The Harris Corporation is an international company that provides communication solutions for government and commercial applications. One of its divisions, Harris RF Communications, was instrumental in helping General Dynamics to win a major contract with the United Kingdom (UK) Ministry of Defence, one of the UK's largest programs for modernization of its military communications.
The Harris RF team—led by the pursuit champion, George Helm, and the proposal manager, Chris Aebli—worked as a subcontractor to General Dynamics for the project. The team helped to win one of the most important military communications projects in recent UK history and Harris's largest tactical radio contract ever. And they did it by helping dislodge an in-country, established vendor. How were they able to do it?
"We took the lead among the subcontractors to demonstrate that we could deliver the solution quickly. It was a risk-reduction demonstration to inspire confidence in our company that we would be a low-risk choice," said Aebli. Like most customers, governments want to know that what is promised will be delivered, and when there are billions of dollars at stake they can't afford to be wrong.
To win a tough competitive situation where there is an established vendor, it is imperative to start with the right solution. The Harris team knew it had the right solution; their challenge was to prove it. They knew they had to prove their solution had the lowest risk for on-time delivery, with the capabilities the customer wanted, and at a competitive price. That should be a winning combination in any situation, but the contract was far from certain unless the team could demonstrate beyond a doubt that its technology would work, and work better than the competition's. "We knew our biggest risk was incorporating the encryption module from the UK," says Helm. "That's where we figured the competition had the advantage based on an earlier contract they had won for that type of component." What allowed this team to win? Three leadership principles contributed.
First, the team identified the most important concern the customer had about Harris. It made a decision immediately that it would completely satisfy that concern—whether it could provide a working solution on time—through product demonstrations.
Second, the team "sold" the project internally by creating confidence with top management that it could win the bid. This helped get full top management support.
Third, the team made strategic decisions at the beginning about the message it needed to get to the customer.
Military projects such as these go through a bid/no-bid decision within the corporation because there is typically a significant cost in just bidding on the project. So if the decision is made to go ahead and bid, it has to be with the understanding that there is a good chance of winning the contract. In this case, the thinking was, "This was a job we weren't going to lose." That helped set the tone for everything else that followed.
The team decided right from the start that providing impressive product demonstrations early in the selection process was their one opportunity to prove their low-risk solution and, if successful, was key to its ability to strengthen General Dynamics's offer. Key Harris people had been tracking the existing program for a number of years, and before the request for a proposal came out, held a meeting in the UK with the customer. That meeting helped Harris understand what the customer considered to be the "crown jewels" of the program and allowed Harris to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of its own offer.
This was a huge opportunity for Harris, and nothing quite like it had been undertaken before. One challenge was to get a massive number of people working on it quickly—the team drew on people they had worked with before. Harris put many of their best people on the problem, gaining time by minimizing the learning curve. They collocated them, took them out of their "regular" jobs and isolated them from distractions. Other key individuals pulled into the program included the director of HF radio engineering and the European sales director. The engineering director led the effort to perform the successful product demonstrations. The director of sales, located in the UK, established the right contacts for all of the in-country meetings and provided a day-to-day contact with General Dynamics's offices throughout the UK.
One of the team's main objectives was to maximize the positive impact they could have on the award decision as a subcontractor. As a result, they knew that communicating their message to the customer was going to be key. The strategy and message were put together at the beginning: eliminate any weakness perceived in the Harris product offering and unquestionably prove, by way of early demonstration, that it had a low-risk offering that met or exceeded the customer's expectations. That preparation gave the organization confidence in the bidding process and gave the team the resources it needed to do the job. Thorough preparation and an attitude that "we have the best product and we're going to prove it" led to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The team knew they were going up against an established competitor. The prime contractor on the project, General Dynamics, confirmed that getting the UK encryption module into the Harris radio within the program's time frame was viewed as one of the major program risks. They focused the design team on one mission during the bid process: "Do whatever it takes to get the module into the radio and demonstrate it to the customer before the selection decision is made."
They got creative because they didn't have the time to do otherwise.
The team came up with ways to demonstrate the product working with the integrated UK encryption and other key program capabilities. Believing that the competitive team had a significant head start, the Harris engineers had to shorten what would have been a multiyear development down to a three-month time frame. To accomplish this, they tapped into relationships that they had developed with other GD subcontractors and were able to use a UK encryption module that had already been developed by another subcontractor on an earlier program for a similar radio. Harris focused its efforts on developing a clever interface module that allowed the engineers to quickly integrate it into their standard radio product. In the end, the same basic solution was used in final product design.
What can any sales professional learn from this winning effort? If you want to win the sale in a highly competitive situation:
Provide an early, convincing demonstration that you have the right solution.
Prepare as carefully to win internal support as you do to win the sale.
Get the right message to the right decision makers.