You can protect your price position only if you establish a value-based difference that is sustainable. The essence of your difference must be predicated on the things you will and won’t do (your strategy requires “yes” and “no” binaries such as ‘Yes, I will work with people with an appetite for change.’ or ‘No, I won’t work with people that lack an appetite for change.’). It must also be based on choosing to perform activities differently than your competitors. Failing to articulate these distinctions devolves in to a low value low price bake-off. That’s not a strategy. That’s capitulation.
- Reduce the number of opportunities you pursue.
- Increase the amount of time you spend selling versus the amount of time you spend doing busywork.
- Improve your presentation skills.
- Sell the things your customers demand rather than what you supply.
- Treat selling as an opportunity to serve, not an an opportunity to convince.
- Terminate weak engagements. If they’re not a buyer then move on.
- Don’t confuse telling with selling.
- Generate referrals–they’re the only things people really trust.
- Make sure you’re spending time with the real decision maker.
- Practice your process.
- Differentiate yourself from the competition.
- Increase your mix and margin.
The world’s best chess players don’t play move-by-move chess. There’s no “10 moves ahead” aspect of their games. Chess, like life, is too organic and the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Instead, the world’s best study patterns and use their prodigious gifts to memorize the most successful responses to these patterns. The pattern in the image is called an ‘absolute pin.’
Salespeople can learn from this type of strategic preparation. While many salespeople say “every account is different” or “my market is unique” there are nonetheless patterns that connect the most successful sales and conversions.
Think about your very best sales and your very best conversions:
- Who and where was your point of entry in to the account? Did the most successful conversions start at a branch? A lunch? A sales seminar? And who was the person that consistently opened the door for you? A service technician? An administrator? If you can find a pattern regarding the point-of-entry then you can look for ways to duplicate similar situations and make similar connections.
- What was the problem that they wanted you to solve, the perspective they were looking for, the decision they needed help making? If it was price-based did those attempts yield the right results? If it was inventory-based did the relationship prove to be lasting? What unmet need did they share an interest in satisfying?
- What caused the process to accelerate and at what point in the sales cycle did this happen? Was it after the very first meeting or after a factory tour? Was it a growing level of dissatisfaction with a competitive supplier? Did the process accelerate because you gave a superior pitch? At some point the road blocks disappeared. Why?
- What caused the process to delay and at what point in the sales cycle did this happen? Was there competitive push back immediately following your first meeting or was it a slow burn? Did the decision maker get cold feet at some point and why?
- Who from your team made the greatest impact on winning the business? Did the Branch Manager’s involvement provide a level of trust that was needed? Did your Sales Manager’s participation improve the results? It’s not always a singular effort that generates big results. It’s a team effort that matters.
Do you see any patterns? If so, duplicate them! Moreover, plan your prospecting activities accordingly:
- Who from your side must your prospects absolutely meet?
- Artifacts. What processes, documents, samples, and testimonials create the greatest confidence while unsticking any friction points?
- Time. When you had delays in the conversion process what was going on? What was the bad recipe that you want to avoid? What recipe worked the best. Repeat that one.
Selling is a hard job. Some people have twenty years of experience to draw from while others seem to have one year of experience twenty times. Regardless of the experience there are patterns–situations that a smart professional has seen or experienced many times over. Like a brilliant chess player, your ability to recognize patterns and duplicate the successful responses will improve the likelihood of a win.
“Technology is a glittering lure. But there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash.” — Don Draper
An expertly crafted, deftly delivered product pitch is one of a salesperson’s most important assets. Yet it’s easy to forget that educating a customer and inspiring a customer to the point that they have to have your product are two very different talents–the former is common while the latter seems forgotten. Why did this happen? The most likely reason is that companies inundate their sales teams with so many “shiny new toys”– products, programs, services, incentives, quarterly plans, internal reports, and non-customer facing requirements–that sharing and selling became synonyms. The pitch was lost somewhere between “People buy from people they like” and “Take ’em to the pain.”
Expertly pitching products and services is the smartest (and most elusive) answer to the parity problem. Think about the last transformative pitch you heard. Have you ever heard one? Was it an ordinary “features, functions, benefits” effort–clotted up with mechanical language and poorly rehearsed? Or, did it make you want the product to the point that competitive products disappeared (moreover, you’d regret buying a competitive product)? If that’s the case then here’s why:
A beautiful pitch is based on a big idea. Big ideas are magnetic, harder to object to, are inspired and are aspirational. A big idea transforms the ordinary in to the extra-ordinary.
A pitch usually includes a story. A well-told story does the job of conveying meaning without the salesperson having to overtly explain it.
