Sales Starts (Issue 1104)

In which we are reminded that, when competing with skilled practitioners: If we mis-time the start, whether sail boat race or sales cycle, it’s very hard to make up ground.

The start of the race felt like an agitated herd of sheep pushing and squeezing through a narrow pasture gate with an aggressive Aussie Shepherd nipping at them from the back. Or, a class of thirty 2nd graders trying to push at the same time through a classroom doorway with their arms straight down by their sides. Tough to get a breath of air.

On Friday evening, I sailed in my first sailboat race, a “friendly” or “informal” one-design regatta (all of us in the same design 17-foot boats with the same sails and gear) in which we’d sail across the starting line, about 100 yards to a buoy directly up wind, around the buoy, 100 yards back, then repeat a second lap, and finish. A very simple “windward – leeward” course that we’d race three times in the evening.

The idea of a good start in sail racing is to get to the starting line with speed in clean air at the “favored” end of the starting line, if there is one, based on course layout, wind direction, and the behavior of other boats in the fleet. The race coordinator gives signals indicating time remaining to the start.

Since I was completely new to racing, I was sailing with a more experienced sailor as tactician and jib minder (taking care of the foresail, the front sail on the boat).

The pre-start strategy followed by almost all the boats in the fleet was to sail back and forth behind and parallel to the starting line so that, when the start horn sounded, they could turn slightly and cross the line with speed. That’s where the sheep and second graders come in, as it turned out: A lot of boats concentrated in a small space pushing across the start line.

At the start of the first race, we were too far behind the line, in a second row of boats at the start. We’d mis-timed our turn. We were downwind from the fleet; the upwind boats blocked the breeze. We were gasping for air; we followed the fleet all the way up and back. Finished last.

Our start to the second race was better but we were still out of position. While we made up some time (passed a couple of other boats), we finished third to last.

Our third start was much better – we were on the line with speed but, again, crowded into the “middle of the fleet” in dirty air, very little wind to work with, little room for navigation. Other boats in the fleet moved out faster than we did. We turned away from the fleet to sail in clean air and, sailing well, finished middle of the fleet. “Not last, this time,” my taciturn tactician remarked as we crossed the finish line.

During our post-race sail back to our dock. I asked, “What’s our one major lesson from tonight?”

“If you blow the start,” she said, “it’s very difficult to catch up.”

Nick Miller is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. He assists banks and credit unions to generate more and more profitable relationships, faster, with business clients, their owners, and their employees through better sales strategies and execution. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.

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