Archive

Scroll down to read the latest articles.

To more easily  access particular articles, click on the ‘cog widget’ Archive and select the relevant archive month, or search for a particular topic by keyword.

justdan93.wordpress.com

What can sales managers learn from the Olympics?

The Olympics are over, but will your sales managers help their team strive for gold?

When I say sales managers I mean anyone who manages; account managers, new business sales people or desk based telephone sales people.  You may be the owner of a business to whom the sales people report; you are still their sales manager.

So, what can you learn from the Olympics?  In a word: COACHING; a steady, constant, cumulative process that progressively builds performance.

Whenever Olympic competitors are interviewed about their success they rarely say “I” but they do always talk about; the coach and/or the coaching team.  Perhaps it seems odd; a top athlete who has already won Olympic medals looks to someone else to help them perform at the top, but it is a tried and trusted approach.  The same approach can be seen in almost any sport and also other disciplines such as the armed forces that train and practise constantly and the arts where actors, dancers, singers and others also practise and rehearse constantly.  All of this practising, rehearsing, training, etc., is done under the watchful eye of someone who will coach as a means of maximising performance.

Sales people need to be considered in the list those who benefit from structured, regular coaching.  It is not enough to recruit experienced people and assume they will just get on with it.  It is not enough to put people on a training course and assume when they return to the office they will by magic be a different person suddenly able to do things they couldn’t even spell before the course.

The received wisdom from 1,000s of successful sales managers is that their primary role is coaching; working one-on-one and also with the whole team where the sole purpose is to get each individual sales person and the team as a whole to perform better and to be more productive.  Time spent in unnecessary management meetings or pouring over a spreadsheet of last month’s figures is a wasted opportunity.  You owe it to the sales people you employ and the company as a whole to ensure sales management time is proactively focused on performance and productivity as its top priority.

Some things to consider:

  • Allocate 5 hours per month for one-on-one coaching with each individual.  Spend some of this time accompanying your sales people on prospect and customer meetings but also some time across the desk.  The 5 hours per month figure is supported by some independent research conducted in 2014.
  • When managing telephone based sales people spend time sitting at the next desk and/or reviewing recorded calls.  Even with field based staff you should monitor their telephone techniques as well as their face-to-face activities.
  • Allocate a further 5 hours per month for group sessions delivering bite sized training sessions focused on single topics. In your group discussion include reviews of pipeline opportunities and win strategies as well as loss reviews.
  • Create and agree performance measures. Monitor progress towards these and use the results as the basis for coaching to improve future performance.  Every meaningful activity that forms a part of the sales person’s regular work should be a topic for review and coaching; you can get the group to model success for the benefit of the whole team,
  • Do not waste your time, and everyone else’s, by measuring low level activity such as total calls made – the only things that really matter are outputs such as qualified meetings and outcomes such as bids submitted and deals won; these are the meaningful activities that will act as indicators of future performance.
  • So that everyone takes this seriously, work with your HR people to formalise the coaching programme and incorporate it into your regular appraisal process.

Why not use the remains of the summer preparing a new regime to support your sales people through a programme of structured coaching?  Plan a meeting 1st or 2nd September with the whole team to launch the programme so you can really maximise the selling season running up to the end of the year.

First published on LinkedIn Pulse

How can the Sales Manager truly drive business performance?

A good starting point might be a definition of management.  My own simplistic view is that there are broadly three disciplines to consider; leadership, management and supervision.  While leadership and supervision are disciplines that act upon people and can influence their performance I feel strongly that you cannot manage people and that this discipline should be reserved for processes.  Lead your people, manage the processes and if required supervise your people but be aware that reverting to supervision typically means there is a failure in leadership and/or the processes are poorly designed hence they fail to drive the desired behaviours.

Sales management is simply a blend of leadership of the people and management of the processes.  The purpose will be to ensure the company achieves whatever goals and objectives it has set for itself.  In most cases the purpose will be to gain more revenue and probably at an improved margin, but at different times in a company’s life the sales operation may be required to support the achievement of other goals; accessing new markets (business sectors, geographic locations, company size …), introduction of new products or services, or working with new partners being common examples.

The basic model is; the board defines the strategy and the sales manager creates and delivers a plan to realise that strategy.

I have observed many sales managers, through our work helping companies to improve sales & selling performance, and a common behaviour that I see is attempts to ‘manage’ people descending into supervision.  For example, a frequent management tool is to count the number of telephone calls being made hoping it will provide an indicator as to the level of deals that might be done.  Unfortunately, measuring low level activity is rarely a good indicator of performance in terms of what really matters to the business; appointments attended, opportunities identified, bids submitted and the biggy – deals done.

I am a huge fan of Peter Drucker and one of his many observations is worth considering here is :
“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

So what should the sales manager be doing?

There are four things that need to be in place to maximise the chances of a sales operation being successful and the sales manager should ensure they all happen and ideally be fully involved in all of them.  Don’t be tempted to leave most of this to HR as this is abdication and dereliction not delegation.

  • Rigorous recruitment where the purpose is to take only those people who meet the pre-determined criteria for the role.  Don’t just take the best from the people that actually applied; if they are not good enough don’t take them!  Better to have the right person join you a couple of months later than planned than take someone simply to meet an arbitrary date.
  • Thorough on-boarding and induction ensuring the new recruits really understand the business and how it helps your customers; what you do, your value proposition and USPs, objectives & goals, market and competitors.
  • Training to ensure the whole sales team has; a consistent level of selling skills, a thorough understanding of your methods and processes so they can follow them without the need to be supervised plus product & proposition training.
  • Leadership and coaching based on understanding how to help people perform effectively and consistently to meet the company’s targets.

The first three steps should only be required infrequently and will typically be completed over a period of two to four months but step four is at the heart of the role as an on-going process of continual development for the team.  Think sports person; to stay at the top of their game all sports people train continually under the watchful eye of a dedicated coach; this is the primary role of sales management -trainer and coach.

leadership and coaching should account for at least 70% of the sales manager’s time

To make sure the new recruits stand the best chance of being successful it is very important to ensure consistency across all four steps.  Don’t be tempted to paint an inaccurate rosy picture during recruitment as this can lead to new recruits quickly becoming disillusioned when they eventually join and the reality does not match the hype of the interview.  During the interview process ensure the candidates understand what will happen if they join.  The key here is; no surprises!

The answer to the question; what should the sales manager be doing, is laid out in the four steps above and of these leadership and coaching should account for at least 70% of the sales manager’s time.  Sitting in offices pouring over spread sheets, attending interminable internal meetings will not help the sales people sell more.  Time spent crying over last month’s poor results would be better spent in the office or the field helping the sales people to close more deals for this month and further into the future.

I have heard it argued that sales managers have to spend time on their role as part of the senior management team or, if they have been given the title of sales director, in the board room.  This won’t make me popular but I feel strongly that sales should be led by managers not directors so there is no need to spend time in the boardroom.  As for senior management meetings; I would have thought a couple of hours per month would be perfectly adequate so that shouldn’t distract the sales manager too much either.

The purpose of employing a sales manager should be laser focused on ensuring sales people sell more and if they do not, then it could be argued that the sales manager is just an overhead.