A pitch appeals to emotions. A pitch that creates an emotional response connects with a customer’s deepest instincts for safety, security, belonging, and improvement, and the emotional that keeps every business owner pushing on: hope.
A pitch allows for multiple voices. A harmony of ideas so to speak, lending itself to a broader audience and broader acceptance.
A pitch will rarely be exclusive to a slide deck. The narrator shapes the path, the pitch, and the slides are simply icing on the cake.
Salespeople often bemoan the lack of differentiation among products as an impediment to their competitive advantage. “We’re just as good as the other guys and they’re just as good as we are,” they say. Competing on the basis of sound levels, efficiency ratings, or fractional design differences increases the likelihood of a price bake-off. The salesperson who wants to win will double down on his pitch and presentation skills (Note: I’ll be focusing intensely on the craft of the product pitch with my clients in 2020).
“It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel.”
The questions a salesperson asks during a prospecting process should provide insights regarding the prospect’s attitude and willingness to make a change from one supplier to another. For example:
- In terms of time, money, and risk, what business problems will working with us solve for you? (the prospect self-selects financial, structural, or security concerns that he views as liabilities).
- How will you measure our success 60 days after we start working together? (reveals the prospect’s sense of accountability and performance for himself as well as the new supplier)
- How much “better” does our “better” have to be in order for you to work with us? (the prospect will define performance standards as well as dissatisfactions with the current supplier)
- How soon does (insert a problem) need to show improvement for you to feel that our work together is successful? (prospect’s level of urgency and focus is apparent)
- What process will you follow in bringing us on as your provider? (the prospect’s process management and intent are illustrated).
The most important questions that a salesperson can ask a prospect are designed to answer one question: When adding a new supplier, what are the qualities they always must have and what are the things that are never acceptable? A salesperson can’t decide if the opportunity is valid until he has an answer.
Inside sales teams and outside sales teams have traditionally sold in different ways. Inside sales teams sold over the phone or fax or walk-in orders. Face-to-face interaction with customers was transactional and generally uncomplicated. Outside sales teams sold primarily in person and were responsible for larger volume accounts. Existing and emerging technology, however, is challenging these traditions. These changes require a new type of collaboration in order to improve customer service and top line growth.
E-commerce will continue to drive customers towards greater interaction with inside sales teams. Inside teams will need to expertly support the self-directed customer. As self-service options become the preferred choice among clients outside sales teams will need to build value in increasingly non-transactional ways. From a field salespersons’ perspective it may feel like the inside sales team and e-commerce capabilities are invading their turf. However, e-commerce represents a lower cost to serve. It improves loyalty providing the experience is low-effort. It also allows outside salespeople to thicken their value proposition with innovative strategies.
Both inside and outside sales teams already interact with their customers and conduct a significant amount of business remotely. Technology provides inside and outside sales teams the ability to meet increasingly complicated client needs. Products, pricing, programs, promotions, events, trips, incentives, marketing and advertising–these are no longer the exclusive domain of the outside sales team. All of these advantages are offered in on-line formats that inside teams need to master in as much as outside sales teams need to grow comfortable with the idea that inside sales means inside sales. As such, inside teams need higher level communication, problem solving, and client support skills in order to venture beyond scripted interaction.
Sales and operations leaders will change the way they hire and the way their teams use technology to serve customers. Traditionally, hiring an inside sales representative emphasized transactional characteristics (lift, drive, pass a drug test). In the future, inside sales representatives will need to be comfortable and competent in more self-directed roles–given the latitude to pursue customer development needs in the interest of sales. Many inside sales representatives that I work with do not feel they currently have this permission. At the same time, outside teams will need to excel at using data, virtual selling, and social selling. Technology helps an outside sales person reduce his effort, scale his message, and reduce the effort asked of a customer.
Technology of forcing traditional inside and outside sales roles to evolve. In the coming years it’s fair to expect artificial intelligence to answer phones at branches everywhere. It’s equally fair to expect that expert remote selling and data utilization skills will be an expected competency for outside sales professionals. Companies that capitalize on these opportunities and create hybrid teams will create a selling advantage by not relying solely on one team or another to meet their needs.
Attrition happens when companies underestimate the importance of customer selection. Sales teams often spend time and money on customers who don’t share the same strategic priorities–the things they will and won’t do to win. Strategic misalignment results in customers leveraging suppliers for pricing and largess with no intention of developing an authentic long-term relationship. A salesperson who fails to take the customer selection process seriously risks building the competitor’s team, not his. Using strategic criteria to evaluate a customer’s qualification better ensures that strategic alignment is baked in to the relationship from Day 1.
