Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Legend of the Purple Squirrel

Part III

You are a sales team in an enterprise deal and here's the situation:

You're up against a behemoth of a competitor

The evaluation is poorly managed and you have been forbidden access to the decision makers

You have one last shot to win

What do you do?

To recap the previous installment, my team was working on an opportunity with a DC non-profit organization. We were hastily called in and provided a straightforward, sincere, presentation on our capabilities, followed by an awesome lunch at the Capital Grille, and we made the final list of two. It was down to us and Microsoft.

To win, we had to win. A "tie" and my competitor wins. And lets not forget the whole "No one gets fired for buying Microsoft factor". We were the riskier purchase. To top it all off, every bit of technology in that shop was Microsoft and we were written in Java.

All things being equal we really were a better fit. The prospect had over 20 sites that they wanted in multiple languages, with pdf download, and xml syndication requirements. This was our sweet spot. However, because we had limited communications with the prospect, we needed a hook, an easily-consumed message that would resonate with the audience and strengthen our claim as a better fit for their requirements.

"The Purple Squirrel" idea actually came about as a result of a conversation with a seasoned consultant who claimed that given enough time, money, and resources, you could build (in software) anything, even a purple squirrel.

Now, before you go nuts and try something in your sale pitch that has only been successful in the cartoons, it is important to know that there are three criteria for anything included in your sales presentation:




In short, you want to be talking about the right things, to the right people, at the right time. Miss one of these criteria and you lower your chances of moving forward in the deal.

Cahill and I surmised that our most valuable advantage was that we had functionality relevant to the project that was part of our standard software install that would otherwise have to be custom built in the Microsoft software. The challenge was that the last scheduled meeting would be timed and scripted. When your meeting is scripted you can't veer too far off topic without looking like a real schmuck.

So we devised a way to draw a great deal of attention to our advantages, without veering off script.

We arranged our presentation accordingly with only the following modifications:

Early in the presentation we had a graphic of our purple friend with the words "Purple Squirrels = Time and Money" emblazoned across the screen.

Secondly we placed two types of small graphics throughout the presentation. The first was our friend, sized about .75" x .75", on those slides that discussed features that would have to be custom built in the Microsoft solution, underscoring the message that there was expenses involved with our competitor that where not applicable to our solution. For example in our solution you could have an unlimited number of stages in a document's work flow approval process. At that time, Microsoft's could only support five stages before custom code had to be used.

The second graphic was the squirrel with a red circle and line superimposed on it, in a manner that you see "No Smoking" signs. We placed those on the slides where we offered a feature out of the box that they would normally have to build. For example our solution would automatically manage embedded hyperlinks within content. So if a press release had a link to product information that had been updated or removed from the site, the link would automatically be removed or updated.

We pack up and fly to DC. We were a bit nervous, because if our audience didn't really "get" what we are doing, we are going to look real stupid, real fast.

We arrived for our meeting, exchanged introductions, and started on the first exercise in the script, using PowerPoint to explain what we were about to accomplish in the software and to highlight any relevant advantages of our approach, followed by a software demonstration. At the beginning, we explained that the squirrel logo was simply there to highlight those areas where we offer more value than our competitor. We proceed through each section of the script, without drawing any additional attention to the squirrel, but it was obvious the audience had conditioned themselves to look for the graphic as we progressed along, because every time the squirrel appeared the number of questions increased vs those slides without the squirrel.

After a meeting like this, you can feel good about it, but you really do not know how well you did. I have been in meetings where I thought we hit a home run, only to find out we were practically eliminated in the first 15 minutes. Conversely, we've all had those client experiences where you would rather have gone through a severe IRS audit, only to find out that you were the best presentation they had seen. After this stunt, I didn't have the courage to fathom a guess on how well we ranked.

"Sasser, what in the hell is a purple squirrel?" This is how my VP of North American Sales greeted me on our Monday Morning conference call the following week. A quick lesson, if you are going to try a Purple Squirrel Maneuver, and you have the experience and seniority to suffer the consequences if you fall flat on your ass, tell as few people as possible. It is usually those with the least amount of field experience that will try and stop you.

