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.


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.


  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.

Cartoon courtesy of Timo Elliott

Using RoI modelling as a selling tool

Return on Investment (RoI) modelling is a simple yet powerful concept that is very useful for comparing the value of different approaches to a project or other activities. As a result it is also a very useful selling tool as it enables a sales person to help a prospective customer understand the value of what is being offered compared to; a competitive solution, the option of the customer doing it themselves, or doing nothing at all.

For some, RoI is a tool that can only be applied to products but it is potentially even more useful when comparing service or solution alternatives. Your prospective client will have resources dedicated to delivering what you are proposing to provide and they will be using whole resources. Consider an IT installation, they will require; people, hardware, software, an equipment room, air conditioning and office space. All of those resources are dedicated 100% of the time to the IT function whereas a service provider will be able to time share resources so the client will only pay for what they use rather than what they own.

Another benefit of using RoI in a service or solution environment comes from its ability to help make the intangible tangible; it forces people to appreciate the true cost of what they are currently doing rather than just seeing the direct costs.Cartoon courtesy of Timo Elliott

While most people accept that RoI is a simple concept many find it hard to apply and as the character in the cartoon suggests the most common problem is finding available data to populate a RoI model.

I do not think the data is a big issue and having found this to be such a powerful and useful selling aid I would like to share some ideas and tips as to how you might overcome the data issue enabling you to apply RoI when selling your propositions.

When considering RoI there are a number of related concepts that need to be considered as well.

Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA) – the total amount you have to spend to complete a purchase and become the owner. For example; when buying a car there will be an advertised price but to acquire the car you actually want will have to spend additional money over and above the price e.g. optional extras, insurance, road tax, delivery charges, etc.

Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) – the total outlay to own and use what you have bought. Continuing with the car analogy, in addition to the TCA, the TCO will include; maintenance and repairs, roadside recovery service, fuel, renewal of insurance and road tax, interest if you buy on a loan and, the big one, depreciation. You may even have to include the cost to garage the vehicle, or purchase a resident’s parking permit.

Price Cost Value (PCV) – simplistically, the price is the TCA, the cost is the TCO and the value is the difference between what the purchase costs and what you gain from making the purchase. If owning a car means your commute to work will take less than an hour whereas you now spend close to two hours with several changes on public transport the value in the purchase is the convenience and comfort of travelling in your new car along with the additional hours of free time.

If you present a RoI case, to support something you are trying to sell, you must take account of TCO and PCV as basing it simply on TCA will produce a misleading result that understates the position which in turn damages the credibility of the claims you make to support your proposed solution.

This is a timely point to remind ourselves that decision making is not just a simple clinical calculation and it will involve subjective and emotional as well as objective assessment criteria. RoI mainly focuses on the objective evaluation but to gain best value you need the prospective client to trust you so you will need to pay attention to the emotional and subjective factors as well.

All too often prospects use “you are too expensive” without fully appreciating what they are currently spending. What RoI achieves for you is to create a clinical comparison between current and potential future cost.

What is so hard about RoI?

A practical way to answer this question is to refer to a recent conversation that I had with a customer who provides a range of hosted IT solutions hence often finds themselves in the position of needing to justify their proposed costs, compared to the costs of a competitor’s solution or to the client doing their own hosting. The key point that came out in the conversation is that most potential clients omit certain significant but disguised items when providing current IT costs which leads to an unfavourable comparison with our customer’s proposed solution. This is the nub of the matter; for RoI to function properly as a comparison tool, the data types used must be the same or equivalent in all cases. A simple illustration of how this might manifest itself is:

Provision of an IT service requires; hardware, software, security, air conditioning, people and floor space. There are many other smaller items but these are the main building blocks. I will use the people element as an example to illustrate the importance of like for like information being used for a RoI comparison. The TCA calculation of employing a person must consider the costs of; recruitment, induction, training, salary, NI, variable compensation (including emergency overtime), sick pay, pension and management, facilities & HR overhead. However, it is common for a client considering moving to an externally hosted solution to consider just some of the cost elements of employing their own IT staff and typically just; salary, NI and other direct costs such as sick pay and pension. However, the other cost elements are a factor and they will no longer be there if the decision is taken to outsource the hosting of IT so must be included in the comparative evaluation.

Using such a limited data set will generally tend to make the external solution look relatively expensive. While this is not good for a potential supplier it is even more serious for the client as it means they do not have a real grasp of their actual IT costs.

So, the dilemma is; if potential clients do not have a complete picture of their current costs, or they disregard some items that should legitimately be included, how can a fair comparison to be drawn with an outsourced solution?

How can you address this dilemma?