Strategic alignment needs to be the driving force behind the majority of selling decisions, including new customer selection. Salespeople must be able to communicate their company strategy in clear and differentiated terms. They must live by them. Salespeople can’t sell value in the morning and price in the afternoon. It doesn’t work that way. New customers should also demonstrate a clear behavioral and organizational alignment with the strategy. This better ensures a “fit.” Generalized prospecting criteria may gather the names of key contacts, website, physical address, number of years in business, monthly equipment purchases, business mix, marketing strategies, number of vehicles on the road, expectations from a supplier, and such. But these are value-neutral and reveal nothing about strategic alignment or willingness to change. That a prospect has five trucks on the road is insignificant if the new customer does not share the same strategic aim as his supplier. Using generalized new business criteria fills a pipe line that often “gives out more light than heat.”
Differentiation is critical to conversion and long term client loyalty. It is the essence of a company’s strategy. Without it, companies run the risk of commoditization and the constant price bake-off. Attrition will occur under these circumstances if customers are unconvinced that the grass isn’t greener elsewhere. While it is a sales manager’s job to communicate the strategic differentiators, they themselves may have a difficult time clearly doing so. This lack of clarity permeates their teams. If that’s the case it will be further diluted among their customers.
The best way to grow is by replicating a strategic advantage in new contexts. Attrition happens when sales teams don’t apply a win-loss analysis as part of the performance improvement cycle in order to decrease the odds of it happening again. When breakage happens too few teams consider internal opinions, conduct a loss or exit interview, or integrate exit interview content in to a team feedback loop. The same goes for the wins. When a client’s performance ignites most companies treat is as nearly as an anomaly rather than ask the question: “How can we repeat that?” And so it goes. Breakage happens, nobody digs in to the specifics or shares them with his team. Analyzing positive and negative trends helps a team make smarter choices while revealing opportunities for improvement.
Attrition occurs when a salesperson fails to appreciate the scarcity of time–especially with medium to high value clients. As a result he may take a client’s time for granted, haphazardly plan his meetings, and succumb to complacency’s assurance: “Relax, you’re no worse than the competition.”
A salesperson is assigned to a medium or high value client (growth-oriented, inquisitive, open to change). The salesperson decides to meet with the account twice per month for roughly one hour per meeting. Assuming that the client can attend every single meeting then the salesperson has 48 hours of face-to-face interaction. If the salesperson spends 10 to 15 minutes per meeting chatting about “icebreaker” topics then the meeting is shortened to 45 minutes and total effective time is reduced to 42 hours annually–if everything works perfectly. Without a sense of urgency a salesperson may forget that client’s who give you their time are volunteers–they’re not getting paid to sit with you. Every meeting should be over-planned and demand-side focused.
In The Score Takes Care of Itself Bill Walsh writes, “Hearing someone described as being able to ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ always suggested to me a leader who hasn’t prepared properly and whose pants may soon fall down.” It is disrespectful to arrive unprepared for a meeting. It’s an insult to the customer and it erodes your personal brand. A salesperson has less than two days to persuade an account to increase their purchases and loyalty. Less than two days to demonstrate why the competition is the wrong choice. Less than two days to earn the loyalty of all of the decision makers. Less than two days to inculcate the staff with product benefits. Customers will tolerate a few badly planned meetings–but not for long. Walsh notes, “Your lukewarm presentation becomes their lukewarm interest in what you’re offering.” Mediocre content that is unenthusiastically delivered causes attrition.
On a broader scale, salespeople need contingency plans for unexpected changes in their territory. For example:
- A talented retail salesperson and loyal advocate for your product decides to quit one of your best accounts and sell a competitive product.
- You lose your largest customer to the competition.
- Your product has a serious technical or availability problem.
- New business forecasts turn out to be significantly off track.
Attrition happens if salespeople are caught unawares while a sudden, sometimes volatile change happens in their territory. Once in a reactive mode they have no choice but to use what little time remains attempting to recover, determining the next course of action, implementing a new plan, and course correcting. Depending on the significance of the occurrence it can take months to start moving forward again.
Attrition happens when a salesperson’s acumen and ability fail to keep pace with client needs. Attrition also happens when salespeople don’t act with purpose and urgency. Badly planned meetings that waste a client’s time are tacitly insulting. On a broader level, attrition happens when salespeople sluggishly respond to sudden changes in their territory, allowing nimbler competitors to capture emerging opportunities.