I would summarise the role of the sales manager as follows:

  • Develop a sales and selling plan to deliver company strategy
  • Put in place metrics based on KPIs, that are totally relevant to achieving the strategy, which provide a simple performance dash board indicating progress of the team as a whole and the individual team members.  A CRM will help with this but make sure the system is a slave to the sales process not the other way around
  • Set relevant achievable targets and compensation plans to match
  • When new people are joining the sales team to take a full and active part in the recruitment, induction and on-boarding of new people
  • At all times lead the people
  • At all times focus on developing the capabilities of the people through training and coaching
  • Hold regular sales meetings where the primary focus is contacts and opportunities and identifying obstacles to overcome and strategies to apply, and sharing success stories; another approach to developing the skills
  • Meet all sales people 1-to-1 at least every month.  Ensure the meetings are genuinely 1-to-1 as it is only too easy to slip into a 1-to-0 where the sales manger does all the talking and telling and the sales person receives a ritual telling off rather than something constructive that they can learn from
  • Accompany all sales people on sales calls at all stages of the sales cycle over a period of time.  The purpose is to observe live situations which provides real opportunities to coach and may also identify areas where additional training may be required.  A typical pattern with an established sales team might involve a day a month with each sales person with the objective of attending two or three appointments
  • Manage the process not the people; coach the people in the process as necessary

Sales Manager should be a dedicated role but if the team is small it may have to be a part-time role.  This is not ideal but if it is necessary then it must be done properly and the key thing is to ensure sales management is the primary not the secondary activity.  Also be aware that the prime discipline of the person undertaking the part-time sales manager role will leak into their sales management approach.  For example, an accountant will focus on historical numbers and at certain times; month end, year end, vat return time; the accountant role will dominate – they will be of little value in training or coaching the sales people who will also only get sporadic management.

The founder/owner/MD as sales manager

In many ways this is simply a special case of the part-time manager but it comes with additional issues.  It is not unusual that the person at the head of the company has previously been the selling resource for the organisation.  This is especially true for smaller companies, or where the founder is still active in a larger business.  I would be very rich if I had £10 for every time I have been told something along the lines of “I am the greatest sales person and if only they were half as good as me …”.  This is well described as Founder Syndrome or even better the more comical version is Founderitis.

The problem is that as the founder or MD you engage in sales activities as the founder or MD not as a bag carrying sales person.  You come with all sorts of advantages arising from your position and title that gives you unfair advantage over the sales people.  Try getting some visiting cards printed with the title Sales Representative, rather than MD, and walk in the shoes of a sales person for a month – let me know how you get on :-) BTW, when I say walk in their shoes I mean the whole job; cold calling on the phone to make appointments, wrestling with the CRM, suffering lack of resource from the technical team, marketing or pre-sales support, etc.

Consider different selling roles

There are two primary selling roles to consider; hunters and farmers.  Typically the hunters , will be professional new business sales people whereas the farmers will be account managers who may have a professional selling background but may also come from a different discipline such as accountant, architect, project management or customer services.  It is also quite common these days that a single person could perform both roles; hunter/farmer.

While the overall philosophy of managing people will apply in all scenarios it is important for the manager to appreciate the potential for different needs and motivations of the different people.  While hunters will generally be totally focused on finding and winning new business, account managers may have additional responsibilities so managing them will need to take account of their multiple responsibilities and a balance must be struck between different objectives.

If sales management has to be part-time do it properly.

If you have such a small team that you cannot sustain the overhead of a full time sales manager and part-time seems to be your only option then consider employing a part-time manager from outside rather than resource sharing internally.

This option means you will get a fully experienced sales manager who comes with all the essential skills and experience outlined above so you get 100% effective sales management during the time they are focused on the role; more than you could expect from the accountant or MD.

I can guess you may be thinking at this point; Shipperlee is a consultant, so this is a case of the butcher saying buy more meat.  Think that if you wish but then think about all the other business functions that you outsource either because you don’t have a full time need or because you want to time share a larger pool of skills and knowledge.

 

Target setting aligned to business objectives

Setting sales targets – a view from management and from the sales team

Sales targets are expressed in a variety of ways with common examples being; revenue, margin or number of units sold.  Targets may be set at the point that an order is taken, when the product has been delivered or the service has commenced or even when the customer pays.

Targets should be set taking account of any factors that could distort actual performance such as seasonality.  The setting of targets should also allow for anomalies such as special offers that may be made after the targets have been set.  We look at both issues in the accompanying article on compensation schemes.

Simplistically, the sum of the sales targets held by individual sales people should equal the amount of business the company wants to acquire through sales in a particular period and typically a trading year.  In a business where customers have an ongoing relationship and pay fees on a regular basis such as for an outsourced service, the target will often be in two main parts; business from continuing contracts and business from new contracts.  The role of maintaining existing relationships and finding new customers may be undertaken by separate teams or it may be a shared role and in the latter case the sales person will normally carry two targets for; continuing business and new.  Where continuing business is part of the mix targets may be applied to maintaining the level of existing business or it may require the sales person to grow it.

Approaches to setting targets

Let’s consider a simple example of a sales team of four people working for a company that wants to grow from current revenue of £3m to £4m over a 12 month period.  If the company has no annuity revenue, as it only supplies products, the whole £4m will have to come from new orders won by the sales people in the 12 month period.  If on the other hand the company does have annuity revenue and of the £3m revenue, £2m is ongoing maintenance contracts then the task for this year is to find £2m extra revenue.  In both cases consideration must be given to whether the sales team have the capacity to find and sell either the £2m or £4m and whether all the support facilities are in place; marketing, lead generation, pre-sales support, technical support, manufacturing & delivery capacity, etc.

Making targets meaningful

I work with a lot of sales teams and a common feeling is that targets are set arbitrarily, by taking the overall target the board has set for the business and dividing that by the number of sales people.  In the simple example above, the company has four sales people who achieved revenue of £3m last year and the same four people will now be required to achieve £4m.  Unless there has been some significant change e.g. better products, it is difficult to see how the fixed sales capacity can achieve an increase of 33%.

This approach invariably leaves sales people demotivated as they feel they are likely to be blamed for any failure to achieve the new target.

There is no point setting unachievable targets, in fact it is dangerous.  The target will usually be the bottom line of the budget so there will be other dependencies within the budget on achievement of the target and in particular expenditure commitments.  So, for example, if a business is planning to take on additional space to cope with the additional work the cost of the space will be committed and incurred before the company knows whether the sales team can achieve the target.

A safer and more meaningful approach to target creation is to work it bottom up, so continuing with our example:

  • Last year the four sales people achieved £3m and the company thinks they can achieve the same this year plus 3% from an already agreed price increase = £90,000
  • A new product will be launched that will increase the value of some orders resulting in an uplift of £120,000. This will feed into the KPIs around which targets can be set.
  • A new re-seller partner has been recruited who is forecasting to sell £250,000

So the above suggests the existing sales team plus the new re-seller partner will produce £3.46m of sales in the year, of which £3.21m  will be down to the in-house sales team.  So logic suggests the budget and targets should be built bottom up from the projected revenue and reflect where emphasis needs to be given, e.g. new product sales to existing customers, contract renewals, …  If the individual sales targets are now determined from this logical approach the company is more likely to achieve its goals and the sales people will understand their individual targets so they are more likely to feel committed and motivated to pursue them.  Rational target setting also supports the sales manager as they work with the sales people in their efforts to achieve them.

If the example company really wants to grow to £4.0m they need to carefully consider how they can achieve it, e.g. budget for additional sales resource, but if they are only just thinking about this as the year is starting they need to allow for the time required to recruit and get the person up to operational speed.  They would also need to consider the fact that the new re-seller is an unknown quantity so may not produce what they have forecast to do.

