TALKING SALES 220: "Why we really lost that order"

John Smibert

"What are we doing different to differentiate?"  - A discussion between Cian McLoughlin and  John Smibert.
How often do we really understand why we won or lost an order?

Win-loss specialist, Cian McLoughlin,  told me that we get it wrong too often. In many cases we really don't know why we lost the order and that's of concern. And just as bad, we often do not really know why we won the order.

Regularly the reasons B2B buyer's tell Cian they decided for or against a vendor are totally different to the reasons the vendor had assumed

When we are getting it wrong we are not learning and have no chance to adapt in order to improve our close rate.

In this discussion Cian explains the typical top 4 or five reasons given by buyers and compares them to the top 4 or 5 assumed by vendors - the difference is significant and concerning. Will they surprise you?

View or read the full interview below to learn what customer's say about why they made the decision. Salespeople, Sales Leaders and CEO s will both find this valuable.


Cian McLoughlin is a guru in win/loss analysis, he's a speaker, an author, and a leading adviser to the sales fraternity.

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John: Hey B2B salespeople, my Strategic Selling Group members - welcome back! I've got Cian with me again.

Cian: Hello, John - nice to be here!

John: Cian McLoughlin is the one person I know that spends his whole life talking to customers about why they've made decisions, so you learn enormous amount that the rest of us in the sales world really don't get to see.

Cian: I'm very privileged, John, to play... I suppose you'd call it , at the intersection of the sales cycle and the buying cycle, and to get both sides of the story and be able to bring the two sets of perspectives together. It is a very lucky and a very privileged position to be in.

John: What I want to ask you, based on that, is why do customers really make decisions, versus what we think they're basing their decision on?

Cian: It's a great question. If I look at why we think we win maybe first, there's lots and lots of different reasons, and obviously we're talking about the higher end of B2B sales,  maybe but lots of different reasons. But the ones that come most frequently when we talk to salespeople, they talk about, "We think we won based on price, we had the sharpest price or the best price point. Our product or our service was clearly superior, and the quality of our team or the quality of our people," they're the ones that tend to crop up most. Interestingly, when we talk to customers and even their customers about why they have made their decisions, they absolutely do talk about the quality of their people, and that tends to be...

John: But that's number one, versus number three or four.

Cian: Or five or six.

John: Yes.

Cian: Quality of the people invariably is the top one. But cultural fit, which is another interesting one, comes up very often. "We liked them, we trusted them and they understood us." There was a great example that a customer gave of one of the sales teams coming in and recognising that even though they were talking to this particular group of people who were white collar, the organisation more broadly was blue collar.

They went out and did a very, very small thing, which was they got some ruggedised tablets and said, "Maybe your team could use these when they're out on site. Drop concrete on them and water and all that sort of thing and they'll be protected," and they could even take them home on the weekends and their kids could play with them and they couldn't get damaged. That one gesture spoke to cultural fit so strongly that it really moved that particular vendor from second or third place into first place, because it said, "You get us, you understand us," so cultural fit is huge.

The other one we hear a lot, and this is kind of a catch-all is, "You collaborated with us, you challenged us, you managed and mitigated our risks." Things like that, where you really went above and beyond the call of duty, tend to be why customers actually do make decisions in our favour.

John: "We like you as people, you had a cultural fit, you really got us, and finally you were able to bring value to the table through that cultural fit and through that understanding of us."

Cian: Yes, correct. "And you've obviously done your 'discovery', because you could take all those learnings about us and you could create that into something which is of not just value to us but it feels so incredibly specific and relevant and personalised to exactly what it is that we're looking for."

John: Yes and you used the words "challenge, teach, lead" and so on. To me that's creating value, because if I can help them think through the challenges and issues they've got in their business and I can take them through a thinking journey to ultimately a way in which they can address those issues and get the outcomes they're looking for in their business, I'm creating a lot of value for them. And if I've done that because I culturally understand them and we fit well together and we have great people that can take them through that value and put the value on the table.

Cian: You're there.

John: You're there.

Cian: And notice I didn't mention product and I didn't mention price in any of that. Now, the reverse question is why do we lose and why do we think we lose, and what we hear often is we hear that people do feel they lost on price. Another one that we hear quite often is "We lost because we think they were always going to go with an incumbent, or they were always going to do nothing," or "We lost maybe because we didn't have sufficient executive sponsorship or we didn't have the right kind of stakeholder value in the business." Interestingly, from a customer's perspective what we hear is "You didn't listen or you didn't really take the time to understand our needs. We saw you as unprofessional or we saw you as a high-risk option for us to pursue." All of those frustrate me, but the one that really frustrates me is "You focused too much on your solution and you didn't focus enough on our problem," we hear that all the time.

John: Yes.

Cian: So it's that kind of show up and throw up mentality, "This is what I've got in the bag so I'm going to show to you today, and you just sit there quietly until I'm finished." That's a crazy approach to take, and it's wasting golden opportunity.

John: Last time we talked about customer revolution, but the reality is in sales, for me going right back 30-40 years, I've been around a while, it was never show up and throw up. The best salespeople I knew in the 1970s and 1980s were the ones that had the understanding of working personally with their customer and that really worked on understanding the customer's issues from the business point of view, and not coming in and saying, "I've got a great solution and let me tell you all about it."

Cian: Yes. "You're the nail, I'm the hammer, and I'll hit it in the same way over and over again." One of the biggest mistakes I think that a lot of organisations make is we talk about, "What's your win rate? - We're winning 3 out of 10, we're winning 5 out of 10 or whatever." That's a flawed concept, because actually the question is "What's the competitive win rate in your market, and how many of those deals are you actually not involved in, how many of those deals are you not privy to and do you not know about?" and that's a much more important question. Then we need to recognise how inherently valuable the opportunities we do have are, and the fact that if we have done a halfway decent job, then invariably we've earned the right to this feedback to go and talk to our customers, extract these insights and then go away and do something with them. But too few companies are doing it at the moment.

John: I've got a customer in the cyber security marketplace, and I tell you they're winning close to 100% of the deals that they work on. They select them, I'd use the old term "qualify well", but the qualification is very much along the lines you're talking about. "Are we able to work with this organisation? Do we have a cultural fit? Are we able to bring value to them? Can we challenge and lead them, and are they responding in that way?" Because when we have that relationship, it probably doesn't matter too much what the product is; as long as you've got a good product, you're going to win the business.

Cian: Correct - yes, I couldn't agree more. Your product and your price are your ticket to the dance; if they're not at the right level, you're not even going to get in the door and you're not going to get to the shortlist. But assuming you have that, the next question becomes "What else are we doing, how else are we looking to differentiate?" and that's the crux of the win versus loss conversation.

John: And that comes back then to EQ and all the other things we've been discussing in the last few interviews.

Cian: Yes indeed.

John: Cian, thank you very much, and I think hopefully that's really good value for the people out there. It is for me, I'm learning all the time from these wonderful people I'm interviewing, and I really want to thank Cian for coming along.

Johno the reader: Let me know if you've got any other questions you want me to put to Cian next time I get together with him. In the meantime, I wish you success with taking the insight that Cian and others are bringing to the table and have a wonderful year of selling! Hope you're meeting your quota, but remember your focus in on the customer and helping the customer achieve their outcomes, and it's not on you getting the order.


More interviews with Cian McLoughlin:



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