During a recent conversation a colleague speculated as to why client attrition happens. “Sometimes the competition buys the business,” he said, “and we might be complacent at some point.” These can be deal breakers. Most customers, however, are willing to forgive the occasional service gaff or price negotiation unless it goes uncorrected or unaddressed–especially if the service is no worse than the competition’s. That aside, attrition happens when a salesperson loses her expertise gap or because firm’s value-added offerings are built primarily from a narrow supply-side perspective. Correcting these problems will help salespeople and organizations reduce attrition while improving customer loyalty.
Attrition occurs when a salesperson’s capabilities fail to evolve with the customer’s needs and expectations. One salesperson can successfully influence a start-up sized client. A small number of decision makers coupled with a fervor to grow their business is fertile ground for nearly every salesperson. Engaging this account, introducing new services and support, and normal follow-up procedures are enough to retain the business during the early stage of the relationship. For salespeople these are gratifying times because organizational value can help nearly every small business–it widens the expertise gap. Attrition starts when this gap starts to shrink. Salespeople who respond to this contraction by using strictly organizational solutions quickly fall in to the competency trap.
Salespeople continue losing ground when their customers’ businesses evolve faster than they can keep pace. In lieu of practicing what Clayton Christensen calls “demand-side selling,” reactive salespeople maintain an entrenched supply-side perspective. As a result their retention strategy is constrained by either the quality of the client relationship or pre-packaged talking points: products, programs, and price. This supply-side efforts risk immediate parity while increasing the likelihood of a price bake-off. Without considering the applicability of their offerings, salespeople attempt to create positive leverage with annual marketing programs, cheaper web services, loyalty incentives, and fancier trips. They risk getting “better and better at things their customers care less and less about.” At some point a growth-oriented client is simultaneously inundated with these offerings yet inclined to look for fresh and innovative offerings outside of the familiar.
In larger accounts attrition is the result of Dunbar’s Number. Beyond a certain point one salesperson is functionally unable to effectively “manage” an account that includes multiple-decision makers, varied priorities, and busy schedules. As a result the salesperson may seek out her comfort zone–spending an inordinate amount of time with the people they feel they can best work with. At this point the competency trap happens because firms have historically categorized salespeople as solo specialists. Unable to adapt quickly or to build collaborative teams they attempt to retain business with a “mighty edifice of obsolescence.” In order to prevent attrition among high-value accounts a salesperson must rely on a collaborative effort that is contrary to many firm’s definition and handling of a sales team.
Ultimately, attrition reflects a systemic problem that sales managers are expected to prevent. Sales managers, generally promoted from the ranks, often encourage the high-performing salesperson who just “gets it done.” The description probably applied to sales managers themselves. As a result, many sales managers that I’ve worked with utilize collaborative strategies to a very limited extent: under duress or with high-value accounts. Organizationally, inside and outside sales teams are coached in isolation rather than as a team. Sharing best practices becomes a word-of-mouth transmission. Practical collaborative competencies that become force multipliers are viewed as aspirational if disruptive. And as if often the case, the rules and expectations for collaboration are undefined. Bear in mind, this is no fault of the sales manager. Busy sales managers deal daily with their own competency trap. They are some of the hardest working professionals in any firm. Yet, preventing attrition cannot be the job of one salesperson or of one sales manager. It requires a deep rethinking of how sales teams are managed, what “sales teams” are, how they function, and how they use resources in order to retain accounts and prevent attrition in a world in which the pace of change is only accelerating.
Amazon is currently beta testing audio advertisements. According to Ad Age magazine the decision is partially an effort to compete with Pandora and Spotify. Anonymous sources also report that the beta-test is potentially a new way to shape consumer behavior. Lululemon, one of a small number of invitation-only participants, hopes that consumers will buy more of their products on Amazon after hearing an advertisement while listening to music on Alexa.
Here is a link to the original beta-test presentation deck:
Currently, there are significantly more Alexa devices in our homes than any other smart home product. The beta-test is guaranteeing that participating brands will reach one million listeners. Notably, Amazon is not able to guarantee targeting at this time. This will surely change given the alarming amount of data Amazon has gathered. And while Amazon has not shared the early results of the beta-test this will most likely be the next facet of voice-based consumer engagement.
Optimizing a small business website for relevant voice-search results is still a moving target. The Alexa Blog (www.alexa.com) provides free optimization tools and recommendations regarding voice search. Learning how to utilize these resources and implement their recommendations is a provocative (if not commanding) opportunity. Determining whether paid advertisements will play a role in a business’ customer acquisition strategy may feel nascent right now. But Amazon says that audio ads will be “widely available” in the first quarter of 2020.
The self-service revolution continues to evolve.