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Levels of Engagement: Strategy, Sun Tzu, and Alliance Success

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/10/2013

What do plastics, garbage, health care, and Sun Tzu have in common? All of these were components of a presentation given on the final day of the 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, entitled “Laying a Solid Foundation: Building an Internal Support Structure for Alliance Success.” In it A. J. Novak, strategic business director for Waste Management, Inc., discussed a multiparty alliance in which his company was involved, augmented by strategic selling advice from LaVon Koerner, CEO of Revenue Storm.

Novak said that in moving from a “demand capture” to a “demand creation” strategy, Waste Management asked, What do customers need to be successful in their marketplace? Looking at health care, Waste Management saw an industry trying to become more green and eco-friendly. So the company contacted 10 suppliers to the health care industry and got them together for a meeting, trying to devise more sustainable plastics and better solutions for the environment. Many of those companies were competitors—which made for “some very cautious discussions in that room,” according to Novak.

At this point, Koerner interjected a quotation from the ancient Chinese writer Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War: “The key to victory is not defeating your enemy, but defeating his strategy; therein lies his vulnerability.” Koerner said that in the heady rush to go to market, partners sometimes neglect their sales strategy—a fatal error. “It contains the DNA or genetic blueprint on what we’re going to do day-to-day in the field,” he said. “That’s dictated by the strategy, so if you’re unclear on the strategy level, you’re going to be unclear on the behavior level.”

“We did not have a strategy early on,” Novak acknowledged. “We thought we did. It was difficult to measure the success of the team, because we weren’t aligned to a strategy, not only in sales but in marketing and elsewhere.”

Koerner outlined four options, or levels, of engagement which are key to understanding one’s own—and one’s competitors’—strategy. Level 1 is transactional—like going through the drive-up window at McDonald’s or Burger King. Level 2 has a process focus, usually oriented around some known need, such as selling integrated solutions. Level 3 is a business focus—such as a “business improvement value proposition.” Finally, level 4 is a partner focus—where what is being sold to the customer is actually a partnership. Although Koerner cautioned, “Just because you use the word ‘partner’ doesn’t mean you’re at this level 4.”

What does this look like in practice? “We created a level 3 value proposition around sustainability in plastics in the health care industry,” Novak explained. “By aligning to that strategy, [sales teams and partners] were aligning to a level 3 strategy. It allowed us to accomplish an awful lot in five months.”

Koerner noted that in researching the Web sites of various companies on the list of Global Summit attendees, he found that most of their messaging related to levels 1 and 2 selling, with very little pertaining to levels 3 and 4. Whatever the strategy is, the messaging needs to support it. Koerner also cautioned against incomplete alignment—just trying to align sales and marketing, for example. “Everyone has to be aligned to the strategy, then by default they’re aligned to each other,” he concluded.

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