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The Win-Loss Witch Hunt

the win loss witch hunt

One of our clients recently concluded a win-loss program. Because the sales team wasn’t fully on board with the idea, the team readily submitted wins for review but declined to share losses. They held the most basic and prevalent sales concerns about win-loss analysis: Who will see the results, and how will they use the information? Left unanswered, these questions tend to prompt resistance to win-loss programs. In the case of our client, the sales team resisted by submitting only their best performances for review. This compromised the validity of results and left our client with an unbalanced dataset that couldn’t accurately speak to its strengths and weaknesses, much less its competitive positioning.

Even win-loss programs with the best of intentions can experience reluctance from sales teams. The aim of our client’s program was anything but a witch hunt: They viewed their win-loss program as a tool for improvement, not a means to identify weak links. The program leaders had established exactly what kind of information would be shared, how results would be disseminated and who would have access to the findings. They also had implemented measures to remove negative feedback that singled out a sales representative.

Unfortunately, the program leaders committed a common yet impactful error. They did not openly share this information with their sales team or provide an opportunity for that team to ask questions about win-loss interviewing.

The lesson from this client’s experience is two-fold:

  1. Sales teams need to trust the methods of collecting and sharing win-loss findings
  2. They also need to recognize the value they stand to gain from win-loss analysis

Once our client addressed these areas, their program improved significantly. Their sales team no longer hesitated to submit opportunities for review; they began asking to have their deals reviewed. And, sales representatives were among the first to read interview transcripts and spark a discussion about the findings. With enthusiastic backing of the process, program leaders could shift their focus away from managing the process and spend more time analyzing the data and helping their organization respond to the findings. This level of interest may seem difficult to achieve, but there are easy steps you can follow to help the process.

Set a Positive Tone

Clients that see the strongest ROIs in revenue and sales performance approach win-loss interviewing as a way to improve, not to spotlight poor performance. These programs share a common theme: Their executives, directors and managers maintain a positive attitude toward their sales teams even when interviews reveal a weakness or lapse in performance. When respondents describe a negative buying experience, these leaders push aside a fault-finding mentality and replace it with a commitment to learn from the event. They abandon the question, “Which individual is responsible for this lost opportunity?” and replace it with, “What can we learn from this, and how can we avoid this mistake in the future?”

A client’s CEO demonstrated this behavior firsthand to his team when a buyer criticized their interactions with him in an interview. Many leaders would turn a blind eye or discard this kind of response as a one-off finding, but this CEO said the “rocky feedback” was his cue to change the relationship with his buyer. His constructive response not only helped save the account, but also gave his company an example to follow. The CEO summed up his perspective, saying, “If you did something great and you got some accolades [in a buyer interview], good for you. If you did something bad … well okay, let’s learn together.” Instead of trapping his team into repeating mistakes, this firm’s CEO took the first step to creating a competitive advantage by interpreting a rough patch as an opportunity.

Your response to negative feedback is the crux of your win-loss program. Without a focus on learning and improvement, negative feedback is simply negative feedback. It will weigh your team down. But your sales team will eagerly engage in win-loss analysis if they understand how the process will aid their success rather than obstructing it. Just like the CEO, you become a safety net for your sales team when your positive attitude and interest in learning are a predictable response to difficult buyer feedback. And when your sales reps are confident that even their bad days won’t be subject to harsh criticism, their outlook on win-loss interviewing will shift from defensive to receptive. This receptiveness allows your team to act on buyer feedback and accelerates their success—and yours.

Manage Negative Feedback

“I think we have become pretty adept at getting our people to realize that even though the feedback may be humbling, or even, at times, embarrassing, nobody ever gets punished for it … We always derive something valuable from it.”
– vice president of marketing, consulting firm

One of the most sensitive topics in win-loss analysis is how to handle harsh or non-constructive comments gathered in phone interviews. Open-ended discussions often reveal the most actionable intelligence and allow respondents to critique a buying experience or sales representative. However, when a respondent’s feedback ceases to be constructive and becomes overly critical, it’s time to act. A best practice is to remove fault-finding comments that target a specific person or group unfairly or in excess before circulating to a larger audience. When filtering out harsh feedback, ask:

  • Does it name or isolate a single person?
  • Is it personal? (“I just didn’t like the sales representative.”)
  • Is it easy to identify whom the respondent is referring to?
  • Would sharing this information have a negative impact on this person’s reputation?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, remove these statements from the interview transcript. If you’re unsure, consider how sharing this information would impact your efforts to set a positive tone. Then err on the side of caution. Attributing blame or ostracizing poor performance will be counterproductive to your win-loss program and to the morale of your sales force. Keep in mind, there is usually a back-story that prompts unfavorable feedback. Instead of pointing fingers either at your representative or customer, approach the situation by asking, “What could we do to avoid that perception in the future?”

