Get Sun Tzu to sign off on your expense reports

Selling done right is spying Gain the foreknowledge you need to succeed, and get your expense reports signed off every time by changing the mindset of your accounts...

If you’re anything like me, after a month on the road selling hard your wallet is full of dog-eared receipts – a pricey lunch here, beers after work there, a game of golf with a key client with an extended stay at the 19th hole…

Of course, spending company money feels pretty easy in the moment; but in most companies the time comes when you have to pay the piper.

You know the feeling – the creeping dread of sitting down in front of Concur or which ever mediaeval torture device of an expenses system your accountants have foisted on you. Take a photo, change the currency, enter the cost, try to write a comment to justify, assign a cost center, accept that your decision to spend does not comply with policy has been logged for your manager, rage at the passive aggressive expense system…repeat. And that’s before you even have the privilege of playing email tennis with the junior accountant who’s rejected your expenses claim demanding more detail on the drinks bill you submitted.

Fuck that. Sun Tzu says you need to change the rules.

Sun Tzu on expense management

It may come as a surprise, but the famous sage from China’s warring states period (~500BC) had some pretty punchy thoughts on your accounting team attempting to control the expenses of your sales team – don’t believe me? Read on.

Sun Tzu says –

Ok…but that’s not got much to do with my expenses

Substitute in ‘sales team’ and ‘target enterprise customer’ for the hostile armies and you get a pretty uncanny description of enterprise selling. Sales cycles for high value products or services marketed to large customer oganisations may stretch from months into years, yet just like a battle customer decisions (when they are made) are completely binary. When that day comes – as Ricky Bobby says – if you ain’t first, you’re last

Ok…but that’s not got much to do with my expenses

Glad you’re still reading 🙂 Sun Tzu continues –

This being so, to remain in ignorance of the enemy’s condition simply because one grudges the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver in honors and emoluments,  is the height of inhumanity.

One who acts thus is no leader of men, no present help to his sovereign, no master of victory.

Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is FOREKNOWLEDGE.

Now we’re getting to the meaty bit.

This part shouldn’t be too difficult to parse – unsurprisingly, your accounting team and their expense system are the ones grudging the outlay of silver (or in your case – putting your company credit card behind the bar).

But let’s not miss his key point – he’s not giving you carte blanche to spend the company’s silver – he’s making the argument in favour of spending specifically to gain an understanding of the ‘enemy’s condition’ – or in our sales case, our target enterprise client and the things that will make them buy your product (that would be victory!).

The last line above is the core of his case – victory requires foreknowledge.

Foreknowledge and how to get it

The general goes on to explain how to acquire this critical element of victory

Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation.

Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.

Hence the use of spies

That’s right – you aren’t a salesperson, you’re a spy

The unspoken reason enterprise salespeople are truly employed in the first place is to gather this foreknowledge – information that can only be obtained from the people that work for your target customer organisations.

Any salesperson worth their salt can tell you that sales victories aren’t won in the formal meeting, RFP submission or panel presentation. Intuitively you know that the foreknowledge that leads to closing a sale is what you discover about the people, their relationships and the factions that make up your target customer – how they make decisions, what they value, and where they are trying to go. Sun Tzu’s onto this too – 

Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de- camp, and door-keepers and sentries of the general in command. Our spies must be commissioned to ascertain these.

Per Sun Tzu’s point above – this critical knowledge for victory can only be gained from people who make up your target customer. It is never written down, cannot be ‘elicited from spirits’, obtained inductively from experience or through calculation. Your job as a spy (or salesperson rather) is to get this information to chart your path to victory.

So go on – get Sun Tzu to sign off on your expenses

Somewhere along the way, as accounting teams got empowered with technology, rough guidelines became policies and expenses systems became draconian mechanisms to enforce cost control across companies.

Arguably, the reason we’ve ended up in this state, where enterprise sales people are routinely hounded by accountants over their expenses, is that sales teams and sales leaders have not done a good enough job explaining to their companies that their sales people are actually spies. There isn’t an underlying understanding from the accounts team of why the company silver is being spent – and how that maps to achieving the sales that are the lifeblood of the company.

We need to do better explaining that company silver is not being spent for frivolously, but instead is a critical component of systematically gathering the foreknowledge of the prospective customer’s ‘dispositions’ (their people, their relationships and their decision making process) needed to make victory in the next deal a sure thing.

Help your accounting team understand this and next month you can happily say Sun Tzu signed off on your expenses.


Capturing the unwritten and hidden foreknowledge about your customers, their relationships, politics and dispositions is exactly why we built – a Visual CRM designed for the way selling is actually done. Unlike traditional CRM systems that provide none of the justification needed to show your accounting team the value creation inherent in your client entertainment expense budget – stringboard clearly shows what you learn, when and from who + produces stunning visual account maps you can share and develop with your whole sales team.

More from Stringboard