Having set targets, we now need to consider how to incentivise the sales team to achieve and exceed those targets.

Compensation schemes which motivate

Now you have your targets in place you can build a sales compensation scheme to reflect both the KPIs and the behaviours required to achieve those targets. This will usually be a blend of a fixed amount (salary) and a variable amount (bonus or commission).

In recent years, often driven by economic turmoil, it has become more common that packages are entirely variable so there is no basic salary; if you don’t sell you don’t earn.  While a lot of companies see this as a way of reducing their financial exposure it can have the opposite effect as people need enough money to live and if they are not earning it with you they will turn their focus elsewhere.  A secondary factor to consider is that if people are entirely dependent upon making sales to live it may distort their judgement and in some recent bad cases this has led to the various mis-selling scandals of recent times.

I believe employees will deliver their best performance when they are rewarded properly and with sales people this involves paying a reasonable basic salary whilst still leaving them hungry enough to put in the extra effort to exceed their target.

I am often asked what the difference is between bonus and commission and strictly there isn’t one in so much as they are both variable amounts which correlate directly with the amount sold by a sales person.  Generally, a bonus will be a lump sum such as a fixed amount per unit sold and commission is generally a percentage of revenue or margin.  In the latter case, if the sales person gives discount this will reduce their commission whereas a bonus would be unaffected by discount.

Another approach to paying variable compensation is based on a bonus pool created in line with overall company, or perhaps division or branch office, profitability.  The pool is then distributed according to pre-determined rules.  This approach is valuable if staff other than direct front line sales people, are involved in helping to win deals.  This would cover situations where sales is supported by functions such as; technical engineers, pre-sales support, technical & proposal writers, etc.

There are undoubtedly many other approaches but the core philosophy is to have a fixed sum plus a variable amount and the variable elements must be tied directly to the targets that have been agreed with the individual sales person.

While there are no hard and fast rules about the ratio between fixed and variable amount there are often trends or norms for particular industries.  Another factor is geographic location where basic salaries and often complete packages include a premium for London and other major cities.  Recruitment consultancies are a good source of advice on this but a word of caution, many will want the salary to be as high as possible for their own fee earning purposes.  As a rough guide packages will typically range between 1:4 to 1:1; basic to variable.

The primary purpose of a compensation scheme should be incentive and reward but I have seen plenty of situations where the scheme is used by the employer to find ways to reduce the amount paid.  I have also seen schemes where the sales person has to make sufficient sales, usually determined in margin terms, to cover their basic salary and employment costs before their sales efforts will go towards calculating commission or bonus.  No other class of employee has to cover their costs so why sales people?  These approaches are disingenuous and will ultimately lead to a lack of trust which will probably also reduce sales achievement rather than increase it so the approach is in effect counter-productive.

Tips on creating variable compensation schemes:

  • The simpler the better.
  • Ensure the scheme triggers the behaviours the business wants from the sales people.
    • If the overall objective of the business is to grow revenue then the scheme should be based on revenue and should allow the sales people to give discount within a defined range.  The sales manager should have the authority to offer further concessions again within guidelines.
    • Alternatively, if the business objective is to improve margins then the commission scheme should be based on margin which means any discount given will reduce the commission.

These are just two common examples of how a commission scheme should be tuned to align with the KPIs and overall company objectives.

  • Make sure the compensation scheme is directly tied to the agreed targets and that KPIs and other measurements are aligned between targets and the scheme.  This creates a logical link between the arguments that supported the creation of the targets and the compensation scheme; following the philosophy of SMART objectives will provide a good framework.
    • Consider the pace and rhythm of your business and market.  For example, if your business is seasonal you may wish to tune the compensation scheme to incentivise increased effort to match.  Alternatively you may view it the other way around and wish to apply additional incentive when the market is traditionally slow.
    • What if a sales person misses their monthly or quarterly target but makes it up later in the year?  There isn’t a standard answer to this but it must be considered when designing the scheme.  If achieving period targets is crucial for the business then, provided the sales people know this, it is fine that they lose commission for missing the period target.
    • A scheme based on performance bands, each giving increasing amounts of compensation, will provide further incentive for sales people to perform and will also be fairer to the sales person with a difficult customer list.  This is better in terms of motivation than an all or nothing approach.
  • Leave some headroom to add special one off bonuses when, for example, the company is running a special promotion that will require additional work over and above normal activity.
  • Consider overrides for sales people.  If a sales person will earn £X by achieving their target then an override e.g. extra 10% on all sales made beyond target, will create additional Incentive to go beyond.
  • Sales managers should be compensated through override on the achievements of their sales people.  An example override system would be; for a team of six sales people, the sales manager would get equivalent of 20% of the commission earned by each sales person that achieves or exceeds target.
  • Ideally, a sales manager should not own a sales territory but if they do, the majority of their variable compensation should come via the achievements of their sales people rather than their own selling efforts.

In summary, compensation schemes should be designed to create the required behaviours and provide sales people with the incentive to do what is required to achieve their targets.  If those targets are directly tied to what the company needs and measures, successful sales people => successful company.  The final piece in the jigsaw is to ensure the sales manager’s targets, objectives and compensation are directly tied to the success of their sales people.  Everyone will be singing from the same song sheet, pulling in a single direction, focused on a common objective.

Is there a difference between selling products and services?

This is a question often asked as people look for ways to refine and perfect the way they go to market.  Answering this question is made more complex by the large range of marketing and sales options that people can draw upon.  However, the fundamentals have not really changed; the proliferation of options has just made it harder to see those fundamentals.

While having multiple marketing and sales options is a key factor complicating the answer so is the use of the terms; product and service and also the now common use of the term solution.  Before you decide how you should approach selling what you offer, you must first decide whether what your offer is really a product, a service or a solution.

In answering the question will also provide input to both the strategy and the tactics to be deployed in pursuit of new customers and for growth of established customers.

Product, service or solution?

Although there is a lot of debate around these terms understanding the differences is generally quite straight forward.

  • A product is tangible so it has a specification that describes its capabilities and limitations.  So when you, for example, buy a; car, photocopier, washing machine or accounting package you can compare your needs to the specifications to inform your decision making process.  For the sales person, the specification provides a framework for exploring the needs of the potential buyer as well as a mechanism for describing how well the product fits the buyer’s requirement.
  • A service is intangible but it has a specification that is flexible with the final scope being determined through agreement between supplier and buyer.  The specification will have limitations either because resources are finite or because the supplier has limitations.  For example; a company selling hosted cloud services may only have the capacity to manage projects involving user communities up to 200 so the scope will include a size component.  Similarly; a commercial window cleaning company may limit itself to two story buildings so will not be trying for business to clean the outside windows of a skyscraper.
  • So, what is a solution?  This is one of those questions where if you ask 10 people you will probably get 11 answers.  A solution will often combine products and services but the core differentiator is that a solution provider takes away the problem and delivers back the desired outcome.

Take for example where a business needs some contract labour that they bring in and manage, then the provision of the labour is a service and some might argue the people providing the labour are in effect a product as they come with a specification in the form of their skill profiles and capabilities.  If however the supplier accepted the responsibility for delivery of the desired outcome, within an agreed timescale and to an agreed budget, then an [outsourced] solution is being provided as not only is the supplier providing the labour they are also managing the project to deliver the required result through the use of that labour.

