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Watch Your Language

April 1st, 2014

Three Signs that Your Sales Process Needs a Rethink

“Watch your thoughts,” wrote Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu, “for they become words.  Watch your words, for they become actions.” 

It’s good advice if your sales have plateaued. If you hear yourself or others making statements like these, it’s time to refine your sales process.

Who’s our target?  Any company that/ anyone who…

A few years ago I met the owner of multiple small businesses. He gave me his business card, printed with a deer’s head and the initials A.F.A.B. I asked what the initials stood for, and he answered with a smile, “Anything for a Buck.” I don’t remember his name or the services he provided. All I remember is his card, and that it did not inspire a business dialogue between us.

The A.F.A.B. approach won’t build brand awareness, your pipeline or a sustainable reputation for your company. It doesn’t allow you to play to your strengths and worse, prospects sense your lack of focus and interpret it as desperation. If your description of your target customer begins with “any,” take the time to review your best customers and frame your target profile.

Where’s the low hanging fruit?

A variation on this question is, “What can we do in the next 30 days?” If you’re looking for low-hanging fruit, you’re looking for an easy, short-term fix.  In most cases the results are scattershot execution and wasted efforts. The sales you close are often are not a good fit; your new customers have skewed expectations of your product, service and brand. Your time is better spent examining and refining your prospect qualification process.  

That prospect is still in process – it’s about 50% toward close.

Are the majority of your sales activities estimated at 50-65% toward close? It’s a sign that you need to take a closer look at defining the steps in the purchase process.

Percentage-to-close can be a helpful metric for projecting the likelihood of future sales and gauging their financial impact on your company. Whether you use sales management software to track lead-to-close progress or have an internal system, make sure that you are tying specific prospect activities to a spcific stage in the buying process. It’s easy to approximate percentage-to-close based on sales activities, such as sending a proposal or meeting with a prospect. Fifty percent toward close is only meaningful based on the behaviors of your prospect, and their answers to specific, probing questions that move the purchase process forward.

By the way, Lao Tsu didn’t stop with a caution about thoughts becoming words and words becoming actions. Here’s the rest of his advice: “Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Take control of your business destiny and your sales process.  It starts with watching your language.

What’s Behind Your Sales Pitch?

March 5th, 2014

I recently reconnected with a business acquaintance, the founder and CEO of a successful company, at a networking event. We hadn’t seen each other in a few months and exchanged news on our respective businesses and mutual acquaintances. 

John mentioned that Derek, an inveterate pitchman we both knew, had contacted him. Derek was involved in yet another business and made another pitch to John. “Did you consider it?”  I asked.  John shook his head. “Why not?” 

John stammered something about the services not being a fit for his company, and being too busy. Then he shrugged, palms up, and sighed, “Because there’s no there, there.”

John had articulated a hard truth about the difference between a shallow pitch and a meaningful business dialogue.

This kind of candor doesn’t often surface in casual conversations, and the fact that it did set me to thinking. What does it mean to have there, there?

No there means you’re not here.  If a prospective client, customer or business partner thinks that you have no there, it means they’re not willing to invest the time, energy and ultimately their hard-earned cash to work with you. 

It’s often said that every business relationship involves give and take. I prefer to think of it as an exchange. If your exchange isn’t a blend of substance, character, and space for the prospect’s point of view, there’s no there behind your pitch. And no chance to develop the mutual trust that transforms an exchange into a sale.

Yes, it’s important to craft a short, compelling value proposition and use it skillfully in conversations with prospects, clients and customers. But when a prospect starts to feel like Dorothy wishing for a little dog to pull back the Great Oz’s curtain and reveal the person behind it, perhaps it’s time look behind your pitch for deeper substance. 

Where’s your there?

Looking for Opportunity? Look Where it Isn’t

February 3rd, 2014

“Look where it is not, as well as where it is.”

 So says a centuries-old French proverb, and there’s truth in that saying where strategic partnerships are concerned.

My client, the president of a technology company, wanted to target new customers in a highly regulated industry and needed an entry strategy. He believed that a partnership with a large, global provider of information technology (IT) security hardware that had a track record in the industry was the way to go. To find out, I went to the source – the CEOs of 10 companies in the industry – and requested a brief conversation with each of them.

Figuring out which companies or experts these CEOs relied on for IT and regulatory-related services was the key objective for my conversations.  

