Mind's eye, courtesy Microsoft ClipArt

Benefits going the same way as Features

… and Value is close behind

Change how you do it not what you do!

Some decades back a common approach to selling saw the sales person running down a list of the features of their product or service expecting the prospect to stop them at some point saying “Ah, that sounds interesting, tell me more”.  By the 1970s, the more sophisticated suppliers, Rank Xerox being a good example, had come to realise this approach probably lost more customers than it created and the practice was given the derogatory term “spray and pray” or “doing a features dump”.

The next evolution involved teaching the sales people to apply their questioning skills to uncovering the prospect’s issues; then they would mention the features that were relevant to addressing those issues. This worked for a while but over time prospects wised up to the approach and expected the sales person to put in more effort by demonstrating that they actually understood their business.  This led to the idea of sales people telling prospects the benefits they would gain by using the supplier’s product or service.

The problem with the benefits-driven approach is that it puts the sales person in the position of stating things they typically cannot know about the individual prospect’s business.  The sales person can learn about the general issues of a particular business type, industry or market place but before engaging with each prospect they cannot appreciate the specific and individual issues.  As a result, most benefits are taken from a generic list based on assumptions such as everyone wants to save money or do things faster.  We call this the “faster better cheaper” approach.

Things have since moved on and the current fashion is for suppliers to express what they do in terms of the value it will deliver if the prospect buys from them.  Unfortunately, in many cases, the expression of value is basically a re-badging exercise as it involves using the same benefit statements but giving them a new name ‘value’.

Mind's eye, courtesy Microsoft ClipArt

In their mind’s eye, how do they see their world?

So, what is the poor supplier to do? As is often the case with problem solving in business the answer has been around for a long time but it got swamped by the desire to do something different or just new and by knee jerk reactions to short-term problems; “we need more orders!”  The answer is really simple; sales people must learn and apply the techniques of structured questioning, empathetic listening and interactive conversation.

If you do want to employ an approach based on benefits and value here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Do the research to understand the generic and common issues that companies in your target market sectors have or will soon have. This work is often done by the marketing department or perhaps the sales enablement function if you have one.
  • Before attending a first meeting do specific research; the individual prospect, their market, their competitors, relevant news/web items, and from the common and generic issues, identified above, which ones might apply that businesses like theirs have to deal with now and in the future.

You can now begin to create a profile of the prospect and identify what you need to find out so that you can design a solution that will really excite them.

  • Use the profile to plan the first meeting especially; the questions you will ask to start finding out what issues the prospect actually has, what they might consider as beneficial, and how they will evaluate and measure the value of a solution.  Note I said “start” the process; building a profile of a prospect, especially where your proposition is complex and the sales cycle long, cannot be achieved in a single meeting.
  • At various points during the engagement journey check with the prospect that you have understood what matters to them; the benefits and value they want to enjoy.  Approach this using a process of trial closing – “if we were able to do this for you and as a result you were able to (reduce stock levels, increase your customer satisfaction score, etc.,) would you go ahead with our proposed solution?”  If yes, good you can move forward and if no, excellent; you can explore why not and this will provide further insights into what the prospect really wants, needs and values.

Using a feature-based approach to selling and doing it well will actually deliver better results than a benefits or value based approach done badly. However, if all you talk about is features, the other party typically thinks about price and discount and the basis of negotiation will be crude haggling which will probably get you the deal but lose you margin.

So, isn’t it better to learn how to do the benefits/value approach properly?

We’re here to help.

A rolling snowball gathers more snow

Brain-food for a New Year

holly-sprigHere’s wishing you a happy and healthy festive break and a successful 2017.

As you will soon be thinking about winding down for a well-earned break at Christmas we thought we would provide some food for thought some of which might help you hit the ground running as soon as the new business year starts.

Following are a range of business tips, many focused on sales and marketing, which we hope might help you and your business.  Some are based on topics we have previously covered while others will be expanded in future newsletters throughout 2017.

Read in sequence or click the button of interest:

dec1  dec17 dec4dec24
dec15dec18dec23 dec9
dec11 dec3 dec14 dec16
dec13 dec12 dec22 dec5
dec21 dec2dec6 dec19

Most businesses are doing well these days but it is unusual to find one that doesn’t want to do even better.  If this is you, why not do something different or try doing the same thing differently?  Try something counter intuitive; what is there to lose if what you have been doing isn’t working as well as it did …

to keep doing it hoping for a different outcome was defined by Albert Einstein as insanity.

Has someone “moved your cheese”?

The question relates to the idea put forward in Dr Spencer Johnson’s book “Who Moved My Cheese?” that the source of whatever feeds you (in business; customers and new opportunities) may dry up at some point.  The book draws a parallel between the fruitlessness of continually returning to the now shrinking source and the alternative proactive approach of going out and looking for new sources.  If you have all the business you need to grow to plan don’t give this a second thought, but if new business has been tight in 2016 perhaps you need to look somewhere new.  Read more here


Why wouldn’t you respond to RFI/RFPs?

If they come from/via a known source, a prospect you have been working with for some time or an established customer, you might choose to respond as you have enough information to assess the risk of losing.  But, if it has come from a company that you barely know the received wisdom suggests your chance of winning is 1:20 or even worse so I recommend you invest your time elsewhere.


Do you have customers or clients – does it matter?

Many businesses use the word client in the misguided belief that it adds some sort of professional gloss to their image through an implied association with the real professions such as the law. The problem is that client relationships are typically infrequent or transactional being built around specific event(s).  In our view using the term client may say the wrong thing about your brand image and what your business stands for.


How do your Account Managers stack up as Hunters?