I characterise this as the customer exporting the problem, thus transferring risk and controlling cost,  and re-importing the solution; the authority and responsibility for delivering the desired outcome rests with the supplier.  If that responsibility is on the customer side of the relationship then they are buying a service.

Summary example for a customer looking for cost effective business travel for frequent point to point carrying of samples/equipment.

Options:

  1. Buy Product = buy cars – maintenance costs variable
  2. Buy Service = rent* or lease cars – maintenance costs controlled, admin costs variable
  3. Buy Solution = use taxis* or outsource fleet management – maintenance and admin costs controlled

* Car rental or taxis would be effective for intermittent usage, lease and fleet for frequent/high utilisation

Presenting these three main categories of proposition is probably more of a challenge for the marketing function than it is for those doing the selling.  Once the sales process has commenced there is one-on-one engagement between seller and buyer and hence differences in propositions can be discussed and explained and questions from the buyer can be answered.  For the marketing function explaining the proposition in a one way communication is much harder and it requires good anticipation as to what problems the customer might have so a real understanding of the market is essential.

So what is different when selling products or services?

My high level answer to this question is that there are, or should be, no real differences.  But, the question deserves an answer:

The key difference in the way people approach selling can be found in the fact that; products are made and then sold whereas services are sold then made.

The product is made in the privacy of the suppliers’ environment whereas the service is ‘made’ in the public gaze of the customers’ environment.  A solution on the other hand is more like a Bake-off challenge; the target is defined and the result subsequently appears for judging.

Products have a finite specification and the capabilities and limitations are known and can be demonstrated before a sale is made.  A service can in effect have an infinite, or least very flexible, specification limited mainly by the available resources and capabilities which makes their demonstration more difficult.  A Service Level Agreement is often created to define the boundaries and expected behaviours for a service.

To sell a product you only have to demonstrate what it is, but with a service you have to demonstrate what might be which is a quite different challenge.  All forms of selling require the establishment of trust; the greater the intangibility the more the selling challenge involves the creation of trust without direct proof.

Good effective selling techniques can be characterised by a few key building blocks and all apply whatever you are selling:

  • Bear in mind that whether you think you are selling a product, service or solution, the customer is in effect buying the same thing; a means to achieve a result.
  • Ask don’t tell. No matter how much you know about the customer’s industry or their individual business to try to tell them the answers without agreeing on the question is just arrogant.
  • Use questions to explore and understand the specific concepts the buyer is wrestling with. Once you know what they need to achieve you can start to talk about the features of what you do in the context of their specific vision and you can begin the process of explaining the potential benefits they might gain from working with you.

If the sales person talks about features before understanding the buyer’s needs they gain no value from you being in the room; they might just as well read a brochure.  To illustrate how ineffective this will be, consider a couple of ‘comical’ terms used to describe this behaviour ‘features dump’ and ‘spray and pray’ – both put the onus on the buyer to ‘get it’ and then buy it but there is a very good chance they won’t do either.

  • Use questions to demonstrate that you understand the types of issue they might have, for instance a simple question “What impact has xxx had on your yyy?” portrays an immediate image of someone who really understands their world and the issues they have to deal with. This will trigger a process of mutual needs definition – using the question posed above you will get one of two answers; “the problems it has given us are …” or; “no that isn’t an issue for us but …”.   Either way you have acquired information that you can use to progress the exploration of their needs and the demonstration that you have the answers.
  • Use questions to educate prospects into what might be e.g. “Have you considered what you will need to do when the new xxx comes in?”. They may not have been aware of the requirement/technology/… or may not have thought how it would apply to them yet so you are helping them through your wider sector knowledge.
  • All selling activity requires the establishment of trust and in the case of a product this is potentially easier as features can be demonstrated whereas in the case of a service the features will only become tangible once delivery has commenced. However whether a product or a service the buyer is still undertaking a leap of faith that the supplier will deliver so will require the same amount of re-assurance from the seller. People selling products often underestimate the need to build trust relying too heavily on features as the main selling tool.

In summary, the key to effective selling is to recognise that you are only facilitating the buyer in their understanding of the problem, the potential means of resolution and your ability to deliver it.  You must treat all sales situations; product, service or solution, as a process of discovery, building trust and a demonstration of your capability to deliver.  Demonstrate your knowledge but don’t show off, and make it clear what it will be like for the customer to work with you if they choose you as their supplier.

One final thought; all product is likely to have an element of service e.g. delivery time, packaging integrity, order completeness, reliability, help-line performance, etc and this enveloping service may be the differentiator between you and the competition – so you need to understand how this may impact on the customer’s choice of supplier.  This service may only be required for a short period of time between order placement and commissioning of the product but don’t under-estimate its value in differentiating you from your competition.

Are you vertical, horizontal, or something else?

In the book “The Discipline of Market Leaders”, written just over 20 years ago by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema where they looked at competitive business strategies, the overarching conclusion was that a business needed to;

Choose your Customers, Narrow your focus and then Dominate your market.

A key reason for doing this is to make best use of your sales and marketing resources.  This requires a focus around a well-defined market or in most cases a logical subset of the wider market.  Deciding how best to do this is a common topic of debate with our customers and the most common dimensions considered are; vertical, horizontal, geographic and e-location.

Vertical refers to a market consisting of businesses in a particular sector where the product or service addresses issues particular to that type of business; insurance brokers, engineers, logistics companies, etc.

Horizontal applies to a market where the product or service satisfies a need that is common across a wide range of businesses regardless of sector.  For example; a software product that produces invoices, calculates vat and automatically produces the vat return would be of interest to any business.

Geographic; this model is common with; taxi companies, decorators, service engineers and in fact any business that needs to travel to get to and service its customers.  This is also a very common model with bricks and mortar retailers who know they need a physical presence in the locations where their customers will want to shop.

e-location; the arrival of the on-line environment has to some extent removed the need for a geographic dimension but the vertical and horizontal dimensions are in many cases even more important.  It is now all too easy for someone to ‘wander by’ your website; just browsing, and in the process they may trigger you to respond but if your on-line presence is too general many enquiries could be a waste of time for you.

These dimensions are important when you are planning how and where to focus your outbound sales and marketing effort but they are also important, as mentioned under “e-location”, to focus the nature and volume of in-bound enquiries that you receive.

Blending various combinations of the four dimensions is also common and this can help to further refine the focus of your efforts and a typical mix will see a geographic component with one of the others.  There are also many other parameters that can be used to further refine a target market including; business size, private rather than publicly quoted and demographics such as age, lifestyle and interests.

Matching your market strategy to your product/service

Defining a business’ marketing strategy as being ‘vertically focused’ has become very popular in recent years.  If you do actually have a vertical offering and you adopt a vertical go-to-market strategy then you and your customers will benefit hugely.  However, I see various companies that have adopted a vertical go-to-market strategy when their product or service actually provides a horizontal proposition.

I recall an example of a company that provided IT support services that considered itself to have a vertical offering for the utilities sector.  It is true that around 40% of revenue did come from contracts with utility companies and this spurred them on to approach other utility companies with the message “we are a supplier to the utility sector”.  As a result they gained an appointment with the CIO of a large electricity company and during the meeting he asked the supplier what they knew about smart metering systems.  The answer was actually very little.

It is said that perception is truth.  The CIO believed that someone claiming to have utilities experience would know about the business issues specific to a utility whereas the supplier only knew about the technical issues of the IT systems.