Looking Where it Isn’t

I went back to my client with the name of a small law firm in the Southwest. My client was skeptical – a law firm? That’s it? According to several CEOs I spoke with, this small law firm  was one they relied on for guidance.

My client and I researched the law firm. The off-the-shelf website template did not impress my tech-savvy client. We dug deeper. One page on the website included information on the law firm’s hard-copy regulatory guides, which it provided along with highly specialized legal consulting. Aha. Instead of assuming that the law firm and its low-tech approach were not a fit, my client began to see the potential opportunity in a partnership based on complementary expertise and interests.

Taking Cues from the Clues

We contacted the law firm, taking our low-tech cues from the website: we wrote a hard copy letter and sent it postal mail.  A few days later, we got a call from the firm’s principals and an invitation to meet. It turned out that the law firm had a client base of more than 1,000 companies in the industry that my client wanted to target, and was looking for an alliance to address the technology-based regulatory needs of its clients. That meeting was the start of a mutually productive partnership and a steady pipeline of prospects for my client.

What would your company do with 1,000 new prospects?

Maybe it’s time to drop your assumptions and look where it isn’t. Not every high-tech/low tech or other seemingly contrarian pairing develops into a high-yield relationship.  But sometimes, looking where you think opportunity isn’t, as well as where you think it is, can reveal an unexpected path to profitable growth.

 

When the Status Quo is Your Biggest Competitor

January 16th, 2014

Whether your company is the market leader or a new entrant, sometimes your biggest competition isn’t the 800-pound gorilla or the new kid on the block. It’s a prospect’s decision to do nothing – to maintain the status quo.

Signs of the status quo can surface at any time in the sales process. In the initial stages of engaging a prospect, the status quo is often expressed as “Thanks, we’re all set.” Those repeated requests for more information, long after you thought the prospect was purchase-ready?  Your foe, the status quo again.

The reason that the status quo is such a fierce competitor is the same reason that change management is so challenging for both individuals and organizations. It’s fear of the unknown. Your product or service represents change. And people don’t have an emotional connection to change in the same way that they have an emotional connection to what they know.

“We’re all set” can mean “I know what I have, even if I don’t always like it or it doesn’t work the way I wish it would.”  Repeated requests for more information can mean, “I’m not the (only) decision maker and I don’t know what will happen if I risk addressing this with the decision maker.”

When the status quo is your competitor, it’s up to you to think like a change manager and replace fear with trust. Here are a few questions to challenge the status quo.

Replacement, complement, option or upgrade?

When a prospect says “we’re all set,” it’s an opportunity to manage change by adding to the status quo. Think beyond replacing what is currently in play. Consider positioning your product or service as a complement to the status quo, an option for contingencies and overcapacity or an enhancement for a specific functional area or department.   

What’s in it for your prospect?

If you are running into repeated requests for information or justification for your product or service, it’s often a sign that the resistance is emotional and personal, not factual. The logical, dollarized benefits of using your product or service may be clear, but chances are your prospect isn’t clear on the impact your product or service will have on him or her personally. Explore the positive outcomes that your product or service can have on your prospect’s role, job satisfaction and relationships with peers, employees and boss. 

Why don’t we do it together?

A version of this question can be one of the most effective ways to dislodge the status quo. When your prospect repeatedly drops the ball on a task required to take the next step toward a purchase decision, asking this question will build trust or reveal an underlying objection to moving forward – or both.

You can’t reason a prospect out of resistance to changing the status quo. You can think like a change manager by building trust and creating an emotional connection to the positive outcomes of change.

Want to Close Sales Faster? Stop “Frequesting”

December 5th, 2013

No one has better perspective on the contradictions of human behavior than a salesperson.

In the morning, your prospect has an urgent need for your product or service, and by afternoon, all of your calls are forwarding to voicemail. That enthusiastic first meeting you thought went so well? Your prospect’s next steps are canceling meetings and declining requests to reschedule. That is, until your prospect makes the buy decision and wants your product or service up and running immediately. Then you’re frantically rearranging your schedule to accommodate.

In these situations, it’s easy for salespeople to get sucked into reactive behavior—what I call “frequesting.” Instead of backing off, you crank up your outreach and over-communicate, sending even more requests and messages to prospects. You feel like a gerbil in a wheel, running in place with no forward movement in sight.

