I’m a self-professed history buff. We’ve all heard the phrase “lose the battle, win the war.” Many great generals did just that. But here is how that phrase is relevant to sales. At the end of the fiscal third quarter, many companies start to turn up the heat. This is how it usually happens.

The sales leader emerges from his or her third-quarter sales review with the CEO or executive team, and schedules a mandatory conference call. Sales teams from across the country join the call on short notice and brace themselves for what comes next.

The message is always the same. It starts with some “hard work” acknowledgments (as if this would make everything else OK), and then rolls into a long diatribe about “hunkering down” and “stepping up.” Even before the call is over, you can predict the local sales leadership’s response—or, more accurately, their scramble. Everyone on the sales food chain starts to squeeze. Weekly progress calls are scheduled and a Top 20 opportunity list is created. The directive is always clear:

  • “Do whatever it takes to close the deal (within ethical boundaries, of course).”
  • “We won’t lose a deal.”

All in all, the focus, motivation, and measurement are somewhat helpful. They probably generate added intensity to those who need a metaphorical kick in the pants. And sure, there may have be a few added wins along the way. But looking back, it always does more harm than good.

Why? Because there are too many prospect casualties. We were fight battles with prospects that we don’t need to fight, which in the end causes us to lose some deals and prospects.

Avoid Prospect Casualties

Think about it. You work hard to gain a prospect’s trust. You finally get him to share some of his deeper problems and challenges, and possibly some dirty laundry. Then you receive the directive to push, and you’re caught between a rock and a hard place. To “win” in your job you risk losing credibility with the prospect. You find yourself saying things like:

  • “What’s it going to take to earn your business?”
  • “We’d love to show you what we’re capable of—what do I need to do to get that chance?”

Then, you spend hours strategizing and scheming about ways to entice the client with some added value or benefit you could deliver if he made the decision now instead of next year. It was a long shot, but it was probably all you had.

Keep Your Prospects in Play

What’s the better alternative? Try asking the prospect a question that provides you both with clarity on whether the decision should really be made right now. For example, “Mr. Prospect, we’ve covered a lot of ground in our past few conversations, do you really need to make a decision right now? Why can’t you wait until next year?”

For many of you, this is going to sound completely absurd. Your drive and intent is to close the immediate deal and, at first glance, it sounds like you’re letting the prospect off the hook. In reality, you’re setting the hook.

No matter how hard you strategize, or how much benefit you believe your offering can deliver, or how many case studies and articles you send, this is the question the prospect will be asking himself and his team as they review their options. Put yourself in a position to hear the truth, so that your sales strategy aligns directly with your prospect’s thoughts, feelings and opinions.

By asking the decision-maker if he can wait until next year, you will:

  1. Allow him to share what’s really on his or her mind.
  2. Position yourself to start working with the prospect on the deeper problem.
  3. Avoid the tireless game of discounting that the prospect expects you to continue next year.
  4. Grow the credibility you’ve worked so hard to establish.

Although you may not like the short-term answer, this is the genius of knowing which battles to fight. The other route of pushing hard will only alienate your prospect and diminish your value.

Like you, your prospects are anxious, scared and unsure. They want to work with those who have their best interests in mind and don’t want to be used as pawns in your executives’ corporate survival strategy.