A common model these days is account managers who manage and “farm” established customers while hunters take care of new business; a good model that I have seen work well in many companies but there is one potential big weakness.  Your customer is, in the eyes of your competitors, a new business opportunity so their hunters will be trying to steal “your” customer.  The risk for you is that if your account managers use a “passive/re-active” style to manage the customer they are matched against a hunter who will be assertive/pro-active.  This is not a fair fight so you need to ensure your farmers also know how to hunt. Read more



We all understand this word but not everyone considers it when planning how to engage with a prospect or to maintain a continuing relationship with a customer.  Simplistically; you must communicate with your prospects and customers in a manner they can understand. Discover more here


Cold is not the same as unsolicited

There is a lot of negative chat these days about cold calling and while some of it is justified it is a mistake to confuse cold and unsolicited.  Every time you approach someone for the first time it is unsolicited – fact!  I see a dangerous trend these days that people are so fearful of being seen as one of those horrible cold callers or spammers they have backed off completely from all forms of proactive one-to-one communication with prospective customers.  So how are you going to find new customers? The key is to ensure your unsolicited communications are warm not cold. More on cold calling here


Warm up your calls and other first touch points

How do you feel when you receive a call from someone you don’t know, offering something you either don’t need or have already got?  To earn time for a conversation why not use the wealth of data publicly available to learn about your prospect, their business, the problems they may have, the problems in their business sector, etc., etc.  Take that data, process it into useful information and use that to empower your contact strategy – ask pertinent questions so you can talk about the benefits and value they will gain from the solution, rather than the products and services you provide.


How reliable is your sales pipeline as a source of forecasting information?

If 2016 has been littered with delayed decisions and prospects disappearing off the radar you may gain value from reading this article.  The key message is that you need to put in the work to qualify your prospects and to quantify the opportunities before you can use the sales pipeline as a source of reliable forecasting information.


AIDA – attention, interest, desire, action

The oldest documented sales and selling philosophy but as true today as it was when first published almost 120 years ago.  The sequence is key and all too often these days’ sales people assume because they are in a meeting with a suspect that they have achieved AID so they focus on action; shall I do a proposal, would you like a quote or demonstration?  The sales person may be ready to do these things, and the other party will probably agree as it is free information for them, but until the suspect has been developed into a true prospect free consultancy such as proposals will almost certainly be a waste of effort as you may have their Attention but you are mistaking courtesy for Interest and Desire.


Sales proposals – a good or bad thing?

Assuming you have arrived at the right point in the cycle and there is genuine interest and desire then a proposal may be a good thing provided you use it in the right way.  A proposal should only ever document and confirm what has already been discussed and ideally acknowledged and accepted by the prospect. A proposal can be a very dangerous thing if it contains information, conditions, costs, etc., that the prospect was previously unaware of.  Think about it; you inform the prospect there is a delivery and installation charge calculated at 10% of the selling price, but you are not there to see the response, justify the extra cost or deal with the inevitable objection!

Read more …



No not our wonderful air force but a mnemonic for the way sales engagement should be pursued – Ready, Aim, Fire.  Sadly, all too often what I observe is; fire, aim, ready.  The sales person feels good because they are doing something but doing the wrong thing or in the wrong order is worse than doing nothing at all.


Questions – our most powerful communication tool

Many sales people think it is their role to talk so they can tell the prospect how great their product or service is.  Problem is, while you are talking you are not learning and the most important thing for you is to learn about; your prospect, their challenges and above all what you need to offer them in a solution that they will buy.

    1. Ask open questions, listen carefully and empathetically, ask your next question based on what you heard not what you had written down before the meeting or call and continue the cycle until you have all the information you need.
    2. Ensure you ask questions appropriate to the engagement stage.  While it is perfectly reasonable to ask, for example, about the performance impact the prospect is suffering due to using old equipment, it may be seen as impertinent if you ask this at the first meeting.  Questions should be structured and layered so you build up a complete picture over successive conversations.
    3. Asking the right sort of questions is a demonstration of your knowledge, e.g. “How often do you have to close the warehouse to allow maintenance of the high bay lights?”  This says you understand a small part of their world and when they answer you can assume you have moved a little closer to them trusting and respecting you.
    4. Don’t answer unasked questions. “Your price is too high” is frequently heard but it is not a question so don’t answer it and definitely don’t defend or justify your position.   Instead ask a question – “How much of an issue is that for you” and once answered “Will this stop you doing business with us?” For more on this take a look at this article.


Polite persistence

A term used in the film Door to Door which is one of the greatest lessons in effective sales and account management techniques I have ever seen.  It is common that suspects and prospects will say no or, just ignore you, innumerable times so how can you keep calling without offending?  Two things; make every attempt to connect different from the last so the prospect keeps seeing/hearing something new, and always be positive and polite hiding your impatience or disappointment.


Process matters

Being systematic is the best way to gain a predictable outcome.  I have often heard it said that sales people won’t follow a process; they are free ranging, creative people who want to do their own thing. Don’t kid yourself, the best sales people have their own process running in their heads like a background computer program and if they refuse to follow the company process it is because theirs is better.  Find out how your most successful people work and build that into your process for all to follow.


Never finish a step in your process without agreeing at least one more with your prospect

When a sales person tells me about the great meeting they had with a prospect that then becomes un-contactable, it triggers two thoughts:

    1. They think they have a prospect but the other party probably doesn’t see themselves that way so they have no reason to respond to the sales person.
    2. At the end of the meeting the sales person should have agreed explicitly with the prospect what will happen next and ensure the prospect puts this in their calendar.  At this point some will decline to agree the next event date which is a good indication that they are not a real prospect. This is an example of a technique known as the trial close.


