I once had a huge idea.

It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime concepts that my team developed for a company about to unveil its new vision, mission and values. It was powerful, colourful and bold, specifically designed to startle the audience into having the ultimate “aha” moment.

I was so proud of the strength of this idea, and it showed when the agency with which I pitched unveiled it to the client. The pitch went well. We felt confident that we had articulated our vision in a way that put us ahead of our competitors.

Which is why it was such a surprise when we lost the business.

For a long while after you lose a pitch, you ask yourself why. Often, you’ll convince yourself it was beyond your control. But looking in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to see why our idea didn’t succeed.

We broke the most important rule in sales – it’s not what you sell, it’s how they buy.

I see it all too often – those who are invested in an idea believe that the strength of the idea is all it will take to get them through. That can and does indeed happen. The problem is that we work to sell dozens of things a day whether it’s trying to convince someone to go for sushi at lunch or trying to win an account by promising 10% cost savings. Both are decent ideas – unless your lunch date is allergic to rice or your client is actually looking for broader distribution rather than saving money.

Which is why the best way to win a sale is to start the entire selling process by asking one, single question.

What does it take to win?

What does it take to win over a specific client? What does it take to win over competing interests? What does it take to win against anticipated objections?

These days, I begin all my projects with an hour long session where we simply ask that one question – and explore all the facets of the answer. We take the time to understand who the buyer really is and what causes them to buy. Then we create a specific plan to ensure our idea can meet the needs of the buyer.

Not what you sell, how they buy – understanding that probably would have made the difference in that pitch room, and given me the ability to count our great idea as one of the winners.

- Jason