There is, slowly but surely, a growing awareness in the B2B marketplace that, (thanks to the web-driven commoditisation of pretty much everything), it’s not your product, your service or your price that makes the difference, it’s your relationship.
Perhaps one of the more positive aspects of the recession (there I said it) is that many companies are now finally biting the bullet and thinking seriously about what it is they sell and how they sell it.
In good times it’s easier to succeed with a product-led sale, setting out your stall and letting customers buy from you. In tough times, buyers are scarce, investment is limited, no-one buys ‘nice to have’ and this can easily lead to commoditisation and loss of control as the initiative moves from supply to demand.
The term “solutions” has certainly lost much of it’s meaning with just about everyone using it for just about everything but that doesn’t negate the fact that there is, for many, the opportunity to regain control of their destiny by changing focus from, “what we’ve always sold” to “solving a real customer need”.
Sure, Apple has become the most highly valued company in the world by developing and marketing products that entice customers to queue up and buy. Which is nice, but what works in the B2C world does not always apply in the high value, B2B marketplace where most of us trade; increasingly we’re competing on financial value delivered not bells and whistles. Few have the luxury of a “killer app” that will sweep all before it, the new battleground is customer intimacy, it’s about knowing your customer and meeting his needs better than your competitor.
If you’re still following a product-centric strategy it’s probably reactive, few businesses can afford to create demand, so, you’re dependent upon your customer to work out what they need, and then buy it, hopefully from you. But business today is faster moving and rarely that clear-cut, there may be many different ways to solve a problem and if a competitor gets in there first you can get locked out.
The glib answer, (and we hear it all the time), is “to become more customer intimate” but that’s a concept that’s rarely explored or understood to the level that can generate the much needed change of mindset. It’s not a trivial challenge, it requires getting to understand customers better than anyone else and then doing something for them that helps them in a unique way, something they’ll value. But, if you can do this, if you can develop a relationship where they’ll trust you to help solve their problems you’ll get back in control and can start being proactive in developing business.
The steps needed to make this happen are blindingly obvious, there’s a general agreement on what they are, they’re just really, really difficult to do in practise:
- Understand who your customers are and get to know in detail what needs they have, identify the ones that you can do something about
- Be clear about what you can do uniquely well to meet these needs, what differentiates you from your competitors, why they should buy from you; then articulate it in a clear, consistent, compelling manner
- Identify where you’ve been successful, which customers will sing your praises, research those market sectors where you can replicate your success
- Seek out new customers in these sectors with similar problems to those you’ve solved. Calling is easier, you’re not trying to foist a product on them, you’re offering to help in the same way you’ve helped someone else with the same problem, someone who’ll endorse your success
- Do whatever it takes to ensure that your sales team truly understand the problems of their prospects first, it’s easy and wrong to jump to convenient conclusions. But once the client agrees you’ve got it, (and only then) develop a proposal that in client terms, shows conclusively and unarguably why they should invest in your solution. What’s in it for them?
Working with many companies making this transition we’ve found three areas that are most challenging.
Firstly, taking the time to do steps 1 and 2 in an honest, dispassionate manner. It requires activity that’s completely divorced from “business as usual”, some clear thinking, an open mind and a structure to get a result. Invariably objective facilitation is required.
Secondly, producing the tools that marketing and sales will need to take this new proposition to market in a consistent, compelling manner, and make sure it gets heard. Not easy, being customer centric is a different mindset and creativity is required to get above the noise of a busy marketplace.
Finally, the customer facing team have to learn to build interest, ask questions and, hardest of all, listen. It’s the opposite of doing a “demo” at the first meeting, it’s about building confidence by having meaningful business discussions with top management. Not all sales people can do it, and those that can usually need time and support.
If these are some of the challenges you face then we should be talking, getting it right sooner rather than later can have a dramatic effect on the bottom line…
As the “Sales Pipeline Engineers” that’s what we’re all about.
“When the promise is clear,the price gets easy..”
I’ve enjoyed a couple of client conversations recently which triggered a thought, a thought about three of the most powerful, and scary, words in the sales process.
I don’t know!
The first conversation was around the lack of trust that can be generated if there is a perception of glibness. I explored this with my chum, my client who pointed out that, generally, in our day to day conversations, we’re rarely in possession of all the facts, we’re rarely fully briefed on all the possible direction that a free ranging conversation might take and we’re therefore attuned to the occasional, or indeed frequent, “I don’t know”.
Now, as proper selling conversations inevitably, (and thankfully) tend to be real conversations about business issues rather than scripted pitches for a product or service the absence of doubt, pause or admitted ignorance doesn’t ring true.
If there’s one thing we know about conversational selling it’s that ringing true, perceived integrity is absolutely paramount in establishing trust, building relationships, maintaining relationships and selling stuff that helps to people who need it.
The second chat with a different chum, another client, identified that a lack of knowledge, of the detail, of the dates, the numbers or the right person to speak to gave intelligent salesfolk pursuing selling conversations the opportunity to re-connect, or to get the prospect to search out some information.
In a selling conversation it really doesn’t matter who doesn’t know, the strength comes from agreeing who will find out. We really like it when a prospect takes an action, it says they’re engaged, helping us both work to a result, not just sitting there waiting to be impressed.
So if you don’t know, that might just be a good thing,
Yes, no, maybe? You tell me, to be honest, I don’t know.