The trial close

A very effective classic sales technique that is little used these days. Simplistically the technique involves asking the prospect, at logical points in the engagement cycle, whether they are ready to go ahead and purchase from you.  If they say no then it triggers “why not?” and the answer will give you early insight to the reasons or objections the prospect might have that will stop them buying from you. Knowing early enables you to more effectively deal with the objections and a better chance of winning the deal. Give it a go; what can you lose?


Get your competitors to help your prospecting

In the majority of cases your prospects are someone else’s customers so part of your prospecting run must involve exploring why your prospect may be dissatisfied with what they are already getting, what they might like in addition and what needs to happen for them to change supplier.  So, rather than knock your competition, ensure you highlight all of your strengths and in particular those that trump the incumbent suppliers weaknesses.  All is fair in love and war!


Product, Service or solution?

Whether what you are selling is a product, a service or a blend of the two you need to present it in terms of the solution it delivers.  You need to help the prospect or customer visualise what they will gain from trading with you. Read more here.



The crucial component in all aspects of business performance and in particular customer facing roles such as sales and account management.  Here is a very brief introduction to four crucial aspects of people performance.  We have written much about this in the past so there is plenty more for you to read if you wish.

    1. Recruitment.  Recruit only the people that meet the criteria for the job. Do not take the best of the bunch as if they are not really right for you, you are simply storing up a problem you will have to solve further down the line. Making this mistake in sales can be very costly both in direct expenditure and worse still lost opportunity.
    2. On-boarding and induction.  You have put in the effort and recruited the right person but they are still “raw material” for your business and unless you invest time helping them to get established it could take them months to get on top of everything they need to do the job effectively.  Each case will be different but they need to understand exactly how you do things; methods, processes and who to ask for help.  Just like recruiting the wrong person failure to induct properly is another great way to waste time and money.
    3. Training.  Sorry you are still not finished. Unless you were extremely lucky and managed to recruit someone who knows how to sell in exactly the way you want it done you will have to train them in your sales and selling techniques and this needs to be done in the context of your methods and processes so you should consider in-house or bespoke training in preference to a public course.
    4. Coaching.  Nope, still not finished.  There is a body of evidence that to perform at consistent peak levels most sales people need regular coaching and this is a primary responsibility for whoever manages the sales people.  The good news is this is one of those things where a relatively small investment produces a very high return. If a sales person produces say 85% of their target they have already covered all their costs and delivered a contribution to the bottom line and anything above that 85% will be very profitable as the CoS is effectively zero.

sales people who receive as little as four hours regular structured coaching per month outperform those who do not by 17% on their sales targetssource: Sales Excellence Council 2007


Technology enables sales people to be more effective

Possibly but; it is a mistake to make the assumption that deploying technology will automatically deliver effectiveness or even efficiency.  If the sales people spend a day a week populating the CRM is that really a good use of time?  Do they actually sell 20% more by spending a day a week in this way?


Price, cost and value

News just came in that the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix is to cease in 2018 due to poor attendances (40% of capacity) and the reason cited is ticket prices but as they were pretty much the lowest of the 21 races in 2016 and had been stable for a couple of years is that really the reason?  Many of us who follow the sport are becoming disillusioned by what is now very poor entertainment.  So; is it not the price that turned Malaysian fans off or is it the value, or lack of, they gain from the experience?  The price is what you pay, the cost is the price plus all other expenses required to use the purchase and the value is what you get – make sure your customers are VERY clear on the value they will gain by buying from you.


Managing Objections

The typical approach to objections is to wait until they happen and then react which generally puts the seller on the back-foot. Managing objections is about being pro-active and pre-emptive; raising the issues, before the prospect does, by answering the questions they have yet to ask.  All businesses have a set of common objections so you should use these to build standard rebuttals that the sales people can use pre-emptively.


Social media and its role in sales engagement

Many claims are made for the role of social media in sales and I even see the term “social selling” being used.  I will make just two observations on this and leave you to mull over whether your use of social media in sales is likely to work.  Firstly, while social media is clearly a useful marketing tool, can it really be considered to be a selling tool?  Secondly, because of the nature of social media is it possible your sales people have slipped into the mode of broadcasting a message then sitting back waiting for the answer – this is what we call a passive reactor approach and it is dangerous as your competitors who are proactive hunters will have eaten your lunch before you even knew a meal was being served.  There is a time and place to broadcast a message but this can only ever be a marketing activity not selling.


Cut your cloth … (to suit your ideal customers and your individual customers)

When promoting or selling what you do it is important to address the question the potential buyer will have in the back of their mind “what is in it for me?”  There is no point telling them about your features as that just tells them about you; you need to tailor your messages for their ears so they can fully understand the value they will gain if they buy from you.


What’s trending?

 Find out and do something different

I know the world of social media uses as one of its main platforms the idea of trending as an indicator of what someone should follow.  However, this means that a few will have set the trend while many others will simply be hanging onto their coat tails.  I am reminded of the quote from James Goldsmith

“if you see a bandwagon it’s already too late!”

I have always considered benchmarking to come with similar problems to trending.  You look around to see what other companies are doing, use this to create a performance benchmark and adopt it as your own approach.  The problem then is that most companies are doing similar things in similar ways which feels like a gentle progression towards mediocrity.

By all means look at the trends and also benchmark what others are doing but the clever thing is then to do something different, even consider doing the opposite.  I saw a post on LinkedIn recently suggesting in-bound marketing has lost its advantage due to overuse and too much poor quality content – is anyone surprised by this?  The post included a question as to whether outbound direct might be the way forward – again the person asking the question is looking at the dust from a bandwagon – some of us have always done it this way and may be reaping the benefits of fewer competitors.