This example illustrates very well that doing a lot of work in a particular vertical market does not mean you have a vertical offering.

The experience the supplier had with that CIO proved to be invaluable as they re-evaluated their offering and realised they had a horizontal proposition.  Their knowledge and expertise was focused on the IT issues around processing very large volumes of batch data; they had developed experience in tuning systems to optimise performance.  Their market focus thus became any company needing to process large volumes of data; utilities, insurance companies, membership organisations and many others.

Points to consider when deciding on your go-to-market strategy

  • If your products or services directly address specific business issues of companies in a vertical sector then you have a vertical offering.  If your offering solves issues of; infrastructure, processes, systems or methods that are common in many different types of businesses, what you have is a horizontal offering.

Once you have a clear view of your proposition measured against the two dimensions of vertical and horizontal you can now overlay other parameters such as location or company size to further refine the definition of your preferred target market.

The above will feed into creating appropriate sales and marketing messages specifically aimed at your target market.  The messages can be accurately framed to appeal to the needs of your target customers and specific individuals with relevant responsibilities; financial director, production manager, HR manager, quality manager, etc.

  • Next to consider is how your proposition addresses the question “why you?”  Unless you have something truly unique your prospective customers will be able to buy it somewhere else so why would they choose you?  Although propositions are rarely unique the way a company delivers it may be and hence the ‘how’ will provide fertile ground for creating your unique proposition.

Incidentally, not many prospects will actually ask “why you” but naturally they will be thinking it so you need to ensure your sales and marketing messages proactively answer this question.

  • The previous points  help you to build a profile of the industries, business sectors and specific companies that are most likely to be interested in what you provide which in turn enables you to better focus your sales and marketing efforts.  However; what you have so far is a well formed but possibly ill informed picture as you have formulated your opinions primarily from internal reference points.

Before you can consider this part of the job as finished you need to take account of what your potential customers might think.  Unless you do this there is a risk you will be telling your prospects what you want them to hear rather than what they need to know.

To ensure you have a complete picture you need to gather external inputs from customers past and present plus a range of external stakeholders such as; your suppliers, relevant trade bodies and publications, government legislation, general media commentary and if justified specific market research.

  • The final task is the process of deciding which routes to market you will use and how they will blend together to form a complete go-to-market solution.  The previous steps will provide valuable inputs to the decisions that need to be made on the routes to market and how the mix should work to satisfy your needs for new business generation.  During the conversation with past and present customers you should ask how they actually found you and their preferences in terms of marketing environments they prefer to use when looking for products or services such as yours.

None of this is especially difficult but it can be time consuming which can be frustrating when all you want to do is get out there and make some more sales.  However, you will find this structured approach will pay you back handsomely as the key result is to make your sales, selling and marketing effort more focused which in turn will give better return in terms of conversion ratios leading to more orders won and therefore more revenue to bank.

 

courtesy of Microsoft Clipart

Bidding to Win

What has to be in place?

Formal bidding processes can appear very challenging and are often a source of belief that the incumbent always wins but in fact although complex such bidding process are typically scrupulously fair to all concerned.

So regardless of whether you respond to formal bid requests or create your own opportunities the first thing needed to get you on the radar is a compelling proposition that addresses two common questions a prospect would ask; “why would I buy that“ and “why would I buy it from you”. Even if they don’t ask out loud these questions will be in their minds. As part of the proposition you also need to elucidate the value you deliver and consider the price you would charge.

Next you need to consider how you will identify your ideal market, how you will take your proposition to market and which routes you will use.

The final piece in the jigsaw is the sales engagement process; the stages and steps you need to follow to mirror the buying processes of prospects in your chosen market.

Ensuring these four elements; proposition, market selection, routes to market and engagement process, are contiguous and fully integrated will increase the proportion of well qualified opportunities that you are dealing with.

As a result you will increase your win rate without increasing the bidding effort and gain increased revenue whilst enjoying a better RoI on your sales and marketing investment. What’s not to like?

Compelling proposition

So, what is a compelling proposition, in fact; what is a proposition? Is it your product or service or something extra? It is something extra. The product or service only defines what you make or do, it may also define the problem the customer will solve by using your product or service. For example you could consider installing a low energy lighting system that would give; better quality light, lower energy bills and reduced maintenance costs. This is what the product does for the customer, but is it attainable for them?

Maybe, the customer cannot afford the capital outlay to buy and install the new lights so is unable to enjoy the benefits. At this point the supplier could introduce the idea of the customer acquiring the new lights by way of finance or operating lease; the supplier’s proposition is now to use a financial instrument enabling customers to enjoy the benefits of the low energy lights without the need to spend or raise capital.

If the only objection the potential customer had was affordability, then the supplier’s ability to provide various financial options makes their proposition compelling by removing the only objection to proceeding with the transaction.

Selling tip; before making a final offer, always ensure you understand all of the prospects objections. If you don’t then the prospect will probably say; yes but – yes I like the different financial approach but I don’t like …

Most readers will have heard the term Unique Selling Point or Proposition (USP) and it is often argued that nothing is truly unique or if it is it doesn’t stay that way for long. While this may be true when it comes to product or service features the factors that contribute to the proposition provide fertile ground for the creation of uniqueness. If the finance option offered by the low energy lighting company is underwritten by the manufacturer of the lights it is likely that the finance rate will be very low enabling the supplier to offer lower financial terms than its competitors.

USPs are typically a combination of relatively small elements which taken together make the proposition compelling and this is what enables the supplier to keep the prospect interested whilst also countering competitive threat.

Pricing Policy

Arriving at a price that will be competitive and attractive to potential customers is a key part of proposition definition process but pricing policy is so important I felt it deserved a section on its own. There are three main approaches to arriving at a price; cost plus, competitor/market matching and value based pricing. Of these, value based pricing provides the most likely positive outcome for the supplier as the customer will be able to see ‘what is in it for them’.

Briefly the three approaches work like this:

  • Cost plus; it costs £10 per unit to make your product, £5 per unit to take it to market and cover business expenses and you want to make 25% profit so your selling price needs to be £20.
  • Competitor/market based pricing; you look at what others are charging for similar products or services in your market and you position your price according to where you think you fit between the cheapest and most expensive alternatives, but where it is still viable for you.
  • Value based; your price is determined by charging up to the amount the customer will gain by buying and using your product or service.

Strictly speaking you will gain most benefit from value based but you will need to review the other approaches as a sanity check. Using the cost plus example you know you need to sell at £15 to break even and if you judge your value based price to be less than £15 you will need to review what you are doing to find ways to reduce your costs or increase the value you can deliver.

Similarly, if you arrive at a price that makes you a profit and delivers value to the customer but it is higher than an apparently equivalent competitor price you will likely fail when the customer asks the “why would I buy it from you” question. You need to ensure you are comparing like for like with the competitor’s offering; if your offer includes ‘added value’ items that are not visible to the customer your offer will look expensive. You will also need to ensure the competitors’ current price is genuine rather than a special offer.

Having sense checked your selling price against cost and competition you make the value you can deliver, for the price you will charge, a key part of the presentation of your proposition.

Identifying the market

This activity flows naturally from the process of defining your proposition and why it might be compelling. If, for example, the companies that will really benefit from what you do are in a particular business sector and are above a certain size then simplistically your market is those companies that meet these criteria. Just having two parameters; business sector and size, may produce a very long list of potential customers so you will probably need to add a few more parameters to bring the long list down to a manageable size.

