Lessons from Pac-Man: Are Buyers Better at Buying than Sellers are at Selling?

February 3, 2016 Ben Blaney

I read a fascinating story recently. Pac-Man, the arcade game much beloved of my generation, was so complex that when, finally, Billy Mitchell achieved the perfect score in 1999… well, I won’t tell you. Go ahead and read it first.

In this story, there are two huge takeaways for me as a pricing guy and a software guy. Let’s set the stage, though. This is a game, and it is by definition adversarial. Ostensibly, that’s Pac-Man against the ghosts, but it’s really the player against the developer.

Takeaway 1

The player developed insights about the characteristics and behavior of the ghosts that the developers didn’t intend.

The developers had no idea that what they had programmed into the ghosts would be discernable to the player, who could use those patterns to develop an advantage.

Takeaway 2

The player achieved a level that the developers didn’t anticipate – the last level, the 256th “split-screen” level, which has a jumble on one side, rather than the usual ordered construct. When asked, the developers had no clue why this would happen (likely memory constraints) and never thought anyone would ever reach that level anyway.

Again, the player beat the developers.

This isn’t a story about how software developers are fallible, though they evidently are. What I took from this is an almost perfect analogy of what I’ve been saying for a while about the art and science of B2B selling: that buyers are better at buying than sellers are at selling. In Pac-Man, the player was better at playing than the game was at gaming.

What should we do, then, we in the business of enabling improvements to selling abilities?

The first is to empower. A warning flag would be if our buyers can start to recognize patterns, as Billy Mitchell did in the game. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that they have a problem maintaining prices at the end of a quarter… buyers come looking for a deal, promising a large order, hoping that that the seller needs the extra to make quota. After two quarters of that, do you think that buyers have “got the number” of the seller? Of course! The balance has fundamentally shifted.

So, how do you empower reps on price? The best way is to take emotion out of the equation. Use price optimization and guidance to set data science-derived willingness-to-pay guardrails and let your reps focus instead on selling value. Spending less time haggling on price should reduce end-of-quarter maverick discounting and make it harder for buyers to game your quota-pressured sales team.

The second is to encourage creativity and individuality. Certainly, we’ll have our standard corporate decks, objection handling grids, and anecdotal stories and philosophies on what successful salespeople do, say and think. However, we must allow our sellers to have a fair run at creating a 256th level that makes sense for both buyers and sellers.

About the Author

Ben Blaney

Ben Blaney is a Senior Strategic Consultant at PROS, helping organizations select and deploy its cloud-based software. He previously served as director of Commercial Excellence for ESAB, a $2B division of Colfax Corporation, where he was responsible for strategy, execution and measurement of all aspects of commercial excellence. Blaney also led pricing strategy for a $2B division of GE; has served as a business consultant at Vendavo; and led pricing for a $1.5B business unit of ITT Corporation, where he worked for eight years in roles of increasing responsibility and seniority. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Exeter. Blaney holds the PRINCE2, Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Pricing Professional (CPP), and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certifications.

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