When choosing which fashion to follow, assess the risks, not just the benefits

When choosing which fashion to follow, assess the risks, not just the benefits

When choosing which fashion to follow, assess the risks, not just the benefits

I once met Stanley Kalms, when he was still chairman of Curry’s, and he explained his “contradictory management” philosophy.  Basically, he would observe how managers were doing their jobs and as soon as a pattern emerged he would issue an instruction to do things in a different way. His view was that it stopped people getting into a rut and forced them to regularly have fresh thoughts.  A similar philosophy was used by someone I once worked for whose advice was to clean house regularly; suppliers, customers, markets, products and sometimes even our people.

So give this some thought.

  • If you have been doing the same things in the same way for say 24 months, take a hard look to see if you are ahead of the pack or in a rut
  • Look at what you do and how you are doing it and if most others are doing it the same way consider a change – revolution not evolution
  • If you look at trends do so with a critical eye looking for a different edge for yourself
  • If you benchmark do so with a critical eye looking at the weaknesses rather than envying the perceived strengths
  • Decide on the five, six, ten things that really matter to the business; the true critical success factors, and take a regular hard look at each of them to see if they are still as effective as you thought they were.  If these things are critical, it is critical they are done right.

The bottom line is; if you really want to differentiate yourself from your competitors you need to be doing different things or the same things differently, but whichever way, they need to be done well.  Just ask your customers; they are a great source as they have the only opinion that really matters.

Happy hunting!

First published on LinkedIn Pulse

Kiplings 6 honest serving men


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.


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.

timing is everything; on back foot or ahead of the game?

Objection Management

The dictionary defines an objection as “An expression or feeling of disapproval or opposition; a reason for disagreeing” or “The action of challenging or disagreeing with something.”  These definitions are linked to words such as; protest, complaint, grievance, doubt, moan, grumble, grouse and quibble.  No wonder people fear a prospect raising an objection; it is all negative and probably means trouble.

Objection handling is a frequent topic for discussion amongst sales professionals and is invariably covered in books, articles, blogs and courses focused on sales & selling skills and techniques.

Whereas objection handling is undoubtedly a relevant skill for sales professionals to possess, we think the time has come to ‘upgrade’; to be fully effective sales people need to become skilled in Objection Management.

The essence of Objection Management is the timely discussion and resolution of matters which if left, could become objections.

The key differences between handling and managing objections are:timing is everything; on back foot or ahead of the game?

  • Handling is primarily a reactive approach; managing is pro-active and can therefore be planned more effectively.
  • Handling is mainly concentrated at the end of a prospecting cycle; managing commences early in the engagement cycle and continues throughout.
  • Managing objections is a process of progressive issue resolution undertaken jointly between potential customer and hopeful supplier; as a result it can be conducted in an atmosphere of co-operation and thus is more likely to lead to a mutually beneficial outcome than can be achieved through combat.

The consequence of employing the handling approach close to the decision point is it often; puts the sales person on the back foot, leads to unplanned concession being given, and can create conflict that may damage the relationship which in serious cases can mean the loss of an order that should be yours.  As a closing meeting will typically follow a number of meetings, a quotation or proposal, a presentation, the taking up of references, etc., it is now difficult for the sales person to react to an objection without potentially contradicting their proposed solution..  There is nothing more likely to destroy trust (which will be fragile anyway as they do not really know you) than; suddenly offering a discount or adding something extra for the same money or suddenly being able to deliver much faster than your quoted timescale.
“You can’t fatten the pig on market day.”
The essence of a good relationship is mutual respect and no surprises!!!  The closing meeting is too late to add things to your offer, or make concessions, without damaging credibility or, as John Howard put it:

“You can’t fatten the pig on market day.”     

The consequence of managing the controlled resolution of issues, that could otherwise become objections, is that it is done at logical points throughout the evolving relationship thus allowing time for calm reflection rather than knee jerk reaction.  This approach increases the chances of winning more business, reduces the risk of having to offer unplanned concessions, and enables both parties to spot early whether a relationship is going to work to mutual benefit.  Later in this article we have used some common objections as examples to illustrate the managed approach.

Understanding objections

This is a large topic and for the purposes of this article I will focus on two main groups of objections; visible and hidden.

Common examples of visible objections in B2B sales are mainly around:

  • Money, contractual T&Cs, delivery, timing, inability to take-on the solution including staff shortages or not having the time to train them
  • Perceived issues with the functionality of the product or solution compared to their requirement, to a competitor’s offering, or to doing it themselves
  • The need to discuss it with someone outside the company (NED, consultant or major shareholder for example) or someone inside the company that you have not yet met or spoken to

Each company will have sensitivities specific to their industry or business sector so the above is just a taster to get you thinking about your own list.

Hidden objections are typically based on; complacency, fear of change, personal and professional risk aversion (impact on status, position, bonus, etc.), knowing that they promised someone else they would give them the work, knowing that they do not have the authority to make the purchase, lack of trust in your company, or maybe even a negative reaction to the sales person or other supplier staff they have met.

Note the key difference; visible objections are focused on, or at least appear to be, tangible/practical matters whereas the hidden objections are more emotional in their origin. I say visible objections appear to be focused on practical matters as it is common that tangible objections are used when the real issue is emotionally based; if someone fears change they won’t want to admit it so it is much easier to disguise it with; you’re too expensive or I don’t like the colour.

Managing objections

A key skill when handling objections is anticipation. An example of anticipation would be; if 8 out of 10 prospects object to your payment terms you know this will probably come up so you can prepare your rebuttal arguments to deal with it. Anticipation is even more valuable when pursuing a managing strategy where it is linked to another technique; pre-emption. Anticipation plus pre emption is the foundation of a strategy to manage the resolution of issues before they become objections.