Anywho, my inside team had followed up with the prospect while I was on the plane ride back home. The prospect responded that they really enjoyed the "rodent" in our presentation, and went on to share that during the meeting with the other vendor, the phrase "Oh we can do that with a little extra code" by the vendor was answered with an almost group wide cry of "PURPLE SQUIRREL!!!!".

Yeah we won. My team looked like heroes and the Purple Squirrel became a legend.

Mainly because the circumstances never aligned where we deemed it necessary, we never used the squirrel again.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Legend of the Purple Squirrel

Part II

Being a virtual team we had people stationed all over the country. I lived in Georgia, my primary Sales Engineer lived in Providence, and our corporate office was in Boston.

A few years ago, in the middle of summer, our inside team finds an opportunity at a DC non-profit organization. This was a common event that was made special by the first phone call "Yeah, we meant to call you guys, but we forgot, but we have you scheduled for an onsite presentation this Wednesday".

"Whoa" was my initial response. Without giving us any written requirements, 36 hours notice, and no real contact to any of the decision makers, we were supposed to assemble our team and come into their organization and be relevant to their project based on one phone call. A project whose requirements where not going to be documented until after our first presentation. Lovely.

Frankly I wanted to take a pass, but unfortunately, it would have taken more effort to get out of going, than actually doing the meeting.

So Cahill and I meet up in DC, in July, wearing suits, looking suave, and with the lowest G.A.D. (Give A Damn) factor imaginable.

Its interesting, when your G.A.D. factor is that low, you come across as extremely confident. So confident in fact that when we met the project lead, who happened to be French, we corrected his English on our way into the board room.

We enter the board room and the consultant leading the evaluation(the one who was late on documenting the requirements) politely introduces herself and gives us the instructions. There was to be two segments to the presentation; "business requirements" and "technical requirements". She would monitor the questions during the demonstration and only the appropriate questions should be answered in each section. To clarify, if a technical question was asked during the business portion of the presentation, we were not to answer, but she would right down the question and we answer during the technical portion.

We had made reservations and announced to the consultant that we had a lunch meeting down the street from the Capital and would be finishing fifteen minutes earlier than the allotted time. She nodded her head in approval.

So the team for the Business portion of the requirements files in. Very nice people. After a brief conversation I realized it was the consultant's lack of performance that has caused the mad rush. But the G.A.D. factor still remained in the cellar.

We gave one of the most sincere, straight-forward presentations of our lives that afternoon. "No, our software doesn't do that", "I wouldn't try that if I were you, it will be expensive", and ,my favorite, "Our competitor does a better job in that area". I don't know if you ever had the Porterhouse at the Capital Grille in DC, but yeah, its worth it and I didn't want to be late.

During our meeting, no less than 20 times, our responses were interrupted by a shrill "Don't Answer!, Please save that for the technical portion!!!!". In fact the consultant stopped our presentation to scold the evaluation team (the people that were paying her) that they should limit their questions to only the topics listed on the requirements document (the one they told us that didn't exist 36 hours earlier).

So fine, we power through the business requirement, being polite, professional, and very succinct.

Finally, the consultant announces that we have reached the end of the business requirements. We were to take a 5 minute break and allow the technical team enough time to file in, and the business team to file out.

So we grab a coke, check our watches, and expect a mad rush of people.

One person gets up to leave.

And that's it.

No other people come in.

The exact same people are on both teams. The one who left was a secretary who was curious to what a content management system could do.

An group eye roll commenced in the direction of the consultant as we continued on.

We thanked everyone for their time. I had my steak, and we left DC.

Two days later we learn the evaluation was down to us and Microsoft. Microsoft hadn't actually shown up for their presentation, they barely returned phone calls, and no one at the client actually had seen the product. But they did know that it was doing the site for the XBox, so it had that going for them. (Disclaimer: My Microsoft stock is underwater right now, please buy as much Microsoft as you can).

So it was my team, who had jumped through hoops, paid prime travel dollar, and had 3 days invested in this, vs. Microsoft who was almost too busy to talk to the client in the final round.

It was time for the Purple Squirrel.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Whats in a Name?

The post below was forwarded to me in response to a question posted on After initially reading and laughing, a horrible thought struck me "Uh, oh I might be one of the guys he's talking about".

Thank you Gerald for sharing

"I've had business development people greet me in public places in a highly enthusiastic manner, which diminished not one iota after I advised them that I did not actually go by the name by which they addressed me.

