as “the customer” or “the buyer” because there are multiples within the agreement network. 

So much attention has been focused on helping salespeople communicate Return on Investment (ROI).  Is this working?  When asked “How would you rate your ability to create and present ROI information?”  88% of those salespeople surveyed in our Seller Insight Study indicated that they were either proficient (61%) or highly proficient (27%).  Really?  More importantly, are these models really capturing buyer perception of value?  Or are they creating a perception in sellers that they just need to capture ROI data to “communicate value”.  Nothing could be further from reality.  Is it good to capture and present financial impact?  In many cases it is.  But financial ROI is not a sufficient representation of value.


There is no singular perception of value.  A “company” does not perceive the value of your offerings through a single lens.  Therefore, a salesperson must not only understand who is involved in the buying process, but they must also understand how each influential person in that network perceives the value of the offering being considered.  Of course, this can’t happen without identifying and engaging the members of the agreement network each decision.  But assuming that a salesperson gains access to all of the relevant buyers, the Value Equation framework can be used by salespeople to understand the perspectives of each “buyer” in the agreement network.  See my earlier blog, Understanding How Value Adds Up for Buyers and read Introduction to the Value Equation Framework report for more detailed insights.


Also, it is irrelevant how much value a salesperson can envision for the customer if they would just move forward.  Only buyers can determine what is valuable.  How much forecasted revenue in your company’s pipeline right now is the result of the salesperson projecting their own bias of potential customer value, vs. what the prospective customers’ perceptions are?


This can all sound very daunting and resource intensive.  Regardless, this is the reality of selling in the 21st century.  If you want your salespeople to win large opportunities, then they must be proficient at understanding how value is perceived at the different altitudes and within the functional roles that participate in decision networks today, and they must be able to transfer relevant knowledge to the right buyers to help forge a strong perception of value. 


Here’s a dose of reality.  Only 19% (U.S.) of the more than 400 IT and Executive Buyers surveyed in our Buyer Insights Study believe that that meetings with salespeople are valuable and live up to their expectations.  Consider that 68% of the time, those buyers were already looking for a product that the vendor provides.  So there is clearly a break that occurs in the buying process after the salesperson has gained access to “a buyer.” 



When an opportunity is designated “lost to no decision,” a salesperson will more than likely point the finger at the price (too high), or product functionality (not enough), or some other factor.  To a degree they’re right; it’s clear that the buyer(s) didn’t see enough value to justify an investment.  Regardless, the responsibility still resides with the salesperson in a “no decision” outcome because they didn’t help the buyer connect the dots on value. 


For professionals in Sales Enablement roles the call to action is get real about the “no decision” impact on the top line, and take cross-functional coordinated action to help salespeople address this.  Does your company have a coordinated (as opposed to segmented) objective win/loss review process that involves the right people, culls out bias, and gets to the actionable facts to support salespeople in better communicating value?   Are your salespeople pitching products or services, or are they truly understanding the challenges and value equation of each of the roles involved in making decisions on the seller’s offerings?  How is your company measuring this?  How are you preparing your salespeople with the messages and capabilities to sell in the radically different selling environment that we are now in?


I’d love to hear your perspectives and discuss your specific opportunities for winning against “no decisions.”


Your new #1 competitor

Good morning Mark,

Your points are well made and I agree that a no decision is a no sale. Since real estate normally sells itself, providing the right information to the prospect is the crucial element. I can not sell if the buyer is not willing to purchase. Getting the buyer positioned to buy does require some study of the goals, interest, need, and ability to perform. A professional salesperson will take the time to ask the right questions about the prospects motives.
Hope you have a great Friday and a wonderful weekend.


Your #1 Competitor

Wow Mark, you have described in the one article all that is wrong with traditional sales approaches. What I would like to add though is the role that a modern marketing team plays in the buying cycle these days, particularly as afar as Sales Enablement is concerned. It is pretty much proven that getting your sales force and your marketing teams to work together delivers huge benefits and sales outcomes.
Ask me for more info, if you like.

Peter, we couldn't agree more

Peter, we couldn't agree more that the "getting your sales force and marketing teams to work together" has huge POTENTIAL benefits. I say "potential" because so many marketing and sales organizations think that they're working together when they're really not. There is so much silo-oriented thinking within each of these two functions, and such a level of misunderstanding of each other, that even when Marketing and Sales believe they're on the same page, are they really? So yes, Sales and Marketing need to work together. But how, and to what end, and within what common frameworks of understanding? How do we help them get a common understanding. This is what so much of our research is focused on.

Further, Peter, all of us in the profession of enabling salespeople share a challenge of extending this beyond just Sales and Marketing. I encourage you to search for and read the document "Sales Enablement Defined", by Scott Santucci. Scott addresses the surprisingly broad scope of activities that are occurring to support sales. Product Management, Product Marketing, Human Resources, Learning and Development as examples, all play roles in sales enablement and impact sales outcomes (positively or negatively). All of these functions need to work together in a coordinated, architected, systematic way. As a Sales leader and as an independent coach and advisor before joining Forrester, I didn't see this. I though that top line production was a Sales and Marketing issue. I was wrong and am happy to have had my eyes opened wide here. When the world wakes up and really starts to understand this and address cross-functional sales enablement, I believe we'll start to see to some truly amazing financial results. Those companies that are committed to adapting now will have a massive head start.