Pre-emption involves the sales person raising the topic, they think could turn into an objection if not dealt with, and handling it in a controlled manner and at a time that fits into their prospect engagement strategy and before it becomes a point of conflict. This meets one of the key criteria for managing the objections; pro-activity rather than reaction.

A framework for managing objections:

  • The first stage is for the whole sales and marketing team to brainstorm possible objections and devise a long-list including all the reasons and excuses already used by prospects.
    • Tip one: If you undertake win-loss reviews you should have some firm data on exactly why people said no to you and if they said yes to you why they said no to your competitors.
    • Tip two: Most businesses have tried and tested rebuttals and refreshing these from time to time, in line with actual customer feedback, will strengthen your sales arguments.
    • Tip three: Make sure your list includes anything on the critical path for your delivery of the contract.
  • Next, you must ensure you fully understand the objection, for example; if an objection is that you are more expensive than a specific competitor you need to understand exactly what they do for the money. If your solution is bundled; everything for the one price, but your competitor charges extra for delivery, commissioning and only provides a 30 day warranty when yours is for 12 months your price may be higher than theirs but your total cost may be the same or even lower. A common trigger for an objection is a prospect mistakenly believing they are making a like for like comparison.
  • Now you can organise and prioritise the objections and this will probably result in some dropping off the list as they are one-offs or at least uncommon.
  • For each objection brainstorm rebuttals, old and new, and identify the most appropriate timing/stage in the engagement cycle to raise the topic.
  • Fully embed the understanding of the objections and the use of rebuttals by running internal training workshops built around role-playing common prospect scenarios at all stages of your engagement cycle.

Now you fully understand the objections and you have a set of well considered rebuttals that you have practiced you are ready to start managing rather than waiting to react.

This approach not only supports an incremental improvement in successful objection resolution, but adopting a management mind set will also produce an increase in positive outcomes leading to a step change improvement in performance. So let’s look at this in practice.

Managing objections in action

This really is very simple as all that is required is for the sales person to introduce the various topics, defined by the list of relevant objections, in a controlled way at logical points throughout the prospecting cycle rather than waiting to react to something the prospect raises while you are in the final stages of trying to close the deal.

The concept is simple, but can ‘feel’ difficult as sales people are often uncomfortable with the concept of raising a potential objection, thinking “isn’t there a danger we will put the idea in their heads?” Better you put it in their head and deal with it in a controlled manner than they think about it when you are not there and draw their own conclusions. You are then left to deal with a belief that may have become entrenched and even reinforced by one of your competitors.

What helps to simplify this for the sales person is the understanding that the process is one of questioning and not making statements. You won’t be saying something rhetorical like “is price an issue for you” you will be asking questions to explore, for example; their budget position, preferred approach to financing this type of purchase and the financial decision making process.

Average sales people answer questions; exceptional ones ask questions.

An example:

The key to creating a situation where issues are managed and therefore avoiding the creation of objections that will need to be handled is to explore the prospect’s views, opinions and preferences on the matters that typically become objections at every stage of the engagement cycle. Using questioning techniques this is a process of discovery; helping you to build a picture of what you need to do, or not do, to make your offer attractive and acceptable to the prospect.

Money is one of the most feared objections so let’s start with that to create a model for managing objections. This is also explored, from a ‘handling’ perspective, in How do you handle questions like this?

As outlined earlier the managed approach would see you open up the topic by asking something like; “What is your expectation in terms of the cost for this project?”, “How do you normally fund this type of project?” and “How and when will the actual budget for the project be determined?” These are just examples of the many questions you could ask.

Might they resist answering – yes they might. So how would you convince them of the benefit of discussing money early and openly with you? Basically if suppliers do not know how much a customer is willing to pay they will guess and build a solution to match what they perceive to be the budget. This is bad for the potential customer as it is likely to lead to a compromised solution built around the perceived budget rather than the required functionality.

Much better for both parties if the approach is based on “We need to solve this problem and we want to spend £x. What can you do for us?” If the prospect does not ask this type of question, and most won’t, the ‘managed’ approach is for the sales person to raise the issue “You are asking for a solution to … and there are several ways we can do this at various price points. Can you provide a guide as to how much you expect to spend on this so that we can match our offer to your budget?

No matter how well planned your managed approach might be the prospect could, at any point, say something like “you are too expensive”. This could be a simple tactic to push you back but if the conversations have been progressing well it is more likely that you have failed to prove the value of what you are proposing. Too expensive is a relative term so your thought process should lead you to ask “compared to what?” Compared to; the value they perceive in your offer, what they paid last time, their pre-determined budget or something a competitor has said?

Before you rebut find out exactly what is behind what they are saying.

If the “you are too expensive” comment turns out to be in comparison to; what they paid last time or what a competitor is quoting now, you should deploy the “yes but” technique. Yes but; are you comparing like for like? For example; “You are more expensive than your competitor” – “I agree their quoted price MAY BE lower than ours but we do not charge separately for; training, delivery, installation, …” So they are not comparing like for like considering just the price not the total cost of making the purchase. The emphasis on MAY BE is because you do not know what the competitor is quoting and the prospect may be being economical with the facts.

Through the above process you have enabled an early discussion covering specifications, money, timing and probably a number of other important factors. Working with the prospect in collaboration you have defined what your solution should look like and therefore your proposal will reflect exactly what the prospect is expecting to see – NO SURPRISES!

Further examples using the same technique:

Delivery; if you know they are going to want delivery by 30th August and you need seven months to create and deliver the solution say so early on. “I understand you need this implemented by 30th August so we will need to order the equipment during the first week of February; will you be able to give us your firm commitment to go ahead by the end of January?” You are triggering an early discussion about something that could become a problem if left.