So, you’ve built a successful business, you’ve a base of loyal and appreciative clients, with all your investment in creating a good customer relationship it makes sound financial sense to exploit it by selling as many complementary offerings as possible, it’s good for both customer and seller.
This has been the driver for so many companies, of all sizes, to expand their product ranges, sometimes by R&D, often by acquisition.
It’s good theory but in practise the range of offerings can easily extend beyond the capability of the sales teams to understand them all. And as we all know if they aren’t comfortable selling the new, they tend to stay in their comfort zone, to focus on what they know well, inevitably missing out on many cross-selling opportunities.
Fortunately, as salespeople (and buyers) are becoming increasingly tablet-enabled, this is an area where technology can help; a few really interesting solutions that dramatically increase cross-selling capabilities are emerging.
As more and more service companies today seek to grab the high ground, they are developing portfolios of niche providers, often of complex services; trouble is that niches require familiarity to sell, service offerings can be complex, “all customers are different” and it’s all just too much for a busy sales team.
In the real world, time to become familiar with new offerings is limited, so training is rarely an option. Specialists may be available but sales folk still have to know when to bring them in and must be competent enough to identify the need. Often, the “show them what we can do” monkey lands screaming on the back of product management who respond to it with reams of mind-numbing technical documentation, impossible to navigate unless you’re the author.
A classic response is to use software but just making all this bumf available electronically via a portal or Sharepoint can build even more confusion as the numbers of documents multiply.
Imaginative ways of addressing the problem need to be found.
What sales people need is something pragmatic and functional, that cuts through information overload. Intelligent enough to guide a busy salesperson through the options available and capable of displaying just enough information, the relevant, nothing more. To be interactive,to allow a dialogue, to relate to the sales opportunity, to step through the sales process.
Above all it’s got to be sales focused, able to communicate those powerful nuggets of information that the most successful sales people use, just when they’re needed. Support a business-level dialogue, about benefits and proof statements not volumes of functional, contract or technical detail.
Amongst the many glossy electronic brochures that add little real value some solutions with this necessary intelligence are starting to emerge. We’re working with CoToCo, a highly flexible framework that has enabled us to develop a customised sales application with real interactivity, the intelligence to select and the ability to display what’s really important for a specific sales opportunity. Delivery is obvious, the web,smartphones and tablets, it is the 21st Century after all.
We’ve seen this sort of application effectively used in two ways, either as an aide-memoire before a meeting to “mug up” on what might be appropriate or used in conjunction with a prospect in the meeting, this has the advantage, (unlike a projected dumb slideshow) of getting salesman and prospect shoulder-by-shoulder, working together to identify problems and agree solutions, that’s good body language.
We’ve been working with MySQL. They have the interesting challenge, needing to sell without a core sales team, as their base software is available without cost, customers only pay for service and extras. We’ve developed a tool for their partners to help them cross-sell where it’s appropriate and to show them how to make money from Open Source Software. Take a look at it at http://mysql.cotoco.com It’s still evolving; so we’d be interested to hear what you think of it.
We strongly believe that sales people need to focus on the relationships they are developing, not the endless search for the information they need to make a case. Applications like this give them the ability to effortlessly navigate the data-swamp rather than drown in it.
“In these parts, a mans life may often depend on the smallest scrap of information” Clint Eastwood (Fistful of Dollars)
Sales people are front line fodder, they get used to both accolades and brickbats; sadly it’s often the latter at the moment. When times are tough the pressure is on to “get more leads” and “close every single deal” but how many companies ask themselves whether they’re pushing their people to push a proposition that the market is just not interested in?
Very few have that honesty; very few have the courage to genuinely listen to their customers.
Despite trying economic conditions there are companies that are doing well, ones that are bold, ones that are agile and ones that identify current customer needs and do something about it.
If you feel you’re in a business that can’t or won’t recognise the dead horse flogging scenario,
you’ve some choices:
- get them to recognise it,
- keep on flogging, or
- move on.
Two of those take courage. It’s time to be courageous, if you need help, give us a call.
Walk around your sales team, where are the account plans? Typically they’ll be sitting on a shelf, unread for months, irrelevant to todays priority of digging up as many deals as possible, after all, how would they possibly help you to make your numbers in a tight market?
Traditionally, account management was always a chore, endured because it was expected by management rather than something that actually helped get more business. Those multi-page reports and CRM outputs full of out-of-date information made it look as if account managers were doing their jobs but rarely prompted any serious strategic thinking or creative new business development.
It’s all too easy to make it complicated but if that happens the results are likely to be, at best, disappointing. Keeping a tight focus on the few things that really matter will support an honest assessment of the relationship, identify who you need to have the selling conversations with and who you need to make friends with.
It’s the quality of thinking that matters, and you’re much more likely to get quality by getting the team round a table rather than by sending the account manager into solitary confinement to produce a set of reworked formulaic slides. Bringing together the different personalities and viewpoints of sales, support and the delivery team usually gets thinking out of the rut even though it can be a handful to keep on track.
The best new business opportunities are not immediately obvious and it takes some “out of the box” thinking to prompt them.The broader the experience and perspective of the group, the more likely this is to happen.
We love to facilitate account reviews like this, a clear structure and the challenge introduced by having diverse views and opinions brings out the best thinking and often initiates completely different, more effective strategies.
If you’d like a copy of the roadmap that we use for account reviews, if you’d like to discuss the best way to get the most value from it, talk with us, we’d like that.
“In these parts a man’s life may hinge on the smallest piece of information.”
Clint Eastwood: Fistful of Dollars