“We need a clearly articulated proposition”,
Yes, yes, you do but that’s not what you’ll try to produce now, that’s not what you’ll get as you invest masses of highly skilled, very expensive resource in developing, packaging and creating delightful PowerPoint.
You’ll be trying to develop a differentiation, and here’s a secret*, these days, most clients don’t care about differentiation, they see all suppliers as pretty much delivering similar things, the real differentiation is about trust, understanding and value.
So, many businesses go into navel-gazing mode, without talking to clients to see why they chose you last time, without recognising that almost anything that can be sold now is a commodity, especially in the complex high value services space, without grasping the tricky nettle, that their people buy your products and services based on their relationships with your people, who are all (unfortunately) locked in a room somewhere producing yet more polished and pointless PowerPoint.
* it’s not really a secret
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.
I keep hearing this sort of refrain, increasingly expressed by business folk, exacerbated,perhaps, by almost universal frustration with increasing levels of ‘noise over signal’ in social media, email and phone communication.
I hear, “how hard is it to be polite”, “he never called back”, “they just hung up”.
I hear of the frustration generated by the faceless mass of cold callers who, upon realising that they’re not getting anywhere hang up leaving a sense of real and palpable anger at this commodity approach to us. Increasingly, worryingly, I also hear such frustration around B2B interactions. This reaction is entirely human, we don’t respond well to bad manners, manners are a necessary social device to reduce friction, improve communication and enable the building of relationships. And you know how strongly I feel about the power of relationships in the B2B complex sales space.
But there’s a very real sales opportunity being missed here, let me tell you a brief story and see if it resonates.
I noticed a couple of occasions when the same chap looked at my linked-in profile, I didn’t recognise him or his company, let’s call it LeedForensics for the sake of discretion. You might not be surprised that, a few days later an email dropped into my mailbox, from this same chap, explaining that he’d looked at our website and thought that his company and their product might help us generate opportunities by using their visitor analytics to identify and pursue hitherto unknown and unidentified visitors to our website. OK, not something that interested me, but I appreciated the fact that he’d obviously done some research, crafted a tailored email and ensured at least an approximate match between their tools and our business profile. So I didn’t just ignore his missive, I wrote a reply and said that I didn’t see a match at this time, I bothered to explain at a broad level how we currently generate opportunities and I thanked him for his interest.
Had I been him I’d have thought of a number of possible responses to that…
Maybe, “Can I explore a little more how you do generate business Steve, I’m always eager to learn?” Result- the dialogue continues, I’ve won business after six years of that sort of occasional interchange.
Or maybe “Sorry to hear that, let’s do the Linked-in thing and keep in touch?” Result, if I agree, the dialogue continues.
Or possibly, “You’re a pro, (flattery) could you take a moment to give me some more detailed feedback on why our proposition didn’t appeal to you?” Result, the dialogue continues.
At the very least, how about “Just a quick thank you for responding”? Result, the door to future dialogue isn’t closed, and he has started to create positive awareness of himself and his proposition.
But no, what he did was nothing, the B2B equivalent of the cold-call hang-up, blowing the research and effort put in so far and creating a negative impression with a potential customer, a recommender, a professional and keen networker, a sales coach to large influential businesses and occasionally a highly critical business blogger and opinion expresser.
What harm could that do?
Sales management should be gladiatorial but not in the way one might immediately assume…
We’ve all, to a greater or lesser extent been conditioned by the macho culture of ‘salesman’ indeed I know of alleged ‘sales coaches’ who use the classic “always be closing” clip from Glengarry Glen Ross as coaching material, which is rather scary. However the fact is that, once upon a time, a thick skin, overweening ambition, a monstrous ego and a flagrant disregard for ethical behaviour were indeed the pre-conditions for sales success.
I still meet many sales managers who see reviewing an opportunity, the pipeline or an account plan as an exercise in ego reinforcement, a battle to establish and reinforce dominance, ‘mano a mano’.
This, inevitably, leads to an approach from the sales folk, either of obsessive and defensive over-presentation, mendacity, deceit and sandbagging or, for some, a full-on testosterone-fuelled session of mortal combat. As our gladiatorial chums would have put it “morituri te salutant*”. Now I’m pretty convinced that there are really relevant lessons to be learned for Sales managers and directors in the excellent work of Ridley Scott, Russel Crowe and their movie Gladiator, but those lessons are definitely not about the inherent manliness of single combat, or indeed tiger slaying.
For me the defining moment for ex-General Maximus Decimus Meridius was when he led his fellow gladiators to success in the arena by organising them as a team, assigning roles, setting out a plan, and getting them to take responsibility for aiding and abetting each other, that kind of approach to sales leadership is still a rare find in many organisations, partly down to the rewards structure (if you’re each rewarded solely on individual success, co-operation and sharing can be financially harmful) and that’s partly the result of persistent cultural “you’re on your own” prejudices.
How do we change that? Well, I’m glad you asked.
We’ve found, over the years, that reviewing one deal, one opportunity, one account as a structured and managed team exercise can bring real unity to a team, players start to get involved, to see the value, to identify how each can benefit from another’s experience, knowledge and insight. It always results in a better approach to the deal, a set of outcomes to move things forward, identification of a some “Aha!” moments.
It’s a start, to working better, and for many sales teams, the sense of relief is palpable. And once they’ve all seen the value delivered it can then be managed to become ‘the way we do things here’.
So is it time for salesmen, saleswomen, sales managers, pre-sales, account teams and sales directors to start declaring, “I am Spartacus”?
Ave emptor qui sunt vendere salutant*
(*feel free to correct my lousy latin)
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..”