Monday, February 14, 2011

Is Your Head in the Game, or in the Sand?

One of the greatest comebacks in professional tennis history occurred in the 1999 finals of the French Open.  Andre Agassi was striving for his first French Open victory, to complete a career Grand Slam and make history as only the 5th male player to win on all four tennis court surfaces.  He was facing a formidable competitor, Andrei Medvedev, who had been on a roll since Agassi had given him advice several months before on how to improve his game.  Agassi really wanted this title as it had eluded him when he lost in previous finals in 1990 and 1991.

In the beginning of the match, Agassi was not executing his shots, played with fear and very quickly lost the first set 6-1.  Fortunately, early in the second set there was a rain delay and during the break, Agassi had the opportunity to listen to the advice of his coach Brad Gilbert.  Brad encouraged him to change his game plan, to hit his shots the way he knew how, to match each shot that his opponent gave him but to hit the same shot back better and harder.  He advised that if Agassi was going to lose the match, he should do it on his own terms, by playing his own game and really fighting.

After the rain delay, the match resumed and Agassi continued with his earlier style of play and lost the second set 6-2.  Finally, when Agassi was just 4 points from losing the match, something changed…Brad’s advice resounded in his head and Agassi began to go for his shots without fear and execute Brad’s game plan.  Agassi won the third set and went onto to win the match and his first French Open championship 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.  Television viewers who were rooting for Agassi had turned off their TVs towards the end of the third set, only to be completely surprised to learn later that Agassi had turned the match around to clinch the title.

Changing strategies midstream can be a necessity in sports, business and in life.  If a strategy is not yielding expected results, it is important to re-evaluate, analyze and make any necessary adjustments before it’s too late.

Let’s take an example of a software company that was trying to build strategic partnerships with systems integrators (SIs).  The software company provided a solution for managing hardware and software assets that enabled their customers to better track their IT assets, ensure they were in compliance with their vendors and not overpaying for software licenses and maintenance.  In partnering with the software company, these service providers would build consulting practices surrounding the use of the software solution and the partnership would become a win-win for both parties:  1) the software company would benefit from the SIs making multiple purchases of their software for use with their customer base and 2) the SIs would benefit from providing professional services surrounding the implementation of the software company’s solution.

In theory, this approach seemed solid and the software company chose one of the leading SIs in the high technology market as its primary target for a strategic partnership.  The software company transitioned quickly from a direct sales model to channel sales or selling through partners, and dedicated their entire North American sales force to building the partnership with the chosen SI.  After a year of relentless pursuit of the SI, the North American sales force had not closed any sales and it was becoming apparent that the SI may not be a good fit as their existing partners were much larger software companies that provided big ticket solutions where the SI could bill millions in revenue on the consulting services alone.  Conversely, the software company’s product was a lower-ticket and lower priority solution and the dollar value of professional services was not large enough to gain full attention of the SI.  However, the software company kept its head in the sand and was determined to succeed in its pursuit of the anointed SI.  After two years, although progress was being made, no sales had closed with the SI. Then the software company was acquired.  Had the software company changed channel strategies midstream and not wasted as much time pursuing the target SI, the sale of the company would have been much more profitable for the investors and stockholders.

Developing sales channels is not easy.  To begin, it is critical to evaluate the target market, research potential partners, establish types of partners, create sales messaging by partner type, establish a target list and pursue it.  However, if progress with a specific type of partner appears minimal, companies need to be flexible enough to change direction midstream, before there are painful consequences such as disapproval from the board of directors and investors, layoffs due to profit/loss not meeting expectations, employee morale and job dissatisfaction issues, etc.

Companies should approach building partnerships with an open mind.  They may enter into partnership discussions with one strategy in mind, however the target partner may have a different recommendation that could prove to be more financially beneficial to both parties.  It may also be an approach that the software company had never considered.  The new recommendation may lead to a complete shift in strategy that yields the anticipated results.
It is also important to network with the target companies even if they turn out to not be the right fit for a formal partnership.  Networking is a productive and fascinating exercise that can lead to great connections and business results.

Additionally, organizations should implement parallel efforts in pursuing alliances and not place all their eggs in one basket with a particular type of partner or target company.  For example, taking a balanced approach by pursuing various types of partners simultaneously will help ferret out the companies that will not be a fit, thus saving the time and expense of the business development organization.  With this methodology, the company will be able to focus more expeditiously on the types of partners that will yield expected results, both in terms of quality of the alliance and revenues.

If Andre Agassi had not changed his strategy in the middle of his match in the finals of the 1999 French Open, he would not have won the tournament and earned his rightful place in professional tennis history.  In fact, his June 2011 induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame will be all the more satisfying having secured his career Grand Slam.