The parameters you use to define and identify your target market should relate directly to your proposition. Returning to the example of the low energy lights, if an important part of your USP is the financing options that you offer then companies who prefer not to use capital are more likely to be interested. While it may not be straightforward to determine a company’s financing preferences from the outside it is something that can be achieved during the first prospecting meeting.

I said it “may not be straightforward to determine a company’s financing preferences from the outside”, not straightforward but not impossible. It is often said that buyers are more empowered than ever by the ready availability of information on the web but so are suppliers. A quick scan of the company accounts of your target prospects will provide clues as to their preference when financing different types of purchase.

Selling tip; having defined the key elements of your USP ensure your sales discovery process explores these elements at the earliest possible opportunity. If those elements are not present for a particular prospect you will have to modify your sales approach or perhaps qualify the opportunity out if you think you stand little chance of winning.

Routes to market

There are now at least 10 routes to market to choose from courtesy of; networking, social media, digital marketing (out/in-bound), all of the traditional marketing mechanisms and direct and indirect sales options. While there are a few business sectors where one dominant option is the obvious one to use, for most businesses the solution will be a blend of several approaches.

The above routes are largely driven by the supplier, but other routes such as; partners, re-sellers, referrals and recommendations may be a better source of leads in some business sectors. In addition, for companies who have large corporate or public sector customers, the route to market will probably involve becoming ‘approved’ under the terms and conditions the customer applies to selecting suppliers.

To get the best RoI for the investment in sales and marketing it is crucial that the mix of marketing and sales options is optimised to match the supplier’s proposition and the needs and demands of their chosen market.

As with any investment, the assumptions that led to your chosen sales and marketing strategy need to be challenged on a regular basis to ensure what you are doing is still providing the results you need while delivering a good RoI.

Marketing tip; don’t assume that everything that is new will be good and everything old will be bad.

The sales engagement process

Whatever approach is used to generate interest and bring about that first contact with potential customers the crucial part of the process starts when someone from the supplier speaks with someone from the potential customer. This is the beginning of the sales engagement process that will build towards the creation of a customer and the identification of opportunities to bid for work with that customer.

For the sales person to enjoy maximum success, converting as many opportunities as possible, the following needs to be in place:

  • An opportunity identification or, better still, creation process using question based analysis to establish the prospect’s; position, wants, needs and budget. This analysis will provide guidance on the best way to proceed and may lead to an early decision to no bid the opportunity avoiding wasted time and effort.
  • An understanding of the decision making process and everyone who will be involved in making the decision. The sales person should ensure they engage with each decision maker understand what matters to each of them. Now, the rest of the bidding activity can be structured and tuned to satisfy the needs and interests of all those who will be involved in the final decision.
  • A bidding process that marshals all of the internal resources that will be required to produce a solution that satisfies the customer’s selection and decision making criteria. For some companies this may be done through a dedicated bidding, proposal writing or pre-sales function but in many cases managing the bid falls to the sales person for the account. However this is handled in your company it is very important that ‘bidding’ for new work is recognised by all as a critical success factor for the whole business and people need to give this activity proper focus and attention. It is not ‘another bit of admin!
  • Presenting the solution to the customer can be done in a variety of ways with proposals still being a common approach. Most proposals are written documents but they don’t have to be and we often use workshops as a mechanism to present our proposed solution to the customer. The customer is empowered to shape the final solution by engaging in discussion and questioning with the end result being a solution that the customer has helped to create.Even if the customer insists on a written proposal you should always endeavour to ‘present’ the proposal rather than just putting it in the post or attaching it to an e-mail. The purpose is to enable you to highlight the key beneficial points of your proposed solution.
  • You also need to have in place anything else that is relevant to the business sector you serve and the solutions you provide. Hence, where appropriate, you will need to provide; trials, pilots, demonstrations, site visits, satisfied customer references, etc.One word of caution; just because you and others in your business sector have always provided, for example, trials don’t assume it is still a useful engagement technique. I suggest you regularly review and challenge the processes and practices you employ in all areas of your go-to-market approach as customer needs change and the optimum way to win more business is to ensure your approach makes it easy for the customer buy not just easy for you to sell.

A final thought; two very important factors in effective sales engagement are sequence and timing. The order in which you undertake the various activities, the timing between individual steps and the overall timing of the bidding cycle will have an impact on your success rate. For example; presenting your proposed solution should be done as close as possible to the point when the customer has said they will be ready to make a decision. If the typical cycle in your business sector is six months involving four or five meetings with the customer then you should not be presenting a proposal after the first meeting.

courtesy of Microsoft Clipart

Incumbent always wins

– or do they?

This is a commonly held belief, especially in B2B sales, and in some cases there may be justification.  However, if you view each new potential opportunity from the perspective that the incumbent is going to win you will behave like a loser in waiting and, guess what; you will probably lose.  Optimists and pessimists tend to have one thing in common; they are both right most of the time – anticipating failure increases the odds that this will be the outcome.

Far from incumbents getting an easy ride, from my own observations, I think customers may actually be more flighty today but, in many cases, suppliers often fail to recognise the signs.  Both incumbent suppliers and hopeful new suppliers may be behaving in such a way that increases their chances of losing as a result of subtle signals they send to the customer.

If suppliers assume, while prospecting for new customers or bidding for new work, that the customer will favour the incumbent it conditions behaviour towards a loser’s frame of mind which in turn increases the chances of actually losing.  There is nothing more likely to lead to a lost sale than a lack of self-belief from the supplier’s sales people.  This is compounded if management fail to put their full weight behind bidding for an opportunity resulting in the effort put into the proposal lacking commitment; the prospect will spot this very easily.  If the opportunity met the qualification criteria management should back it and if it didn’t qualify out. This is a binary decision; either pull it or support it fully!

On the other hand an incumbent that takes the customer for granted is simply moving themselves closer to the exit door.  A common engagement model involves customers being moved from the new business team to the account management team once the relationship has been established and the first piece of business has been secured.  While it is good to move to managing an account with a ‘customer service’ mentality what is not good is to move from a hunter to a farmer or, worse still, a browser/gatherer mentality.  An important fact never to lose sight of is that the incumbent’s farmer will be competing with the hopeful new supplier’s hunter which may not be a fair fight.

The key questions that I address here are; why might a customer consider changing suppliers, why might a customer be reluctant to change suppliers, what can incumbents do to keep their customers and what can hopeful new suppliers do to win the customer over?  This assumes the customer still wants to buy that type of product or use that type of service so having a supplier is of strategic or tactical importance to the business.

Why might a customer consider changing supplier?

There will be a variety of reasons but they basically boil down to the customer becoming less satisfied by what the existing supplier is doing.  This can be an expression of an absolute position or it may be a relative position compared to what competitors may now be offering.  It is also the case that public bodies are driven by procedure to put work out to tender at certain time intervals and some large corporates have similar habits.

For the incumbent it is very important that the relationship management approach never slips into a casual, maintenance frame of mind.  Existing customer relationships must be managed proactively including regular formal account reviews that look at the performance of the relationship as well as the products and services being supplied.

It is the responsibility of the supplier to explore and probe to look for areas where the customer’s expectations might have changed and therefore where there are opportunities to do things differently.  Failure to do this, enabling small changes to be made along the way, will often result in the customer suddenly declaring that they are no longer satisfied; the feeling that may have been growing over time could by now be entrenched.  This is bad for the supplier as the customer will have built up the impression that the supplier did not care enough to find out how the customer was feeling.