Staffing; I recall when we first met that you said training staff in July and August would be difficult as most will be on holiday at some point. “Would you be willing to let us train the staff in May and June?” Again, this is just about opening up a dialogue so that a potential objection can be dealt with before it happens.

Decision making; don’t get caught at the last minute by “We need to consult the non-executives, our accountants, the main shareholder, etc.” Ask in the early meetings “What is the process for making decisions on this type of purchase?” and “Who, in addition to you, will be involved in the decision?” Then “If agreeable to you I would like to meet the other decision makers; could you send an e-mail to introduce me to them?”

Hidden objections

Decision making is a good topic to also address some potential hidden objections such as the fact that your contact may not have the authority to make the decision hence; “Who, in addition to you, will be involved in the decision”.

Exploring matters that the prospect might be personally sensitive about needs careful handling and ideally you include this throughout the engagement process as per the example above about decision making authority. Consider questions such as; “I appreciate that we are asking you to move away from a supplier you have worked with for over five years so what would you like us to do to demonstrate that we can deliver a better outcome for you without risking your customer satisfaction levels?” You build these questions around what you know; they have had the same supplier for a long time, customer service levels are something your contact is measured on and you have heard from others that customer complaints are going up – your question demonstrates you are aware of and sensitive to the issues that matter to your prospect.

In conclusion

If you have pursued the managed approach properly you have achieved two main advantages; you have effectively dealt with all significant issues that could have become objections and you know exactly what needs to go in your proposal as it will be a documentation of what the prospect has already agreed to – remember NO SURPRISES!

www.jamie-allan.com Tel: 07786 228553 Email: ja@jamie-allan.com

Intelligence Led Prospecting

Time is a precious commodity in any business so we all need to ensure we spend it wisely. When we commit ourselves to any activity we need to know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that we will get an acceptable return for the effort invested. While this can be said about any business activity the need to spend time well is at its most acute when prospecting for new customers and new business as; to fail at finding enough new business can put the whole company at risk.

What do we mean by Intelligence?

In this context it is quite simply information that equips you to be more discerning and precise in your prospecting activities.insight7x4 Useful information can be readily gleaned through on-line and off-line research and should be a standard element of all prospecting activities. Before you leave the office or pick up the phone you should know what you are heading into.

What is prospecting?

It is any activity that enables a business to identify companies or individual people (depending on what your business does) who might want or need what you do and so could become new customers for you. We class these identified companies or individuals as suspects; all you have is an external view that suggests they have the potential to become customers for your business.

To be clear; you have identified them but this is just the beginning and you now have work to do to filter those suspects, convert them into prospects, then customers and eventually users of your products or services

How can Intelligence help you look for new suspects?

The classic sources of prospecting for new customers or opportunities of; cold calling (telephone and face-to-face), advertising, mailshots and exhibitions have been joined by; social media, LinkedIn, networking (face-to-face, on-line, organised and casual), e-mailing, in-bound marketing, blended in/outbound marketing, SEO and other website strategies, seminars and other executive speaking opportunities, referrals, introductions, recommendations and the list goes on.

This is not an exhaustive list and more are coming along almost daily – you must choose carefully the combination of prospecting sources you will use to protect the use of precious time and funds. This is the first point where intelligence will help you to focus your efforts – by studying what works and what doesn’t, you can decide on the optimum mix of activities for your specific business needs, market and products/services and thus create your ideal prospecting environment.

How else can intelligence help your prospecting?

Once you have decided on the mix of sources you will use, undertaking research to collect intelligence will make a significant contribution to the effective use of your time. To quote Peter Drucker, my favourite business expert, “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” He also observed “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
Having decided upon the mix of sources you will use for your prospecting you now need to continue your research to further filter where you will apply your efforts. For instance:

  • LinkedIn – if you want to be seen on LinkedIn by organisations or people that might have the potential to become customers then you need to be in the right places. If, for example, you provide a commercial cleaning service in the home-counties there is no point joining/starting a group focused on business in Yorkshire or a group focused on, let’s say, baking.
  • Physical networking – as with the previous example you need to attend networking events that are most likely to attract people who might be interested in what you do. Before you commit to an event do the research; what type of people have attended in the past, if there is a speaker is the subject relevant to what you do and if a list of attendees is available look them up before you commit to attending. If you do attend make a list of people you want to meet and seek them out.

The basic principles established in the previous examples will also apply to; exhibitions, speaking opportunities, advertising, publishing blogs and articles. You need to do the research before spending time and effort on any prospecting activities to ensure you will be in the right place and with the right people.

One area that requires a special mention is telephone prospecting. Some call this cold calling but we see it as warm calling or more accurately and simply telephone prospecting. If all you do is pick up the phone and call anyone then it is cold calling and it is also a very poor use of your time. Fortunately technology provides us with excellent tools and facilities that enable detailed research to be conducted before a programme of telephone prospecting commences. The starting point is to create a profile of your “ideal” suspects and undertake the research to identify companies that match the profile.

Consider a relatively simple example of a profile; insurance broking firms, turnover between £5m and £10m, no more than 40 employees and based in the Thames Valley. Using web based tools you can quickly identify a short list of companies that match your criteria but you can also find out contact names, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, web presence (or not), and other useful information about the current state of affairs that will empower the conversations you have when you call. Now your telephone prospecting activities will be much more focused and productive.

If you don’t follow the research based process outlined above, then you will effectively be taking a business directory, calling every insurance broker in the book and suffering time wasting rejections. This is the needle in the haystack approach not the intelligence led approach.

Sales and selling is at its most effective and productive when approached systematically and research to equip yourself with intelligence is the most effective way that I have found to make it systematic and to make the outcome from my prospecting effort predictable. Try it; you never know, you may even enjoy it and it is mainly free – how bad can that be?