In fact, I am an entirely different person and have an actual acquaintance with the real people they thought I was.

The five times this has happened, I was pressed to accept a business card and a luncheon invitation, both of which I have not further pursued."

-Gerald L.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Purple Squirrel's Performance Anxiety

Sales meetings come in many forms - educational overviews, service level negotiations, real estate tours. For those of us in technology sales, "Proof of Concept" meeting brings the sort of peril that can take three seasoned professionals and strip them of all their confidence.

Government agencies, unlike private industry, need to justify each step of a purchase process, documenting the many ways that their requirements, which often strain reality require a 50% discount for the pleasure of doing business with them.

Back in the early 00's, Sasser, "Steve," and I presented to the agency developing the project scope and specification for a website spanning all Federal agencies, and bringing information resources together in one spot. The agency compiled a panel of two outside consultants and internal technology specialists to compare and evaluate the companies bidding for the work.

Our instructions were to arrive at the appointed date and time with a virgin laptop (If you knew our company, there was no such thing. "bada bing, I'll be here all week, don't forget to tip your waitress") and await further instructions.

Upon arrival, we had a schedule timed to the minute, with sections charmingly titled -

"install software"
"receive materials"
"build site from scratch"

During the break, the three of us happened to be using the men's room at the same time, and luckily, all had brought all of our bags, jackets, whatever.

"Whaddya think? They're all inside, we could leave now, and just pretend the whole thing never happened."

"That's an option - they don't know our hotels?"

"You leave anything behind in there?"

"No, we're good - let's jet."

Of course, being wusses, we didn't.

Point being, even given a structured evaluation process and intelligent people running that process, the temptation to ask a company to create a Purple Squirrel out of thin air, on a moment's notice, keeps smart people and good products from getting to the market.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Back Button

A few years a go, one of my Sales Engineers was involved in a bake off at financial services firm in Manhattan. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bake off in the world of enterprise software is used to described when a company, evaluating solutions, brings in a multiple vendors and submits their systems to a series of scripted tasks. The company's evaluation team monitors the performance and attempts to get a handle on what they can reasonably expect from the system, and look for those hidden gotchas that may come back to bite them in the butt.

So we make it into the bake off, and there is a lot of excitement around the office because if this financial services firm is a house hold name and to have them as a client would do wonders for enhancing our reputation as a major player in our field. Needless to say we threw our best people onto the project and sent a small army to pull this off.

Each vendor was assigned two days. We go in for our first day and things are going along reasonably well.

A word here about content management systems. The beauty behind them is that they separate content from its presentation layer. This allows someone to simply fill out a basic web form and have it published into HTML, PDF, XML simultaneously with the proper tags, formatting, etc. The user interface for our system was all browser-based. So you could have two windows open, one where you are typing in your content, and the other as your content appears on your website.

As I mentioned, things were going along great, and we were in the middle of showing how to create a press release by simply filling out one of our web forms, when a member of the evaluation team stops us. "Hit your the browser's back button right now" he ordered.

"Excuse me?" came our reply.

"Hit your back button. I want to see if it saves what you have typed so far or you would lose everything when it goes back to the previous page"

"Ok". Our Sales Engineer navigated back one page. Its at that point that the question was answered. Unless the user clicked on the "Save" button at the bottom of the screen, the newly typed content would be lost.

Awkward Silence.

The evaluation team left the room.

More Awkward Silence.

After 20 minutes, the head of the team came in, thanked us for our efforts, but politely dismissed us by stating that we have failed in one of the major requirements and that there would be no need for us to return the following day.

After our attempts to stay were politely denied, we left.

The bake off was held in Tower 1, World Trade Center. The date was September 10th, 2001.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Legend of the Purple Squirrel

Part 1

The argument can be made that in the majority of "deals" the winning vendor typically offers either A) the lowest price B) a unique, relevant solution to a pressing problem or C) a combination of both.

Not Really a Legend, the Story of the Purple Squirrel is centered on my team's efforts to create a unique, humorous, yet effective means in which to relay to a prospective client the value of our solution. To be honest it was the summer and my team had grown weary, some would say bored, with our own sales pitch. While it was true we were top grossing team in North America, we were starting to lose the "excited tone" in our presentations and we needed a change. Add to the mix that a newly found prospect, and their disorganized evaluation process somewhat pissed us off, we felt we had the opportunity to stretch outside our comfort zone a bit and doing something fun.