Cases where customers like the product but no longer like the supplier are a common trigger for change.  If a disaffected customer decides to look for a new supplier the incumbent will have to work hard to keep the customer as overcoming a loss of faith or trust is a tough ask.

Why might customers be reluctant to change suppliers?

There are many reasons but they tend to fall into two main groupings:

  • Fear of change based on the disruption it might cause and the risk that things might be worse. A common and perfectly reasonable concern to have and the same feelings probably existed when the customer entered into the relationship with the incumbent. As in all sales situations a key activity for the supplier (incumbent and potential new) is to recognise the fear, uncertainty and doubt that naturally exists as a part of decision making and work to address it as a part of convincing the customer that they can be trusted.
  • Loyalty; if the customer feels the supplier has done a lot of good work in the past they may feel the incumbent deserves another chance to fix the things that are no longer working. From a customer perspective this is a sensible approach as they have also invested time and effort in the relationship so it makes sense that the first action is to try to repair rather than replace the relationship.

What can incumbents do to keep customers?

There is an interesting engagement philosophy that might be worth considering called ‘partnership sourcing’.  During the early 1990s a company called Partnership Sourcing Ltd (PSL) was set up by the joint action of the DTI, CBI and a number of large corporates which if I recall correctly included BA.  The basic principle was to foster an environment that would lead to the creation of mutually beneficial trading relationships between customer and supplier.  This was a reaction to the ‘master-slave’ approach that was common at the time and especially where the supplier was a minnow compared to the customer whale.

An excellent example of a PSL type approach can be found in Just-in-Time relationships where although the customer and the supplier are separate businesses they function as one unit with a common aim.  A key PSL principle is ‘no blame’; if something goes wrong the customer and supplier sit down on the same side of the table to address the problem.  Terms such as “the customer is always right” and “it’s my way or the highway” do not exist in PSL thinking.

PSL led to the creation of BS 11000 Collaborative Business Relationships, continuing the principles of customer and supplier working together to a mutually beneficial outcome; just as important now as they were 25 years ago.  Customers and suppliers should regularly sit down together in a no blame environment to discuss the relationship openly, sharing issues and concerns.

In trust-based relationships the supplier should be invited to attend part of the customer’s periodic business review to be informed what the customer needs to achieve in the next period enabling the supplier to plan whatever changes are required to continue to meet service levels.

If the supplier can convince the customer to include their budget when putting projects out to tender, effectively saying “we need this and our business case says we can spend £x; can you deliver what we need for the budget and if not how much can you deliver?”, this avoids the supplier guessing what the budget might be, thus offering solutions to match a perceived budget rather than a business specification.

Suppliers should manage customer relationship pro-actively through positive account management.  If the only time the supplier contacts the customer is to; renew a contract, sell them something new or ask a favour such as acting as a reference, the customer may justifiably begin to feel taken for granted.  Similarly, if the only time a customer contacts the supplier is to chase an order or complain about something the feeling will progressively turn negative.

It is very important that the supplier’s account manager has the responsibility to manage the relationship above and beyond the basic task of supplying products and services.  Account review meetings should be held between the parties at regular intervals and whilst part of the agenda will focus on product or service performance the bulk should focus on the performance of the relationship. Mutual discussion of future plans permits development of joint plans thus enabling both parties to prepare.  In the spirit of partnership sourcing conversations should be frank and fair.

The account manager should also be equipped to share war stories about other customers and projects; this is commonly done by new business sales people but all too often as soon as the customer becomes established no one from the supplier bothers to update them.  I have seen many situations where a customer buys from a competitor because they didn’t know the existing supplier made such a product or provided such a service.

What can a hopeful new supplier do to replace an incumbent?

Perhaps the first thing to say is that this is a very common scenario.  Established business will have relationships with various suppliers for a wide range of things; accounting services, office cleaning, photocopiers, IT, vending machines, building security and the list goes on.  So, in a majority of cases hopeful new suppliers will be working to replace an incumbent.  The two main scenarios where this might not be the case are; with start-up or young companies and where the product or service is genuinely new.  Recent examples of new might be cloud computing five years ago and more recently big data.

So, the starting point for thinking about this is to recognise that most new business effectively involves the hopeful supplier taking business away from an incumbent.  It is also worth recognising that some or all of the following factors will be present:

  • The customer may genuinely be happy with the relationship, products and services they get from the incumbent
  • The customer may think they’re happy but they do not know what better alternatives exist
  • The customer may say they are happy as a defence mechanism against being sold to – a classic rebuttal to fend off a sales call
  • The customer may not realise they have or will have a particular issue or that it is creating a problem or they may know they have a problem but not that a solution exists

It is important for potential new suppliers to have a sales engagement process that approaches all potential prospects with an open mind.  Don’t assume anything about the current position; use a process of structured questions to explore the current situation, problems they may wish to address, problems they may not have thought of, their desire to solve the problems and willingness to pay for a solution.  This process of discovery will of course include exploration of existing suppliers enabling the hopeful supplier to differentiate between situations when an incumbent is truly embedded or when the customer will be open to considering a change.  This needs to be achieved early in the sales engagement process otherwise selling effort may be wasted.

 

Kiplings 6 honest serving men

Questions

Exceptional sales people ask questions; everyone else answers them.

If your working life involves you in any type of sales or selling activities then the effective use of questions is not only an essential skill it is also a critical success factor. Anyone who does not possess such skill is at a disadvantage to sales people from your competitors who do.

Seeing questioning as just a selling skill is a mistake as questions and questioning are invaluable tools that enable and facilitate effective communication in all walks of life. Common examples in business include; recruitment, coaching, appraisals, management and quality auditing, in fact; anywhere that there is a need to explore what another person knows or is thinking. Questions also have other valuable communication applications as I will explain a little later.

While the importance of questions, especially within the context of sales, has been explored by many, my recent experience with front line sales people, their managers and sales training professionals suggests that the real significance of questions in communication has by and large been lost. People may have read a book or attended a course where questioning is one of the topics but then it is simply added to the other tools in the box when it should be the primary communication tool when selling.

Much is said about different types of questions; the two main categories being closed and open. Simplistically, closed questions elicit a basic yes/no answer, whereas open questions require the other party to provide some detail. One common way of recognising open questions is that they all start with; who, what, where, when, why and how.

I keep six honest serving men
They taught me all I knew
There names are What, and Where and When;Kiplings 6 honest serving men
and Why and How and Who.

I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.

from The Elephant’s Child; Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling 1902.

Some commentators give the impression that closed questions are bad; they are not but they need to be used sparingly and in the right place within the overall communication. Also, there are a number of different types of closed question for example; the assumptive “would I be right to assume (or think) that …” and the alternative “would you prefer A or B?” The result is always the same you basically get a yes or no answer which is very useful in some circumstances.

So, it seems quite straight forward; closed = yes/no and open = an answer rich in useful information.
Easy tiger; not so simple.

Considerations

The starting point is to treat questions and questioning as a standard part of the way you communicate. The moment you start thinking about questions and questioning as a technique or worse still a ‘trick’ you have lost the most powerful thing that good questioning can do for you; gain trust.

