I’ve played and watched rugby union for almost 25 years and as an Irish supporter all that time, I’ve had my fair share of heartache and disappointment. I was in Lansdowne road during the fateful Rugby World Cup match in 1991, as Ireland fell agonisingly short to a star-studded Australian team, who would eventually go on to claim the World Cup trophy.

I was there again in 2003, this time in Melbourne, where Ireland once again tripped at the final hurdle losing to Australia by a single point. It was more in hope than expectation then, that I set off across the Tasman in 2011 to once again watch Ireland play their old World Cup nemesis, Australia.

The consensus view was that the Irish team would battle hard for 60 minutes, but eventually wilt under the Wallaby pressure and lose gallantly, as they had always done in past World Cups. On the evening of the match a number of elements favoured the Irish team. The Auckland weather was intermittently wet and quite chilly, reminiscent of an Irish summer’s evening. The ground was full of Irish supporters, with many Kiwi fan’s swapping allegiances for the night. Add to that, a number of Australia’s starting line-up were out due to injury and the stage was set for a titanic struggle, which I felt genuinely privileged to witness.

Sitting in Eden Park, with the sound of the final whistle still ringing in my ears, I was struck by the manner in which the Irish had achieved their victory. Their win perfectly illustrated for me the lesson that Sun Tzu first highlighted two thousand years ago in his military masterpiece The Art of War – the vital importance of ‘knowing your enemy’.

In today’s hyper-competitive sales environment, where detailed information on your offering is available to all prospective clients, and web forums expose any chinks in your corporate armour, I’m wondering whether understanding your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses is still sufficient to guarantee victory. As Sun Tzu clearly understood, strategic planning is not simply about working through a finite list of strengths and weaknesses; it needs to include quick and intelligent responses to changing conditions.

In order to be successful in your sales management strategy, you don’t necessarily require the market leading solution, the slickest demos or the cheapest price point. The critical factor is knowing where the strengths and weaknesses of your offering lie, understanding your competition and what tactics they might employ and most importantly, being adept at modifying or improving your strategy to suit the changing conditions within the sales cycle.

Some rugby purist’s bemoaned the lack of tries in the match between Ireland and Australia; they highlighted the poor refereeing decisions and the impact that the weather conditions had on ‘attractive’ rugby. What they were really saying was, “I didn’t like the fact that elements outside the control of the two teams impacted the result of the game”. The unfortunate fact remains, that is the reality of professional sport and it’s also the reality of the sales profession.

Yes it would be ideal if you could execute a transaction at full list price, if you could include every solution component that you believed the client required and could ensure the deal closed according to your forecast timeline. It would also be ideal if your prospective client had a structured decision making process, if your competitors adhered to the unwritten rules of the sales engagement and if every time you lost a sales opportunity, you knew the real reasons why.

However the reality is that, just like rugby matches, the vast majority of sales cycles are played out with constantly changing variables, a limited understanding of the competitive landscape and virtually no control over the decision-making criteria. They don’t consist of a single, winner takes all meeting, but a series of skirmishes and long drawn out battles for the ultimate prize. My personal belief is that gaining specific insights into why you win and lose each battle is rapidly becoming the secret weapon in winning the war, which sales organisations wage against one another on a daily basis.

So my question for you is, how important is it really to ‘know your enemy’ unless you have a good understanding of the conditions under which the battle will be fought?

Cian McLoughlin is the Amazon #1 bestselling author of Rebirth of the Salesman, a regular keynote speaker at sales kick-off’s around the world and one of the Top 50 Sales bloggers in the world for the past 2 years. He is a passionate proponent of an ethical, honest and authentic approach to sales. His company, Trinity Perspectives, is committed to helping sales organizations unlock the latent potential of their customers’ insights with their Win Loss Analysis and Sales Transformation services. To read more of Cian’s sales articles visit www.trinityperspectives.com.au/blog

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