If you would like more tips and advice on original ways to improve your sales and selling performance take a look at some of our other articles or contact me directly: phil.shipperlee@performative.net or call me on 07974 914 557

Hare & Tortoise

Speed kills sales deals; so does overselling.

As true road safety experts will tell us the killer is inappropriate speed for the conditions; this is also the case with sales deals – the pace of engagement needs to match the needs of both parties. Overselling is characterised by the sales person doing more than is required and never quite getting to the point of asking for the order and they usually lose as the prospect will have passed the point when they were most likely to have said yes. This is an example where the speed is too slow for the conditions.

A common example of a situation where the speed is too high for the conditions is the classic double glazing story where the sales person takes up residence in the potential customers lounge and stays until they get the order. The householder may well say yes just to get rid of the sales person but cancel the order the next day. Not only is this a waste of time for both parties it will cause some damage to the supplier’s brand.

To understand these two related issues and offer some insight to the antidotes and potential cures we look at these two prime culprits below …

Speed Kills? So set the pace appropriately!

Hare & Tortoise

Should I be Mr Hare or Mr Tortoise today?

There is a general feeling these days that everything has to be instantaneous but impatience is now a common cause of poor decision making. The example quoted earlier, where a prospect says yes at the point of sale then cancels the order later, is what is known as “buyer remorse”. Having acted in haste, the buyer is avoiding the second part of the saying which is to repent at leisure. Even worse, not only does the first company lose the order it often opens the door for a competitor – the first company does all the work educating the prospect and a competitor collects the prize.

In business there are guidelines such as calls to be answered within three rings, or if someone making an enquiry leaves details we must get back to them within two hours. While I fully agree with the setting of targets it becomes an issue when the speed of response is deemed more important than the quality of the response which, in my experience, is often the case these days.

I mentioned the example of the double glazing sales person in the domestic setting and other examples would include the various miss-selling scandals connected with financial products. Most of us have experienced this or at least know someone who has but the problem is not the preserve of the domestic setting and is also present in B2B sales. This behaviour is typically driven by the supplier wanting the deal to be done this; day, week, month, quarter and is a clear case of the commercial needs of the supplier driving the rules of engagement. This pressure often leads the supplier’s sales people to ignore or subjugate the needs of the potential customer and is at its worst when sales people are “commission only” as they need to make sales to live

This behaviour usually comes with inducements from the supplier such as; discount, BOGOF, free maintenance, pay for 12 months get three extra months free, etc. This is a major cause of mistrust of sales people as the “offer” can feel too good to be true which leaves the prospective customer suspicious when what is required for effective commercial engagement is trust.

An alternative word to speed, which perhaps better portrays the topic, is pace. For a business negotiation to proceed successfully, the parties need to be moving towards the shared goal at a similar pace and towards an agreed date for arrival. There will be typical patterns for different industries and types of proposition. The sales cycle for commercial aircraft is measured in many years while a decision to move to a hosted cloud solution might be two to three months for a small business stretching out to nine to twelve months for a large business with multiple sites and 100s of users.

So, knowing your industry and what might be typical is an important input to the thinking. Of greater importance to knowing the industry norm is putting in the effort to “know” the individual prospect otherwise the result will be a generic response to an individual need.

Here are some tips for creating your own rules of engagement:

  • Review the timescales associated with deals you have done in the past two to three years. Look for patterns to create guidelines that you can apply to future deals and be aware of changes that may have happened over the period of observation (many businesses are reporting lengthening sales cycles).
  • Lay out the steps you need to go through in getting from a first meeting with a new contact through the point of identifying an opportunity for which you will submit a proposal. Allocate the time you think will be required for each step taking account of the information you have about past deals.
  • Define the steps required to pursue an opportunity through to the point of decision. You will need to give due regard to all the factors the typical customer expects; formality/informality, RFIs/RFPs, allocation of time for; multiple meetings with multiple contacts, presentations, proposals, site visits, etc. If you collaborate with people outside of your business to help win new work you will need to consider their time constraints.

The combined results of these steps, will enable you to create a framework – a skeleton plan and timetable – for a typical scenario when taking a new contact through all the stages of becoming a customer for you.

Combining all of the above you now have the makings of a process of prospecting for new business, you have a model timetable, your staff know what they must do and by when and you know what you need to do to meet prospects’ expectations.

As mentioned earlier to be successful you must consider the individual customer, so why not ask the customer if they have a preferred decision model and associated timetable?

  • If they do, review it and if you are happy with it formally agree that is what you will work to.
  • If they have a decision model but from your point of view there are critical gaps, then negotiate to fill those gaps and get sign off on the new composite model and timetable.
  • If they do not have something, which is more common than you might think, then present your model and ask if they are agreeable to work to it. There may be some debate around detail but reaching agreement should be quiet straightforward and as before both parties should sign off on what has been agreed.

Either of these last two approaches will lead to a win-win scenario in terms of building trust and helping one another to improve the engagement process.

You now know the appropriate pace of engagement for your market and you have a mechanism to determine the correct pace for each prospect so you can set expectations with the prospect, your staff and suppliers. This structured approach will, over time, also enable you to build more realistic and reliable sales forecasts.

This approach will also help in cases, as discussed in the June newsletter, where customer decision making is unpredictable – with an agreed and common process outcomes will be much more predictable.

Health warning – the proposed approach will probably make life harder initially but once the process is established the rewards will become obvious.

Overselling overwhelms?

Overselling is about doing too much, doing the wrong things and/or doing things in the wrong order. In most cases overselling also leads to suppliers taking too much time to get the prospect to the point of stating their decision.