Objectively Approach the Findings

As you collect win-loss interviews, help your team look at the findings objectively by adopting an outsider’s view. Avoid projecting your own take on it and accept feedback without becoming defensive. Both practices are essential to assimilate findings and scale intelligence for a larger audience.

It’s not uncommon for buyers to provide feedback that isn’t quite accurate about a vendor’s sales process, product or company. For example, one client’s buyer indicated that a sales representative didn’t present a certain solution feature, when in fact they did. Since this feedback negatively skewed the dataset, our client wanted to exclude this interview from their mid-year win-loss summary. Unfortunately, programs that throw out discrepancies without proper attention lose valuable customer insight. And they ignore one of the most important lessons of win-loss analysis: Your customer’s opinion matters. Customers will make the decision to buy or not based on how they perceive you, not on how you perceive you.

Our client ultimately decided to keep the finding in their mid-year report, and this worked to their benefit. To reconcile the discrepancy, they asked, “Why did our customer say this, and how can we communicate with them more effectively?” The answer revealed that the root problem was a marketing error, not a sales problem. The buyer thought the sales representative didn’t present a solution feature because marketing collateral provided an inadequate description of it. Our client corrected their marketing message and avoided making that misstep in other deals.

Staying open to feedback also depends on the ability of your sales reps to take themselves out of the equation when they review win-loss findings. Dropping a defensive stance allows them to view feedback as a chance to improve. The implications of this mentality are advantageous for your entire company, because when a sales rep can step aside and see the bigger lesson, they can help others do the same. The result is a win-loss program that provides lessons from one person or team that are easily applied to other reps and teams.

Another client, a consulting company, used this tactic to amplify the impact of win-loss intelligence. They helped their sales team think beyond their own pursuits and see how others could learn from their buyers’ praises and criticisms. The vice president explained that their consultants respond to constructive—yet eye-opening—feedback by helping colleagues avoid the same mistake. They share insights such as, “When you work with this account, remember that they prefer X and Y. Stay away from Z.” This has helped them incorporate a nuanced approach to customer service and extend the reach of buyer intelligence in their company.

Cultivating such a non-defensive approach starts with a positive attitude and continues with cautious management of negative feedback. It also depends on your ability to coach teams and help them respond constructively to the findings.

Explain the Purpose and Value of Win-Loss Analysis

Sales teams often overlook the value of win-loss analysis by assuming it is solely an exercise to evaluate performance. While win-loss analysis starts by evaluating a competitive sales opportunity, its purpose is much broader. These interviews collect marketing intelligence, product intelligence, buyer business needs and more. They also reveal why competitors win and lose business opportunities. Your sales team can use this intelligence and become more competitive in the next deal in a variety of ways.

Build a smarter sales strategy. Win-loss interviews can effectively reveal what tactics your competitors employ to claim market share. For example, a healthcare-industry client experienced a bidding season characterized by consistently losing to a specific competitor in the finalist meetings. Win-loss interviews confirmed not only that our client’s solution was strong, but also that they were often the preferred vendor going into final presentations. However, the competitor’s tactics in these meetings swayed the buyer’s decision. With a deeper understanding of their competitor’s behavior, our client constructed an effective counter-plan. In the following bidding season, the sales team used this competitive intelligence to
stay in the finalist meetings longer and close more new
business opportunities.

Identify and pursue win-back opportunities. Win-loss interviews often uncover win-back opportunities, which give sales teams a second chance at a lost opportunity. Win-backs are deals typically lost by a thin margin and are ideal targets for follow-up calls and future business pursuits. These narrow losses reveal one of the most actionable pieces of intelligence: What was the buyer’s tipping point, and what could the vendor have done differently to move the deal in their favor? After interviewing lost accounts like this, sales reps can see exactly how to reconnect with the account at renewal.

In some instances, pursuing a win-back opportunity pays an immediate—and often unexpected—dividend. Recently, our client interviewed an account they assumed was lost to a competitor. The buyer explained how they were having extreme difficulty in the competitor’s implementation process and were ready to find an alternative. This interview reopened the dialog for our client and helped them recover the deal.

