Top TEN #4 – “Loose Lips Sink Ships”

Loose Lips Sink Ships

The origin of this expression goes back to the second world war. Given the critical nature of the D-Day invasion and the fact that many enemy spies had infiltrated England, the allies had to come up with a way of keeping the details secret. “Loose lips sink ships” was their way of reminding service personnel to keep quiet about the impending attack, lest they end up at the bottom of the English Channel.

The same principle applies in business. When we talk about our product, company, customers, and prospects without knowing whom we’re talking to, we’re asking for trouble. This issue surfaces both externally and internally.

Externally, we’ve witnessed occasions when executives, product experts, and salespeople go on and on talking about themselves and their solutions, without asking a single question. Whether on a sales call or in public forum, we are often blinded by passion and forget about having a conversation. Not only does this behavior deny us an opportunity to identify a potential customer, but it leaves us open to being exploited. Who knows? The person enthusiastically asking lots of questions could be a competitor and not the prospect we imagine.

If we’re not learning as much about the person we’re speaking to as they’re learning about us, we should stop, immediately.

This is not a conversation, but potentially a trap of our own making. Also, if our approach means waiting until the end of a 5-minute product dump to ask if any of the preceding information is of interest, we’re already too late. Dialog starts at the beginning of a conversation and by getting to know the person you’re talking to. Addressing their specific needs is more valuable to the prospect than talking about solutions they don’t need.

Internally, in the transactional setting, where the average purchase is low, the internal sharing of forecasts is less of a problem. However, in the long-term game of enterprise sales, greater caution is needed. Within an organization, and usually with the best intentions, people talk. This talk eventually reaches third parties or leaves with employees. Knowledge of the big opportunity you started working over a year ago is no longer a secret.

We fail whenever we involve someone in our potential sale who doesn’t need to know about it. Consider everyone who knows about your opportunity a potential liability to it. This includes yourself. Yes, this is a paranoid way of thinking. Acting paranoid is one thing, thinking paranoid is entirely different. As said by former Intel CEO Andy Grove (Gróf András), “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”

At the end of my first year at Oracle, I witnessed the closure of what was then the largest software sale in the company’s history. It was made by one of the best salespeople I’ve ever met: Kitty Cullen. The sale was to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and totaled nearly $20 million in licenses. When news of the deal came out it spread through the company in minutes. It was a huge success made even more remarkable by the fact that Kitty had closed a like order the year before for about $10 million. What I found most incredible though was how few people knew about it. Despite a sales cycle that lasted over a year, only six people knew about the opportunity. This included Kitty, members of her team, and Oracle’s CEO Larry Ellison.

Controlling the spread of information to this extent is a feat in any organization and a testament to brilliant sales execution.

Footnote: For fans of the English language, the word “dialog” should be spelled “dialogue” when it pertains to conversation. I am using the shorter version of the word, widely used in tech, e.g. dialog box.

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