Who wants to dwell on a major sales defeat? You fought the good fight, now it is time to move on, right? A thorough post mortem can be painful, and there is always the next big deal to chase, another hot prospect in the pipeline to pitch. But moving on without reflecting on why you lost a sale can be a mistake, sales experts say. By analyzing the accounts that got away, a sales manager can uncover underlying weaknesses in his or her offering, identify areas upon which the sales force can improve, and learn valuable information about key competitors.

QuantumDigital, a direct-marketing agency based in Austin, has done a win-loss analysis for the past two years. Sales reps report on their wins and losses at weekly pipeline meetings and, about once a month, they do a deeper analysis of a juicy deal that got away from them. The company sends a questionnaire to sales leads that did not close, and follows up with an interview. The data is analyzed and reported back through the sales organization.

 The company has changed its sales strategy in part because of the information gleaned through win-loss analysis. "When we lost, it was usually because we didn't have a good enough appreciation of exactly what the client wanted," says Eric Cosway, the company's chief marketing officer. So the company instituted a system for grading prospects on seven criteria, in order to head off a "bad fit" before it had the chance to go into the loss column.

So how do you get started implementing a sales-tracking system that incorporates strong win-loss analysis? Here's a step-by-step plan.

1. Create a win-loss template.  Start by putting together a simple written scorecard that allows both clients and would-be clients to quickly rate your company's performance in three key areas: the sales team, sales tools and collateral, and product features. For example, under "sales team" include attributes such as "understanding of the account," "understanding of the business issues," and "understanding of the technology issues." Ask the client to rate your competition using the same metrics. You can always ask for a follow-up appointment if a purchasing manager's answers seem unsatisfying or dashed off.

2. Move quickly. Experts recommend doing a sales tracking win-loss analysis between two and four weeks after a deal is definitely closed.

3. Don't simply ask why you lost. Ask why they won. It's useful to get a price-to-value comparison of your company, which lost the business, versus the winner.  You can also ask open-ended questions about competing products. What features did a rival product have that ours lacked?  Was another product perceived to be a better value? A sales loss driven by pricing concerns may have nothing to do with the sales rep's performance.

4. Broaden your scope. Ideally, your win-loss questionnaire will include a scoring system for all the business areas that factored into a buying decision. Even product demonstrations and site visits can help make or break a deal. Or you can ask directly: In which categories were we the strongest and the weakest during the evaluation process?

5. Ask for first and last impressions. It's useful to know how a potential client first discovered your company. Then, ask questions that get at your positioning in the market. How did a corporate buyer view your company before a sales rep even stepped in the door? And how did his or her perceptions change during the sales process? A good final question: Would you recommend my company to others?  

6. Take salespeople out of the equation.  Once a win-loss questionnaire has been returned to your company, it's time to ask for an interview. But don't ask your sales reps to conduct the post-mortem reviews—it's like asking them to write their own obituary. After a long sales dance, a rep will have a hard time being objective. And buyers don't want to have a heart-to-heart with a spurned sales rep for fear the rep will try to rekindle the sales process all over again. It's best to hire a neutral third-party to conduct the interview--or, as a bootstrapped alternative, ask an in-house manager removed from the sales trenches to carry out the task. A marketing director, for instance, is in a better position to ask sensitive questions about a salesperson's professionalism and product knowledge. (Marketing directors are also more likely to ask whether a brochure, web page, or white paper influenced a buying decision, in addition to a rep's sales skills.) On the flip side, Cosway finds that marketing directors are more likely to take the time to sit for an interview than the harried purchasing manager who runs an RFP process.

7. Use the losses to your advantage. With the results in, a win-loss analysis can help inexperienced salespeople understand where they stumbled in the sales cycle‚ when the tide turned against your company. The process can also help veterans identify patterns of behavior that they need to break. "There is an opportunity to reflect and learn," says Connie Brubaker, president of Integrity Training Solutions, a sales-training company based in Austin. "Was there a misunderstanding? Did they not identify the true need? Maybe they weren't listening as well as the competition." 

In the second half of 2009, one of his marketing staffers was able to solicit feedback from decision makers in 4 out of 8 cases where Quantum was a top contender for a sizable deal but ultimately lost out.  (He created his win-loss interview from an extensive list of questions from Pragmatic Marketing, an Inc. 5000 company.  For more resources, go to pragmaticmarketing.com)

"We're talking about sensitive information, so four out of eight is good," says Cosway. He notes that a year ago, it was harder to ascertain what the company was doing right or wrong because so many buying decisions were put on hold indefinitely. But in recent months, he reports that more deals are coming to a close.

Take a closer look at your wins.  Key contacts at more than a dozen accounts won in recent months agreed to tell Quantum where it needed improvement. We asked, 'If you had a magic wand, what would you fix?' He says about 90 percent of customers have been willing to share their opinions and provide competitive intelligence.