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Disruption Selling: Unseating Incumbents with a Multi-Year Sales Strategy


“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. He will win who prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. He will win who has the military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War


After we defined customer portfolios, assigned them to portfolio teams who then developed portfolio and account plans specifying their multi-year plan to conquer the respective market segments we finally proceed to execution.


Not every opportunity we will come across will help us achieve our mission. Instead, teams must pick those where the disruptive innovation provides a compelling, non-traditional value proposition clearly differentiating it from the incumbents’ offering. Unfortunately, standard buying processes like auctions and RfPs are designed to eliminate exactly this to increase competition. As a result, we must generate our own sales cycles using three distinct deal strategies.


With Attacking from Below we go after the soft belly of the incumbents. Rather than attacking them frontally we go where their defense is weak, e.g. in geographically remote places like small sales units in emerging markets, or new use cases they deem too small to pay attention to.


With Attacking from Behind we go after a larger chunk of the customer’s spend without alarming the incumbents. Here an overwhelming value of our disruptive innovation combined with speed is key to achieve a customer decision before the incumbents can react. This requires us to develop a relationship with a situational power base strong enough to act outside the standard buying decision process.


With Attacking from the Top we go after the entire customer spend in just one sales cycle. This requires a value proposition strong enough to engage the enterprise power base and an urgency to realize it that justifies for the customer taking a short cut on the standard buying decision process.


We generate Attacking from Below opportunities primarily with generic sales plays while the other two strategies require customer-specific sales initiatives. Especially for Attacking from the Top we need direct involvement of the disruptor’s leadership team to demonstrate commitment to customer success on C-level.


The longer we can hide our activities from the incumbents and their supporters the more momentum we already built by the time we directly confront them.


Their most-likely counter-tactic will be Attacking from the Top leveraging the history and relationships they built over decades with the customer’s decision makers. It is therefore critical to tightly control the communication with the customer especially on the highest management levels. The customer's executive board must only get involved after the relevant power base already committed to our proposal.


As we move through the Technology Adoption Cycle we will attack from behind or the top already at Innovators and Early Adopters while still attacking from below at Mainstream customers. In large customer organizations we will even have to run a combination simultaneously still addressing less innovative parts of the organization with Attacking from Below while already Attacking from Behind at more innovative parts.


To make things even more complicated we also need to vary our value stage positioning using the lower end (Commodity and Product) for Attacking from Below and the higher end (Solution and Strategic Alliance) for Attacking from Behind or Attacking from the Top.


For additional detail go here to access the Executive Summary.

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