Before we go to much further, lets talk about what it takes to pull off a successful Purple Squirrel maneuver. First you need confidence in your solution and yourself (or your team). Next you need a combination of "uniqueness" AND relevancy. Every viable competitor offers a relevant solution to a varying degree so being one of those "who get it" is usually not enough. In addition being really unique, without being relevant, well, that just makes you a weirdo.

And there are limits to being creative and one should not throw common sense out the window when trying to think outside the box.

We came across an illustration of this a few years ago. My team was competing for the business of a Midwestern media company. We had made it through the preliminary stages of the evaluation and were invited in for the first of many onsite presentations. As we walked into the conference room and started to setup our equipment, the members of the evaluation team filed in. While not quite apparent at first, we eventually noticed a brand new pair of white tube socks sitting in the middle of the table. The tags where still on them. When asked, the head of the evaluation committee gave this amused look and said "Oh, those are from the last presentation *snicker*".

One of our competitors was a start-up. Brand new, without an established customer base or adequate resources, they tried to compensate for their organizational deficiencies with "scrappiness". When you're scrappy you try stuff.

Scrappy Plan A - send almost the entire company to the meeting.
I do not know why Senior Executives think this is a great idea, but, The President, Senior Vice President, Vice President of Sales, Vice President of Development, The Sales Rep, and Finally the Sale Engineer attended the first meeting. Everyone was eager (and scrappy), all wore dark suits, and all were there to make the commitment to the prospect that they were going to make them the best customer ,etc. And yes, the next release would satisfy all of their needs, professional, personal, and even sexual if need be.

Scrappy Plan B - start off with a bang.
So the socks. Im sure this sounded really good on the car ride over, but after the introductions were exchanged, the meeting started with the Sales Rep lobbing the new pair of the aforementioned socks on the table and proclaiming to the room "You are going to need these.....because what Im about to show you will.....(you see where this is going don't you?).......knock your socks off!!!!


Scrappy Plan C - when asked a question, be scrappy

"So what happens if I have a problem after you close?" Our company - Our London Office handles our after-hours support, we forward our 800 support line to them at night.

Scrappy Company - You wont have any problems.

Needless to say, startup company didnt make the cut. Im assuming that the Sale Rep expensed the socks.


IM Slang - Learn It Before You Use It

The advent of Internet chat has allowed virtual teams to communicate just as effectively as those in the same office.

One member of my team "Sue" had an unusual perception on the proper use of the "lol" acronym. Instead of relaying the condition of "laughing out loud" she used it as more of an end of transmission signal. Much in the same manner that CB'ers would use "10-4" or the military would use "Roger".

Me: "Hey Sue, How's it Going"

Sue: "Hey, Doing Great LOL"

Me: "How did your doctor's visit go?"

Sue: "After some tests, it was determined that I have a flesh eating virus, LOL"

Sue: "Crap, there goes my left arm, LOL"

Me: "Holy Jesus, Sue"

Sue: "Oh Yeah, the pain can not be described with mere words, LOL"

Sue: "Oh heavenly father, please take me now dear sweet lord, LOL"

While I'm not proud about it, I loved chatting with Sue.

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Long Arm of the Law

Its a true shame that law enforcement isn't involved more directly in the sales process. . .

Summertime, and a few of the sales engineers on the team were on vacation - I cover for someone in Texas, and I have a colleague from San Francisco cover the Chicago trip. Not unusual until I get a call right before my meeting.

"Hey, what's up. Where's *Dave*? We have a meeting that I flew here to cover and he's not here yet. We need to present in 20 minutes."

"I'll check."

20 minutes pass with no sign of *Dave*. *Jennifer* runs the call, no problem.

*Dave,* as it turns out, got into a mild (mild, mind you) fender-bender on the way to the call, with a woman hitting the rear bumper of his car.

*Dave* goes ballistic, screaming at the woman.

Police arrive; *Dave* continues erupting, demanding that the police "do something."

They did.

"Sir, turn around and put your hands on the hood of the car, you're under arrest."

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