What's exciting, is that some organizations are starting to see that Sales Enablement from a more comprehensive cross-functional systems perspective. We're committed to continuing to lead the thinking in this regard through research and ongoing collaboration.

Your feedback is truly appreciated. Please stay in the conversation with us.



Losing to 'pipeline constipation'

Mark, Excellent analysis, and adore your 'pipeline constipation' analogy....very true, and very frustrating for both the salesperson and management trying to forecast.
In our very detailed and process structured 'win/loss reviews', my LoB has found, over and over again, at least 50% of our losses are due to facets around the customer 'relationship' aspect. Each loss has its own set of interwoven threads, but I believe that one of the threads that has merit is what you have brought up - the idea that behind each major decision maker is a network of 'approvers' that either influence them or directly hold the key to a gate. So, my take away from your analysis, as a sales enablement manager, is to come up with ways to enlighten sellers about this network...Yes, the better the relationship they can have with the decision maker before the decision, the better the process and outcome of the sale, BUT, dig deeper to uncover who his/her influencer network is and what view of ROI they care about; what is their set of 'valuables'.
I can tell you a recent story (a win) where the team was losing ground, the decision maker was giving all signs that we were not going to win the deal. Our lead salesperson took the decision maker out to lunch and was completely honest with the discussion and asked why. The decision maker told our salesperson the two biggest issues and the salesperson decided to go 'full guns' on these two issues, investigating more options, more avenues to bring value - but not just to the decision maker - to over a dozen people at the company, bringing them to a tour, having a demonstration, having a 'show and tell' for a group of people over a series of weeks. Yes, it turned the deal around. Number one, having an honest conversation with an honest decision maker, and number two, going all-out in exploring how to offer more value, and number three, bringing a team of people into the boat with the decision maker and working a web of relationships.
Not every deal can be worked this way, but it was an example of what you are referring to and how it can succeed.

Great insights Mark. It’s a

Great insights Mark. It’s a clarion call for marketing and sales executives to address an area in their go-to-market approach that has significant P&L impact in terms of cost burden and lost revenue.

In addition to the solution ideas you suggest I would add the need to understand that there are two main inflection points in the customer’s buying process 1) the buying decision (see the problem, agree the problem is worth solving, agree the problem is worth solving relative to other organization/departmental problems, agrees they need outside resources to help fix the problem) and 2) the purchase decision (what vendor or set of vendor do I hire to help me). Note: the buying decision is more common for disruptive products/services, i.e. early in technology adoption life cycle and again late in the TALC when it’s active for upgrading products and/or switching vendors.

This insight then can be used by Marketing and Sales to a) qualify where the customer is in their buying process b) select the right sales process (Why Change? and Why You? vs. just Why You?) c) Create messaging/content that is align with the buy/sell process and the key buyers in the decision network.

Only quibble I have is that at 43%, it’s really the #2 competitor. 57% of the deals are still lost to direct competitors.

Research regarding the buying inflection point

Michael, my colleague Norbert Kriebel just recently posted a new report ( in which he very elegantly addresses the very inflection point that you wisely called out. It's definitely worth checking out. Thanks again for contribution here.

All the Best,


No Decision/Alternative Use of Capital

Great post, you called it spot on.

The disconnect between buyer and seller perceptions never ceases to amaze. As sales people, we think we do a great job in quantifying/articulating our value yet buyers say the exact opposite. It's no wonder buyers complain that we sellers don't listen, unfortunately, it is sometimes true.

Closely related to No Decision is "Alternative Use of Capital". Imagine the company that has 20 projects under consideration, each with a solid business case. They have funding for 10 projects. The 20 projects are going to be stack ranked in terms of economic value, emotional value, political value, risk, etc. A top 10 will result and 10 projects will be left on the cutting room floor. Doesn't mean they weren't good projects, just not good enough.

A favorite expression of mine is that "every deal is associated with a customer project, and every project has a business case". The prospect doesn't think in terms of our deal, they think in terms of their project, and the business case supporting it.

To the extent we understand the project and the supporting business case (and collaboratively help the prospect define, build and articulate them), we will increase our "win rate" against No Decision and Alternative Use of Capital.

Thanks, Jim. You helped me

Thanks, Jim. You helped me clarify my own thinking on this, because I had actually rolled alternate use of capital into the "no decision" category (as in "decided not to buy this type of offering). It's definitely worth getting into what alternate uses of capital we might be competing with (at a strategic business level, and at an account or opportunity level) because in doing so we can identify and address exposures that will otherwise derail us after we've invested valuable resources.

Think of the investment that is squandered (globally) by salespeople chasing business, for way too long, that made sense within a functional silo but was never going to get funding approval vs. other projects that are deemed more crucial or better aligned to the business strategy. It's HUGE!

Your New #1 competitor

Great article and very relevant to the current business environment we compete in. It is critical to understand the interdepartmental decison making process. This current trend makes a company very slow to making critical decsions in a timely manner. This very well could have tough repercussions!