Selling and the Human Terrain System

Anthony Iannarino
Post by Anthony Iannarino
July 5, 2010

I just finished reading Sebastian Junger’s brilliant new book, War. Junger was embedded with a company of the 173rd Airborne in the Korengal valley, where the war in Afghanistan is being fought. I loved the book, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are prepared to have your heart broken with a personal account of what we ask of our young soldiers in Afghanistan. The cost and the sacrifice is far greater than most of us our aware, especially the emotional and psychological trauma and scarring.

Human Terrain

Junger’s book includes a couple short sentences on a concept we are employing in both Afghanistan and Iraq called Human Terrain. Our counterinsurgency strategy is built on the idea that we can win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan, and by doing so build the will and the motivation to reject the Taliban. The idea of Human Terrain is an acknowledgment that counterinsurgency efforts have as much do with winning hearts and minds as it does controlling the physical terrain (the same is true of insurgencies).

Wikipedia describes the Human Terrain System as a program in which social scientists are embedded with military units to: “help tacticians in the field understand local cultures using Human Terrain Mapping (HTM) . . . utilizing experts from social science disciplines (anthropology, sociology, political science, geography), regional studies, linguistics, and intelligence.”

Selling is About the Human Terrain

Conceptually, our business as sales professionals is insurgency and counterinsurgency (albeit with very different stakes). We are either focused on taking clients from our competitors by winning hearts and minds, or we are protecting our existing dream clients from the insurgents who would take them from us by keeping their hearts and minds. It is a simplification, but dissatisfaction opens the door to insurgencies; preventing dissatisfaction is our counterinsurgency effort.

Our focus as salespeople is too much about solutions, and not enough about the Human Terrain.

We focus too much on selling our solutions, and not enough on understanding the “local culture,” which would better allow us to understand the ground truth (another idea I have borrowed from the military). Selling the solution means not only having a way to generate a better result, it also means understanding how to gain the hearts and minds that you need for your solution to be chosen. The Human Terrain, more than anything else, is what it will take to make your solution work once you have been chosen.

We exert too much energy presenting our products, our services, and our ideas without paying the requisite attention to how our ideas play within the context of our dream client’s culture. We sell without a full understanding of what is necessary for our solution to succeed in the way of cultural changes within our client’s company, without a complete understanding of their social organization, and without an understanding of the political realities that will dictate whether our solution succeeds or fails.

Much of the time, the needs analysis we do is to simply look at our dream client’s problem through the lens of our existing solutions, without an attempt to capture the business intelligence that would help us to become a strategic partner instead of a vendor.

Normally, I close every blog post with a series of questions. I have so many questions those of us in sales should consider, I am including them here in the post instead.


When you are in the boardroom presenting, do you know whose hearts and minds have been won? Have you spent your time understanding and working within your dream client’s human terrain to know that you have the votes to win the deal, and then to implement and execute your solution?

Review your notes from your last three or four needs analysis sales calls.

What notes do you have about the company’s culture? What are the defining characteristics of their culture that will help enable you to win their hearts, their minds, and their votes? What about their culture will rub against your ideas and your solutions later, after you are chosen? What considerations do you have to make now in order to address these cultural issues?

What notes do you have about their linguistics, the language that they use to talk about their business? Are you certain that you fully understand what the words your dream clients use mean to them? Are there differences in the way they refer to concepts that differ from the language that you use? What language do they use that differs from their industry standard? Do your language choices mean something else to your dream client?

What notes do you have about the company’s internal politics? Do you know who stands to gain and who stands to lose by choosing you and your solutions? Do you know is going to try to protect their silo? Do you know about the internal turf wars that are going on over your deal right now? Do you know who can help you to gain the hearts and minds you need, who has the power to influence those who have the authority?

What relationships have you built that allow you capture intelligence that is not widely known by your competitors? What systems do you have in place to nurture these relationships and to capture intelligence that will help you to win and to implement and execute well after you have done so?


Business-to-business sales has much in common with insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, not least of which is the outcome of winning hearts and minds. Too much of our focus is in selling our solutions instead of working to understand and capture the human terrain.

Sales 2010
Post by Anthony Iannarino on July 5, 2010
Anthony Iannarino
Anthony Iannarino is a writer, an author of four books on the modern sales approach, an international speaker, and an entrepreneur. Anthony posts here daily.
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