Chess as a Sales Strategy

I’m a long suffering NY Jets fan. The last time it felt like they were competitive, their coach at the time (Rex Ryan) mapped out their playoff schedule during the regular season, which included winning the Super Bowl and the subsequent parade. Was Ryan confident or arrogant? I’d say he’s a good (not great) chess player.

Chess is a great game of strategy and skill which requires each player to deploy moves in order to achieve “checkmate”. How does one get to checkmate? The best chess players will map out their strategy in great detail – in some cases, a chess opening can be mapped out 30-35 moves in advance. As play advances, if the player sees a move they did not expect, they reassess their position and map out a new set of moves. In any case, the end goal is always the same – to get to checkmate.

In a sales scenario, let’s assume that checkmate is the ability to close a deal in process. There are several strategies that sales leaders will employ to navigate a deal to closure – a typical strategy is to “work backwards” to make sure everything is in place to close a deal by a certain date. As an example, if the goal is to close a deal by the end of the quarter, a sales executive may map out their process as follows:

  • March 31 – deal signed
  • March 24 – final paperwork in decision maker’s hands
  • March 17 – final legal review with client team
  • March 1 – all internal reviews/approvals completed
  • February 15 – final team meeting with client to get verbal approvals and start negotiations
  • February 1 – client meeting to present proposal

This process ensures that there is enough time between today and the proposed close date to get all the efforts required completed – it’s amazing how many times doing this simple task shows that in a normal process, a sales executive cannot complete their deal by the date forecasted! Once this simple exercise is complete, the sales executive should then work forward and determine the strategies and tactics required to get through each of these dates. In other words, plan 10-15 moves ahead and determine all the moves to get to checkmate. This will include internal discussions with legal and finance managers, external discussions with both technical and business decision makers at the prospect, interaction with team members, and outside influences from competitors, partners and other third parties.

It’s literally impossible for a successful sales executive to perfectly plan ahead for the next 10-15 moves – just like chess. When something occurs that isn’t planned, a new set of moves must be mapped out. Those sales executives that leave control in the customers’ hands, or who do not map out their moves but just deal with what is in front of them are less likely to succeed in the long run – and certainly will be out-maneuvered by competitors whose sales executives employ this strategy. One of the major aspects of creating a repeatable sales process is to know the strategies and tactics that will typically lead to success, and making sure you create these opportunities in each of your deals.

So, why is Rex Ryan a good chess player? He defined checkmate as winning the Super Bowl, and mapped out all the moves his team had to make to get there. By going into great detail (including the parade after their big win), he let the team know that he was acutely aware of all the strategies and tactics necessary to get them there – not that it would be easy or a guarantee, but that these moves give them the best chance of success. I’m sure that some of the plans he’s already laid out have not gone entirely as planned – and the results show that Ryan is a good chess player, but not a great one.

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