 Break the Frequesting Habit

Breaking the frequesting habit takes the will to wait. Yes, wait. This applies to “gotta have it now” scenarios as well as to prospect communications that have gone dark. Step away from your smartphone and laptop, resist the urge to react and literally wait a minute. Or five. Or even an hour. 

A few weeks ago, I heard from a prospect I’d been in touch with for more than six months. The company was ready to engage, and had an aggressive timeline for a new project. Setting up meetings was challenging. My contact frequently rescheduled meetings with same-day notice. On one particularly busy day, my contact sent a same-day change that moved a critical meeting to a time that I’d previously indicated was booked. 

My first instinct was to point out that I was already booked and request another date for the meeting. While that seemed reasonable, it wouldn’t solve the problem or enhance my relationship with this contact. So I waited several minutes before responding, and I figured out a way to adjust my commitments to accept the rescheduled meeting.

 Allow Space for a Thoughtful Response

Accepting the meeting request didn’t stop me from feeling that my contact lacked respect for my time. I began considering diplomatic ways to address the issue and set expectations for scheduling meetings. About an hour later, I received a six-word reply to my meeting acceptance:

You are a blessing. Thank You.

It turns out that my contact was juggling a major business issue and a family situation. My agreeing to a scheduling change was a cooperative bright spot among these other challenges and marked the beginning of a positive business relationship.

Sometimes your most powerful sales response is restraint. This doesn’t mean being non-responsive. It means allowing yourself the space for a thoughtful and intentional response. And you just may be pleasantly surprised by what happens in that space.

Success is a Direction

November 5th, 2013

“What can we do in the next 30 days?”

This question is a knee-jerk reaction to a range of business situations – a dip in quarterly sales, a customer or client service issue, supplier cost increases, the big-fish prospect that seems to have gotten away, or a competitor’s traction in the marketplace. Suddenly, the priorities of your company, business unit or sales team take a 180 degree turn, as the clock ticks and stress levels rise.

If you’re asking this question, use it as an opportunity to get clear about your definition of success, and how to achieve it each day, every day. 

Take the case of a scratch bakery, which means that products are baked fresh every day from proprietary recipes. When the business started up, the owners decided that freshness mattered most.  They invested in high-quality ingredients and equipment, committed to baking fresh every day, and decided to donate unsold products to charity at the end of each business day. Every morning, they start from scratch again.

In the early days of the business, this approach meant that a large percentage of the day’s production was donated to charity. It also means an ongoing commitment to very early mornings and very long days for the owners. It would be easy to justify selling day-old products. Why not?  Many bakeries sell products baked one or two days earlier, to reduce operational costs and working hours.  

For this scratch bakery, day-old is not an option. Success is providing customers with the freshest products available. The owners have stayed that course each day, every day. Yes, they have adjusted along the way, testing new products, monitoring sales and production costs and adapting the menu based on customer response. Four years later, the business has a reputation for freshness, a profitable customer base of loyal patrons and solid book of wholesale accounts.

Whether you run a global company, a small business or a tech start-up, you’ve probably been tempted to cut corners on your definition of success. Or maybe you haven’t defined it for yourself and are lured by the hundreds of books that claim to reveal the secrets of success.

The real secret? 

There are many helpful ideas. There is no one-time, sure-fire, stroke-of-luck fix that guarantees success in 30 days, or for all the days that follow.  In business as in life, success is a direction, not a destination.  Success requires being clear about what you and your business stand for and moving steadily in that direction, each day, every day. 

What can you do in the next 30 days? 

Define success, head in that direction, stay the course, and make incremental adjustments along the way.  Each day, every day.

 

 

Delighted Customers: Lessons from Lisbon

July 30th, 2013

Out on the Atlantic edge of Europe, Lisbon may not be a top-of-mind capital in the European Union or a place most people associate with peak customer experience. A recent business trip to Lisbon changed my mind, and gave me more than souvenirs to take home.

I saw and experienced the surprise, delight and loyalty that comes from keeping the customer experience a priority. Here are a few examples I’ve shared with my clients.

Welcome Back

Jose is sales director for five retail stores in Lisbon and manages his company’s network of wholesalers. We did product demos together during my meetings with his company. After finishing a store-based demo, he gave an employee a much-needed break, and I got to watch him in action with a customer.