Discover smart selling tactics. Win-loss interviewing can create an ongoing advantage for your sales team by serving as an intelligence repository. As your library of interviews builds, sales reps can reach back to previous deals and find similarities that apply to their current pursuit. They can pinpoint a specific deal that matches their current prospects in terms of size, industry, culture, or product and use the past insights to avoid known pitfalls or create new advantages.

Coach with Regular Interview Debriefs

While team members need access to the interview transcripts, it’s also important to help them interpret and respond to findings in a structured setting. The most effective way to coach them—and to guarantee your win-loss program has impact—is to conduct regular interview debriefs. These are structured conversations that extract best practices and areas for improvement from each interview for development into deal-winning tactics. The benefits of regular debriefs extend beyond coaching opportunities (e.g., a guaranteed uptick in your win rate) and are an effective tool for engaging your team in win-loss analysis.

  • Debriefs drive engagement in win-loss analysis by reinforcing the notion that they aren’t a tool for assessing performance but for collecting buyer intelligence to drive improvement.
  • Scheduled and frequent touchpoints give teams a routine setting to share their side of the story and absorb the customer’s perspective. It gives sales teams a voice and stake in the process.
  • Debriefs help teams understand their buyers better and drive smarter selling. These discussions help teams peel back the layers of each deal to uncover the main decision points. These decision points become a team’s greatest resource for aligning sales tactics with buyer business needs.

While the tone of a win-loss program is set and maintained throughout the research cycle, interview debriefs are the single most effective way to achieve all of the previous goals in one setting. Each interview debrief provides an opportunity to reinforce a positive tone, graciously handle harsh feedback, objectively interpret findings and reiterate the value of each interview.

More importantly, debriefs propel you and your team forward because they expose the root cause behind a buyer’s decision-making. These root causes are the nuggets of intelligence needed to win more. To make sure your debrief is a success, combine conversation with investigation. Simply discussing a deal is insufficient. Instead, you need to address why the deal went the way it did. If your teams don’t understand the why behind your buyers’ behavior, the insight they glean from the debrief will be surface-level and provide limited value.

For example, one client kept losing deals because of a lengthy sales process and inflated prices—or so they thought. However, during a routine debrief, the client probed the sales team about their selling process. The answer was telling: The sales team couldn’t make financial decisions for their contracts; instead, they had to send requests to the contracting team. Contracting would review the request and offer a revised pricing structure, which often didn’t align with the buyer’s needs. But because contracting wasn’t interfacing directly with the buyer, they didn’t have visibility into the buyer’s needs.

When sales followed up with the buyer, they found that the new contract terms weren’t hitting the mark. They would send the proposal back to contracting for a second iteration, and so on. The problem wasn’t a sales-specific issue. It was a process issue in the company’s contract negotiation practices, which started because the initial price point was too high and was perpetuated by an arduous workflow.

The client realized two significant benefits from their debrief. First, it gave the sales team a stake in the process, which increased interest in win-loss interviewing. The sales team immediately connected the dots between their ability to sell better and the intelligence they collected from win-loss interviewing. Second, it uncovered deal-saving intelligence; the client experienced a significant ROI by simply correcting a behind-the-scenes workflow.

Keep the Forum Open

Just as the sales process entails frequent customer touchpoints, win-loss analysis also requires regular touchpoints with internal stakeholders, including the sales team. While interview debriefs can also be a useful setting for addressing questions or concerns, remind your team that they have an open line to share feedback and ask questions. And when they raise questions or concerns, be willing to accept their input and approach it like your win-loss interviews: with a willingness to hear the other side and see opportunities to improve. Provide a consistent example and reinforce that the tone will be positive, that negative feedback will be handled graciously and that the overarching focus will be on how to improve.

Tips for a Successful Debrief

Reaffirm a positive tone.
Open every discussion with an emphasis on improvement and explain that comments shared in the forum will follow this commitment.

Identify the root causes behind best practices and problem areas. To find best practices, discuss the biggest successes described by the buyer and help your team solidify these habits. Then, focus on how your team can improve. Keep the discussion constructive and neutral, and identify items that everyone can use in the future.

Discuss “if-then” scenarios to help your team think creatively about the findings. Take a direct example from the interview (or embellish on the interview to create a slightly different situation) and ask your team for some possible responses or reactions to the situation. Start the discussion by saying, “If you found yourself in this position, how would you use this strength or overcome this hurdle?” The goal is to help your team identify their strengths and apply them to future opportunities.

Create action items and follow up regularly. Be sure to reconnect with your team on past lessons learned and ask for examples of how they’ve used that intelligence.


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