Ever participated in a conversation like this one?

Sales Manager: So, where are we in the MegaCorp deal? What do we need to do to get them to the next step?

Salesperson: We’re in good shape. Based on our last meeting there, I think their VP Operations will recommend a pilot project using our product.

Sales Manager: That’s great! We really need this one to close! What are our chances?

A sales cliff hanger! Do you think MegaCorp will buy? How much will they spend? When will the transaction occur?

Hard to tell. But based on the manager’s questions, I’m not bullish. She’s more worried about conforming to her sales process than about getting a clue about her rep’s situation. And based on her questions, she’s not on track to find out, either. Without situational awareness, her rep is just another weak-kneed, wobbly, vulnerable fawn, unprotected in an open field. The deal they’re discussing is prey for opportunistic competitors.

If you happen to be reading this in an airplane, you don’t need to ask your pilot about the importance of situational awareness, because the answer is apparent. It takes more than knowing the distance to the airport to perform a safe landing. Whether you fly a plane, command a tank, or sell complex products and services, situational awareness is mission critical. So why do so many sales executives take a process-centric view of managing sales opportunities, and fail to perceive what’s happening around them? I don’t know. Habit, perhaps?

But maybe my personal sales horror story will persuade even the most zealous process stickler to consider a different, more enlightened approach, which I’ll describe in a moment. Several years ago, I pursued a large opportunity, and met with the buying team for the final step—the closing call, as it’s commonly known. Everything’s fine, until from the back of the room, Frank (not his real name) raises his hand. “Does your solution work on token ring?” he asks. I respond “no,” and Frank exclaims “Over my dead body will this company buy any system that doesn’t work on token ring!” (true story). There was utter silence. None of Frank’s colleagues challenged him. I had never considered hiring a hit man to win an order, but for a moment, I confess  – that gremlin shamelessly landed on my shoulder.

Frank was a blind-side tackle. Frank had the wherewithal to single-handedly kill my sale. And he did. My token-ring touting competitor won the order. Ironic, because sales process-wise, my opportunity looked good—excellent, in fact. But before my closing call, I didn’t know that my prospect had token ring installed. I didn’t know about Frank’s influence. Heck, I didn’t even know Frank!

I especially didn’t know that my Ethernet-connectable hardware was a show-stopper, because I never experienced the issue before. In short, I had no clue about my situation! My experience is all too common. In a sales risk survey I conducted with CustomerThink, 43% of respondents reported that “unexpected situations” played a role in sales opportunity losses. Many are preventable.

There’s hope. If The Endsley Model isn’t a part of your monthly sales meeting PowerPoint, include it for the next one. The Endsley model has three components:

  1. the perception of inputs
  2. comprehending the inputs
  3. projecting outcomes

Subtract any part of this straightforward triumvirate, and there’s no situational awareness. Not surprisingly, it’s borrowed from the military domain where the Endsley Model is tested in the context of complex, dynamic environments. That describes sales as well.  “Your focus is on your competitor . . . the customer becomes the battlefield. You’re not trying to take down your competitor, you’re just trying to beat your competitor’s strategy at that particular time,” said Ryan Kubacki, CEO of sales training company Holden International.

In many sales situations, major risks come not from direct competitors, but other projects that vie for the same project capital. Situational awareness means understanding what those competing uses for capital are, along with some other important artifacts:

1. Forces. What conditions or situations are exerting impact on the prospect company right now? Which ones are perceived as having the greatest impact?

2. Changes and triggers. What’s happened since our last account review that presents a significant new opportunity or major risk to our strategic and tactical direction? Which issues have surfaced? How can we capitalize on the opportunity or mitigate the risk?

3. Competition. What other initiatives are contending for the same funding? What are their strategies for getting it? How do those strategies play against our strengths and weaknesses? What changes have developed in their strategies, and why? What new competitive vulnerabilities exist, and how quickly can we exploit them?

4. Biases, attitudes, and sentiments. What evidence have we received regarding changes in perception toward our company, personnel, product, solution, or proposal?

5. Communication channels. Which communication channels are available to us, and are they adequate for capitalizing on our strategic opportunities and mitigating our risks?

6. Networks and access. Are the people who are most important in our collaboration part of our network, and do we have access to them to share ideas? What changes are taking place, and what new risks and opportunities do they present?

7. Assumptions. Which assumptions are we making right now, if false, will jeopardize this sales opportunity?

Eliminating blind-side tackles like the one I experienced means being attuned to the right information at the right time, and knowing how to recognize and avoid distractions.

So go ahead and ask about how to get to the next step. Situational awareness  raises the odds of getting there!