Questioning ‘techniques’ in sales often focus on trying to lead the prospect to a place where the seller wants them to be. In such a scenario, salespeople use questions to box the prospect into a place where they can present their proposition (demonstrate their product) and their perspective of the benefits and value they think they can deliver. It makes me cringe when I hear a questioning thread along the lines of “How beneficial would it be if you could … ?” The question is invariably structured to elicit a positive response “Well that would be really useful” and is then followed with something like “Well by using our … you can do that.

While the above simple example uses an open question such scenarios are destined to result in a closed outcome as the prospect will in most cases have been led to place they did not want to be. Might this be a common cause of people become unavailable when you call to follow up on a meeting or proposal that you sent after the meeting?

Rather than using questions to take the prospect to where the seller wants them to be, might it be more productive to help the prospect understand where they need to be and once the parties have a common and mutual understanding of where that is the seller can commence the process of presenting their solution to the agreed need?

So what makes for a really great question?

Some time back I sold my IT businesses to a US company and I stayed with them for 5 years reporting to the CEO in a range of roles all of which included me having sales and marketing responsibility for various bits of the world. From time to time I would get an unexpected call from the CEO who would start with a question “Hi Phil; what’s happening?” Now that really is a great question and in just two words it opens up the widest possible field of play. Of course, what you say when asked a question like this is whatever is uppermost in your mind which is also probably whatever is troubling you most so, with the purity and accuracy of a laser, the question got the boss to what really needed his attention.

Such direct questions work between people who know each other well, particularly when it’s the boss doing the asking but such directness is not appropriate in most cases between seller and prospect. Also, if you are speaking to a new prospect “what’s happening” is too general so you cannot predict what sort of response you might get. So, best not used early in the relationship but as it develops the approach might become relevant. In my experience customers often appreciate a relationship with a supplier where trust and mutual respect permits them to challenge each other.

There are ways to ask questions similar to “what’s happening” in the early stages of a sales prospecting cycle; but how might it help the conversation if you provided a context? This could be something like “I see from the trade press that recruitment is a real issue in your industry; how is that impacting on your business?” or “I saw on your website/annual report/newsletter that …, what impact is that having on your plan to open the new office?” Other sources of contextual material could be legislation or the economic environment.

Another contextual dimension involves giving due consideration to the background and interests of the person you are speaking to. The questions you would ask an FD, the chief engineer or the marketing director will be quite different. For example; the FD will be interested in RoI, the engineer will be more interested in specification and performance and the marketing director may want to know about the likely impact on say brand image; but each could also have their own perspective on the same topic, depending on how it impacts them.

When you have met the prospect or customer on a number of occasions you will have more knowledge about what is actually happening in the business so the context questions can move to “What is the current situation with your …?” or “Since we finished the project how have the … improved?” better still “I was thinking about [something in their business]; how useful would be to you to reduce that/speed it up, etc.?” The term is overused but this is an example of how a supplier can become a ‘trusted advisor’ to a customer; the scope is limited to relevant business matters but none the less the opportunity is there and that puts the seller in a strong position compared to new suppliers who try to muscle in.

Many sales people feel uncomfortable with the idea of advising the customer on their business or challenging them on something they have said they want to do. How can a sales person be an expert on a customers’ business? You are not an expert on their business; you are an expert on yours and how it can help businesses like your customer’s to achieve its goals. Recognising this distinction and working on this basis will help to shape your questions.

Similarly, when asking challenging questions the sales person is not challenging what the customer wants to achieve but how they are thinking of going about achieving it.

19 tips on using questions effectively

  • The first rule of asking questions; ask, shut up, listen, assimilate and only then respond – to what you have actually heard not with what you have pre-prepared.
  • Having asked, listen and wait for the answer. If the other person is taking their time responding don’t break the silence be patient and wait for the answer. If they pause while thinking or formulating their answer, don’t interrupt, be patient and wait for the complete answer. Silences can seem interminable with a few seconds feeling like an eternity – practise being patient and it will serve you well. Having listened and assured yourself that they have finished but you feel there could me more information to come ask a supplementary question such as “What else would be useful for you to have?
  • Remember questioning is not a technique or trick; it is a powerful communication tool.
  • Closed questions are just as useful as open ones when used correctly, e.g. to confirm understanding.
  • Questions can be used to progress any type of conversation and they are an antidote to the traditional selling technique of bombarding the prospect with features hoping they will submit. Questions enable the supplier to establish what the prospect needs not what the supplier wants to sell.
  • Ask questions to elicit answers that will matter to the prospect as well as to you. By doing this you are creating an interactive and progressive conversation not a one-way diatribe.
  • Use questions to explore all the possibilities not limit them.
  • Not all questions are born equal; while there may be a few killer questions that really make the other person think, most are quite basic with the simple purpose of progressing the conversation towards the preferred outcome.
  • While the primary purpose of questions is to; elicit information, check understanding, gain agreement, etc., there is an oft ignored benefit to the person asking; a well-crafted question speaks volumes about the person asking it. In a question such as “How valuable would it be to you if … happened?”, the subject matter alerts the person being asked to the fact that you understand their business issues and what might matter to them; asking the question tells them something about you.
  • Good questions make people think – ever found yourself half way through answering a question only to start to question what you are saying? People often have prepared positions on common subjects and a provocative or challenging question is a useful way to get the other person to question what they really think
  • Questions can be an effective way to steer a conversation; not to a false location but to where it really should be. Questions are also good for ‘shaping’ a need by refining the possibilities and therefore creating greater focus eventually leading to mutual agreement.
  • Don’t try to prod, prompt or interrogate; the purpose of questions is to create a conversation that flows naturally towards a logical conclusion.
  • Questions are a useful way of testing what someone has said “Would I be right that you want …?” This is a good use of a closed question and if the answer is “No” it will typically lead the person to expand and thus provide what is effectively an open answer to a closed question.
  • If you’re asked to repeat a question, consider asking it differently – might they be unclear about it rather than they didn’t hear it?
  • If people resist answering, consider re-asking later in the conversation rather than immediately after the first attempt. The approach should be one of patient, polite, persistence but always be aware of signs that the other person really may not want to answer on a particular point.
  • If you sense, or know from something already said by others, that an answer is incomplete ask a subsidiary question such as “What else would you like to see as part of the solution?
  • Asking similar questions of different people in the same organization will deepen your knowledge as you are not limited to the opinions of one person.
  • You may find yourself in the position that you know something but you need it confirmed by the decision maker who you are now meeting. So, a valid use of questions is to ask the decision maker about what you already know where the purpose is to ensure the information in the answer is ‘officially’ on the table.
  • Questioning should be planned and structured but not prescriptive:
    • If you are new to sales by all means write out some questions before a meeting but as soon as possible drop this habit as pre-prepared questions sound like a script.
    • A script interferes with the free flow of conversation as each question, after the opener, should be triggered by the previous response and you cannot know what this will be before the meeting has commenced.
    • Rather than questions your preparation should be to list down the topics you want to cover, the logical running order and above all the outcome you are aiming for. Just like planning a journey; you know the start point and the planned destination but not the beneficial diversions that may be encountered en-route?
    • Take notes, politely, then if something comes up outside the sequence or list of topics you were expecting you can choose to deal with it at the time or leave it until the end.

The effective use of questions helps both parties to think progressively moving them together to a common understanding. Getting people to think, not about their situation but about the possibilities, opens their minds which can lead to them accepting new and creative solutions. The role of the sales person should in part be about helping the prospect to visualise how, with the help of the supplier, to bridge the gap between where they are now, and where they need/want their business to be.