Keep calm & do your homework

Remember the 5 Ps

Too many products. If you have multiple products or services focus on the ones that directly relate to the issue the prospect is wrestling with at the time. By all means make them aware of the full range of what you do but in a 30 minute meeting this should take 2 minutes with the rest of the time being focused on the matter at hand and the solution you are offering.

Make sure you do the first deal very well and there will be plenty of time to come back and sell them more of what you do; give them the taster for your solutions and they may be more willing to commit a larger investment next time.

If during the conversation about the current issue they raise a separate unrelated matter, acknowledge it and ask if they are happy to “leave that to one side for now”. If they have decided issue two is more important you can switch, otherwise stick to plan.

Too many benefits. Can there be too many I hear you ask? There can; this starts with an approach where the sales person assumes they know what will be of benefit to a specific prospect. For example, it is common for suppliers to assume that everyone wants/needs to save money. Of course no one wants to pay more than they need to but equally no one wants to buy something that is inferior or unreliable for the sake of saving a few percentage points on the price. A subject discussed in previous articles, is the need to appreciate the difference between Price, Cost and Value when making buying decisions and sales people need to have this in mind when presenting their offer and the benefits.

A tool to help work out what might be beneficial to an individual prospect is FBIFeature, Benefit, Incentive. The approach:

  • In the early stages in the engagement with a new prospect you establish what matters to them with respect to the solution you are discussing; size, colour, weight, speed, delivery time, maintenance intervals, throughput rate, service intervals, repair response times, power usage, … It will differ from industry to industry and within that from prospect to prospect.
  • Consider each feature of your proposition and how it can deliver against the criteria that matter to the individual prospect. For example if your product delivers a very high throughput rate, and this is significant to your prospect, they will see it as a benefit of choosing your solution. If this was not an issue then the prospect may see the feature as irrelevant and potentially something that makes you more expensive than a competitive offer.
  • Summarise all the relevant benefits your proposition can offer and ask the question “If I can demonstrate that our solution will do; X, Y and Z, and that we can deliver by dd:mm:yy will you go ahead and order from us?” The demonstration that you have the features to deliver what the prospect needs and that you can deliver in a timescale that you know matters to them provides an overall benefit for them in dealing with you which in turn will act as the incentive to go ahead with you.

A benefit only applies if it satisfies an explicit need and anything else is just hot air that, far from adding value, is certain to detract from the things that you can do that actually matter to your prospect. Scary I know but even for complex deals three or four benefits are probably enough.

Over promising and under delivering. Do I need to say much on this? Too many potentially good relationships are spoilt by suppliers offering more than they can deliver and even if the prospect needed everything offered it would be far more honest to offer what can be delivered well, as you will be quickly found out.

In summary

Find out the real needs, focus on your features that satisfy those needs (by delivering the benefits that matter), confirm and re-confirm that the list of requirements is complete and that your prospect acknowledges that you can deliver the complete solution.

Now; some good advice from way back runs “ask for the order and shut up”. We all have two eyes, two ears but just one mouth; use them in that proportion. Don’t break the silence, don’t offer to do more; make the offer, ask the closing question and shut up.

Adapting to the Supplier Lifecycle

Why is it important for salespeople to understand their customers’ or potential customers’ supplier lifecycle?

It is an undeniable fact that the more we know about our customers’ requirements, the more we know about their procurement and selection process, the more successful we will be. No sales organisation would disagree with this statement; any sales training consultancy would claim that they train sales people to be customer focused.

However, isn’t the reality that usually the first time we get to see the customer requirements clearly defined is when we get sight of the RFP? The same RFP that prescribes what information you must provide, and in what format. If you have not been able to influence the RFP in any way, your chance to differentiate your offer, post RFP, is limited.

So how will understanding the supplier lifecycle help you – not just in the pre-sales phase, but post sales as well?

Put simply – understanding the supplier lifecycle will enable you to map your sales process and thinking to the process and thinking of the customer. This is because the supplier lifecycle is a holistic model – of which procurement is just a part. It covers activities pre RFP and sourcing, and those post engagement – how the customer seeks to work with a supplier once the service delivery or project is live.

As with sales models and concepts, there are a vast number of supplier lifecycle models; however the generic 5 stage approach described here is typical.


Identify – For the product, service, or project in question – establish objectives, outcomes and the detailed requirements at the business, user and technical levels

Research Investigation and planning before moving to sourcing – to ensure that the strategy is focussed on the most effective engagement models with the right “screened in” potential suppliers

Source The formal procurement phase – the step of going to the market with defined requirements, receiving proposals and making selection decisions against pre- defined criteria

Integrate Engaging and transitioning -The iterative stage between sourcing decision and deliver. Designed to ensure that people and processes are aligned in moving from current state to the new business as usual

DeliverImplementing and developing -To ensure that the supplier delivers, as a minimum, what they are contracted to deliver, to quality, time and price. Developing is about investing in the relationship, to enhance performance, and maximising value.

So how can you use this understanding to help you win more sales, and to develop an account?

  1. Use your contacts in your customers to find out what the lifecycle model looks like in their organisation – just asking the question will demonstrate you are trying to understand their world
  2. Investigate to find out who the key stakeholders are at each stage of the cycle
  3. Use your awareness of the integrate and deliver stages to highlight in your RFP response that you understand their expectations of you as a supplier throughout the service/ project duration
  4. Demonstrate your understanding of this holistic approach by asking in depth, searching questions for each phase; more than the usual questions, important though they are, of “what are your requirements?” and “what is your decision making process?”
specialist in improving management of strategic suppliers

improving management of strategic suppliers

Richard Moxham is MD of Supplier Management Training Ltd, a specialist consultancy advising and training clients in improving their management of strategic suppliers – in performance and relationship terms. In a previous life he worked in a number of sales and sales management roles, so can see the world from both customer and supplier perspectives