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What Football Teaches Us About Startup Sales Strategy Territory management or opportunity management -- quarterback or running back? You decide.

By David Satterwhite Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


"Setting a goal is not the main thing," football coaching legend Tom Landry once said. "It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan."

Related: NFL MVP Drew Brees's 4 Simple Lessons on Living a Powerful and Effective Life

With the NFL playoffs upon us, it's a good time to ponder the lessons that football offers for business. After all, your team -- your company -- has touchdowns to make (revenue and growth objectives to meet); and success can often depend on the route you pick and approach you take.

So, choose the right sales strategy at the right time for the right market opportunity and you could thrive like Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Here are your options:

Opportunity or territory management?

For the fast-growing business, few strategies are as important as deciding the kind of sales organization to implement: an opportunity-management model, or a territory-management model. Think of the two as football positions. Opportunity management is like playing running back; you're handed the ball, you run down field, you gain all the yards you can.

Territory management, meanwhile, is more like the function a quarterback serves: You control the ball entirely, choosing and orchestrating a strategy (whether to hand it off, pass or run).

The strategy you choose can not only impact business performance but ripple across the organization by influencing decisions on how marketing, service and support are deployed to drive and manage the pipeline.

Every entrepreneur, then, should think about his or her game strategy: about the model chosen and whether that model will help the company make the plays it needs.

The case for opportunity management

With opportunity management, sales reps aren't on the hook to consider the larger competitive landscape they face (the market, the global pipeline they serve, their relationships with partners and other influencers). Their only concern is running far and fast, the way 2017 NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt did, for instance, to close a deal .

You see this model most often in inside sales organizations, where leads are delivered to sales in a spinner all at once, and then assigned at random, round-robin style, to the next available rep. The goal, here, is straightforward: Win and close accounts while maximizing revenue opportunities. All a business needs, really, are energetic sales reps with positive attitudes, willing to make the most of every opportunity. Reps who, as Vince Lombardi once said, have "the will to win the will to excel."

Related: 6 Things the NFL's Focus on 'Fan Engagement' Can Teach Small Business

The main takeaway for business leaders: The opportunity-management model can be exactly the sort of a team a business needs to grow and scale, but you're not likely to develop reps who can build and sustain pipelines. You'll also need a marketing team up to the lead-gen challenge -- capable of maintaining a steady drumbeat of leads so your reps have plenty to choose from and call on.

The case for territory management

It's a credo in football that you can't win without an excellent quarterback; and, for many companies, the same holds true of a strong territory-management strategy.

With territory management, sales reps are often proactive by necessity, working every available angle to develop and win new business: analyzing the market; identifying companies to target; seeking out new partners; maybe even planning marketing events of their own. They're strategizing on the fly, adjusting their routes every play. They're innovative -- like quarterbacks -- in their sense of vision and self-sufficiency.

Perhaps because of this, they tend to feel more ownership over the pipeline they generate. They're responsible, after all, for owning and developing their own areas of the market, often called "patches" (typically a specific region or vertical). They own every opportunity, every lead and deal that emerges, whether they're driven by partners and marketing or generated by the reps directly.

The main takeaway for business leaders: A territory-management strategy can develop a more sustainable team in the long term (especially if and when your business pivots suddenly or changes its go-to-market strategy), but it's a team that requires time, expertise and skill to cultivate; only a certain kind of rep will succeed.

You'll need reps with established records of building relationships, of regularly engaging partners and prospects rand evangelizing new accounts. You'll also need a marketing team capable of multitasking -- one able to take on client-facing services (content, pitches, presentations that support and enable sales) in addition to their everyday brand and demand commitments.

Setting up for success

Ultimately, the approach you take will depend on any number of factors: the sales force you've already built, the product you support, maybe even the stage of business you find yourself in (scaling, say, from a mid-market focus to enterprise). And transitioning from one to the other won't be easy, given the distinct demands each model places on reps. As any football coach will tell you, running backs and quarterbacks have entirely different world views.

But, in business, as in football, your luck can turn on a dime. You have to be willing to adapt your strategy as the game wears on, and be mindful of the players on your roster -- your individual reps and their unique strengths.

Start by asking yourself what's needed of your reps. If the answer is new territories, new prospects or new partners, you'll want to go the territory management route. If your inside sales team is doing just fine as is, swimming in a sea of inbound leads and opportunities, you'll want opportunity management instead.

From this, you can build a profile of the reps you have and the reps you maybe need, and the systems, processes and technologies required to scale your sales organization accordingly. Ask your colleagues in marketing for their input and take stock of your marketing department overall, so you have a sense of what your current operations can support.

Related: Watch an Olympic Athlete and Former NFL Linebacker Talk Goal Setting and Success

The end zone is in easy reach. The touchdown is yours to make. Is your team ready? Are you?

David Satterwhite

Chief Revenue Officer, Act-On Software

David Satterwhite is chief revenue officer at Act-On Software, a marketing automation provider. He has over 20 years of sales leadership in enterprise technology. Having started his high-tech sales career at Oracle and  led sales teams for various stage businesses, from pre-revenue to $100 million-plus, Satterwhite has built and scaled worldwide sales, services and business development teams. Prior to Act-On, he waschief customer officer at PubNub, where he oversaw all customer-facing activities and mastered the human side of technology. 

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