He turned what might have been a 20-euro minor purchase into a 300-euro sale by giving the customer a shopping experience that ensured repeat business. He did this with sincere interest in the customer and three key statements.

When the customer came in, Jose greeted him with a big smile. “Welcome,” he said. “I’ve seen you here before, and I appreciate your business – welcome back.” Surprised, delighted and now engaged, the customer beamed. Jose continued, “What brings you back today?” 

After this initial conversation, Jose gave the customer time to look around. When the customer picked out a small item, Jose reengaged. “I see you’ve made a selection, and I’d like to know your opinion.  May I ask you a few questions?”  

The lesson from Lisbon: Find meaningful ways to enjoy your customer interactions, and use them to create a peak experience for your customer.   

Above and Beyond

I rang the doorbell on the B&B’s tiled façade, and within two minutes, I was sitting on the patio with a strong coffee and a fresh squeezed glass of orange juice. Juan, the manager of the B&B, was a Portuguese-speaking South African student who loved his adopted city and loved telling visitors about it.  Every morning and evening, he intentionally connected with each guest, paying focused attention when he spoke with them. Each interaction was like a conversation with a friend, in the home of a friend.

I regretfully moved to a new hotel halfway through my trip to Lisbon, and it felt as though I was leaving family. The day after my move, the manager of my new hotel knocked on my door. “There’s a Juan on the phone,” he explained.  “He said you left a credit card in the room safe at the B&B. I offered to send a driver to pick it up for you, but he didn’t think that was safe and insisted that he bring it to you personally.”

Twenty minutes later, Juan arrived with my card. I invited him to lunch to thank him, and he hesitated before answering. “It’s my day off,”  he said, “and I know you haven’t seen much of Lisbon. Would you mind if I suggested a restaurant? Along the way, I can show you two of Lisbon’s historic sites.”

Juan and his B&B got a five-star rating from me on three travel websites.

The lesson? Doing the right thing is appreciated. Going a step beyond the right thing is exceptional and memorable.

You Came Back

Near the end of my trip, I had dinner at a small restaurant near my hotel. The personable waitress brought my bill, but her face fell when I placed a credit card on the receipt tray. “I’m sorry,” she said.  “We don’t accept credit cards here.” Images of washing dishes in the kitchen flashed through my mind.  I admitted that I didn’t have enough euros to cover the bill. She thought a moment, then smiled.  “I will cover it from tonight’s tips,” she said. “You can come back tomorrow.”

Tomorrow? You mean, leave without paying? I was stunned.

True to my word (and hers), I returned the next evening with the euros and a generous tip. When the waitress saw me, she looked confused, then amazed, then thrilled. “You came back!” she proclaimed.  Well, yes.  It’s what customers do when you bring out the best in them.

That’s the thing about delighting your customers. They find ways to delight you right back.

The Suspense is Killing You (And Your Deal)

June 27th, 2013

Willy Wonka’s eyes gleam as he watches a boy wedged in a pipeline for chocolate and quips, “The suspense is killing me – I hope it lasts!” 

 Gene Wilder’s line from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is relevant for sales people and business owners who sell. Suspense can kill you, and it can also kill your sale if it lasts. 

 In sales, stress can be reduced by managing the source of the stress. That isn’t the case with all vocations, according to CareerCast.com. The career portal annually researches and rates the top 10 most stressful and least stressful jobs (www.careercast.com/jobs-rated). The most stressful jobs in 2013? Soldier. Military General. Firefighter. Sales didn’t even make the Top 10 list. True, sales didn’t make the Top 10 list of least stressful jobs, either. It’s somewhere in between, and where it falls on the scale for you depends on how you deal with the stress. Here’s an example.

 While attending a trade show, I struck up a conversation with the CEO of a small company that was exhibiting at the show. He had arranged several sales meetings in advance of the show, but he focused on complaining that his prospects at a large company that was also exhibiting had not responded to his requests to meet. “They know where my booth is,” he groused. “They can come find me, and if they don’t, I’ll go over there and give them a piece of my mind.”

 Focusing on what others were not doing added suspense and negativity to the sales equation, not only for the CEO but also for his young sales team at the booth. When you’re in a similar situation, you can create suspense and spiral down with the stress, or you can manage it and use it to make progress with a few key questions:

  • What is the worst that can happen with this situation if I do nothing to change it?
  • What’s the best that can happen if I take action?
  • What are the options for action?
  • Which options can bring me closer to the best that can happen?

