So you think the stakes are high in selling? Consider the battlefield, where one false move can cost life or limb.

In fact, you can learn a lot from the legendary Chinese general of two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu, says sales guru Tom Searcy.

Sun Tzu’s book, “The Art of War,” is often required reading for CEOs, as he shares his thinking on strategies that underlie military – and other kinds of – success. But many of his lessons are equally applicable to salespeople, especially in the area of prospecting.

Sun Tzu’s main message: Battles are won through knowledge and strategy, not simply force of numbers. “Why destroy,” he asks, “when you can win by stealth and cunning?”

That’s good advice when you’re selling against bigger and richer competitors. You won’t win against them by trying to match their capabilities and resources. You have to outsmart them.

Consider these lessons:

1. Get yourself some spies
Sun Tzu says: “Advance knowledge cannot be gained from ghosts and spirits, but must be obtained from people who know the enemy situation.” In other words, find yourself some spies.

We’re not talking about literal corporate espionage, of course. We’re talking about getting human intelligence about the prospect.

Anybody can gather information. In fact, your big competitors probably have more info-gathering resources than you do. But information becomes intelligence only when someone can tell you what it means. Sure, the annual report says your prospect is growing. But only an insider can tell you that the company is in danger of missing those growth targets next year. Unless you have developed such inside contacts, you don’t have a real opportunity. In fact, for a big sale, you need at least one friend or champion – preferably more – inside the organization.

2. Get the latest plan
“The best approach is to attack the other side’s strategy…” Sun Tzu wrote. Another way to uncover a prospect’s concerns is through understanding the prospect’s strategic plan.

But plans change. And the “official” plan may already be out of date. The real strategic plan may not even exist as a formal document yet. It may be a work in progress. If you can get a look at that plan – knowing that it will change – you’ll know what is important to buyers right now and where their money will be directed. That goes a long way toward helping you find the biggest problem to solve.

3. Find the buyer’s ‘laxity’
“Deeply investigate the true situation, secretly await their laxity,” the general advised. In other words, know where your buyer is vulnerable – because that’s what they worry about and where you can help them the most.

Buyers will often try to hide their weaknesses. The way to find these answers is to have your champion give them to you.

Come right out and ask your champion, with language like this: “Tell me, if your organization were to fail, what would be the most likely reason?” or, “Every organization has vulnerabilities. Where would you say your biggest exposures are right now?”

Source: To learn more from Tom Searcy, visit

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