The CEO didn’t ask me for my opinion. If he had, I would have suggested stopping by the large company’s booth on the last day for an informal conversation with his prospects. During the initial small talk, the CEO would likely be asked, “Did you have a good show?”  The answer could get the CEO his meeting: “We had a great show. We had several meetings onsite that we arranged in advance, and those meetings went really well.  I am sorry that you and I couldn’t get our schedules to coordinate before the show. Let’s figure out how to make that happen.”

 Back to the three most stressful jobs: all of them involve fighting something—like other human beings or the elements. That’s why they’re stressful. Sales is not war. The prospect is not your enemy unless you think of him or her in that way. 

Sales is a team sport, with the objective of bringing both you and your prospect onto the same playing field. Finding options that put both of you on the same playing field are a lot more rewarding than letting the suspense kill you and your deal. Unless you own a chocolate factory.

 

David Bowie and the Power of Clean-Slate Thinking

May 29th, 2013

I was in London with a client a few weeks ago and managed to squeeze in a museum visit between the meetings and the jet lag. The venerable grand dame of decorative arts, the Victoria and Albert Museum, was featuring a much-hyped, 300-artifact exhibit on David Bowie. I have to admit I’ve never been a huge Bowie fan, but I was curious. I assumed I’d see Bowie’s flashy costumes for Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom, but I was not prepared for the astute business strategy behind the spacesuits and performance art.

David Bowie was unafraid to clean the slate and reinvent himself.

While I’m not suggesting a glitter jumpsuit will jump-start your sales, there’s more than one takeaway for business owners from Bowie’s clean-slate thinking. Here are three gems:

Take control of your brand: Brand control was a lesson Bowie learned in his first job. Before he started performing, Bowie worked in a London ad agency, which had a career-long impact on him. For the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit, Bowie personally selected the images used for merchandising and authorized the collateral used for promotion.

The message for business owners and executives? Intentionally craft and manage your company image, especially if you are reinventing that image or collaborating with agencies, consultants and other business partners. Be clear about what your company stands for, and maintain that clarity through any changes that you make in branding, strategy or response to your business environment.

Remove mental blocks and barriers to success:  While working on an album with musician and producer Brian Eno, Bowie became a fan of Eno’s Oblique Strategy. The Oblique Strategies were originally developed for musicians and consist of a deck of more than 100 barrier-busting thoughts or questions, each typed on a square card. Here’s a sampling:

  • What mistake did you make last time?
  • Is something missing?
  • Look at the order in which you do things
  • Who would make this really successful?

Whether you are writing a song or thinking about a business situation, having a reliable method of dissolving metal blocks can save time and lead to valuable breakthroughs. Several websites feature the Oblique Strategies as software that displays one randomly-generated strategy at a time. Here’s one to check:  www.oblicard.com

Change your environment, change your perspective: In the mid 1970s, Bowie moved to Berlin. He was at a low point in his career—broke, burnt out on fame and addicted to cocaine. He spent two mind-expanding years in Berlin that reinvigorated his career and produced three new albums.

I don’t recommend hitting creative and personal rock-bottom, moving to Europe or having rocker Iggy Pop for a roommate to change your perspective. There are simpler ways to look outside of your comfort zone for new ideas. The next time you’re at an airport, pick out a magazine you would never normally buy to peruse during the flight. Not traveling? You can do the same at a local bookstore—and read in a café or eatery you have never visited. Another effective option (and the basis for this post) is to visit an art gallery or museum exhibit that you wouldn’t normally visit.

Bowie built a highly successful career around clean-slate thinking. It allowed him to innovate in small ways on small processes to produce big ideas with powerful impact. Clean-slate thinking about your business is what I hope I share with you on this blog, and as always, I look forward to the exchange.

Master the Art of Asking

February 8th, 2013

Asking- it’s the essence of good business relationships and successful business development. And like all business skills, it’s part are, part science. For a brief read and insights on asking the right questions at the right time in the sales cycle, here’s a link to my recent article on The Art of the Ask:

http://www.ithinkbigger.com/january-2013/item/3826-master-the-art-of-asking

Enjoy the read, and thank you for reading.