One successful mechanism is by building a RoI model that incorporates all of the cost elements relevant to a particular proposition or business sector and offering this to the prospective client for them to use with their own figures. The key steps are:

  • Build the model around the particular proposition; the information from a generic model will never be as believable as that from a specific one. So, for example, in the case of a hosted IT service the model will include a people element and this must include all the employment costs not just the direct ones.
  • Once developed present a blank copy of the model to the prospective client. Ask them to populate it using their own figures. If the client says they do not have some of the figures provide them with industry norms using well recognised and respected sources – agree this in advance.
  • Ask the prospective client to share their findings with you and compare their result with your quotation for providing the service. If you have established a good working relationship with the prospective client there should be no problem with them agreeing to this. If they do not wish to share then simply ask them how their figures compare with your quotation.

Things to bear in mind when considering a RoI approach:

  • Decision making involves a mix of quantitative, qualitative and emotional factors so depending purely on RoI is unlikely to work.
  • At the beginning of the engagement with a new prospect undertake a process of discovery where you can explore everything that the prospect will consider when making a decision.
  • Your RoI model needs to cover all of the direct and indirect cost elements that the prospective client is already meeting. As you are providing an alternative solution you are fully aware of all the components of cost so it is easy for you to build the cost model.
  • If the prospective client is unable to populate some areas of the model you can help by providing norms from respected industry bodies.
  • Your prospective client may not accept some of the cost elements that you will want to include so you need to gain their agreement as to what will be included before you present the model and if the relationship allows
    • develop the model collaboratively
    • populate the model collaboratively
    • evaluate the findings together
  • RoI mainly looks at cost and having created a genuine comparison between current and proposed costs you now need to move to the evaluation of value as this is what will justify a higher price if that is what the RoI model has suggested. Even if the cost of your proposition is lower you need to focus on the value you will deliver to satisfy the emotional component of the client’s decision making process.

Consider as an example of value; your discovery process established the client is keen to improve the service it provides to its customers. They are much more likely to decide in your favour if you have demonstrated that your solution will deliver the required improvement in customer service. Even if the RoI model showed your solution as being more expensive the value of improved customer service that your solution will deliver is still likely to win the day for you.

Selling Tips:

Even if they do decide to stay with their current solution, they now have a clearer view of their real costs. Be aware – rarely is no a “no never” it is most likely a “no not now” so you should re-visit them at some point when you may well find yourself pushing against an open door. They will have had time to reflect on what they learnt from engaging with you and the idea of change may seem less scary with the benefit of hindsight. They may also have recognised the value you added through your approach which is likely to make them feel you will be a good partner that they can rely upon.

A common question is – when should you re-visit a prospect that has said no? When the time is right! You will know the right time if you have asked the right questions during your discovery process. The right time will be; when an existing supplier contract is due to expire, or when they are formulating the next annual budget, or when they are opening that new branch office. When you return, focus on what you discovered that will matter to them and they will appreciate the fact that you have empathised with their position.

mouse in maze hunting cheese

Did someone move your cheese?

The question is inspired by a book; Who Moved My Cheese, written by Dr. Spencer Johnson first published in 1999.

The book tells an amusing story of four mice who live in a maze and in a particular part of the maze there is a permanent supply of cheese so life is good and easy.  Unfortunately a day arrives when the cheese isn’t there and the book goes on to illustrate different reactions to, and strategies to deal with, this state of imposed change.  Cheese is a metaphor for anything that we might want or need and in this article I explore two areas where many businesses are suffering imposed change to; the way they define and present their propositions and the way they take those propositions to market.

In the book, the mice handle the unexpected change in different ways and basically two of them stubbornly keep returning to the same place hoping the cheese will be there** while the other two, aptly named Sniff and Scurry, immediately go looking elsewhere.

** “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done
you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got” comes to mind.
W. L. Bateman

The message for any business; you must be in a permanent state of anticipation, ready and willing to adapt and ready to quickly embrace change as soon as the need is foreseen.

So where can the two heroes Sniff & Scurry help in this context?mouse in maze hunting cheese

Sniff out your real proposition

Your proposition is the combination of products, services and also your mode of operation ** (how you do what you do) that creates your unique proposition.  This is what you provide that customers can buy to address the needs and wants that they wish to satisfy.

**We were asked to undertake a review of customer satisfaction for an organisation where we were already working.  One important outcome was that customers liked them having a human, UK based, service desk that worked extended hours and was able to act to rapidly dispatch vital parts.  The organisation had been contemplating replacing the human service desk with an automated one – phew; lucky escape!

A reasonable question to ask is why, if the proposition was good in the recent past, has it become less attractive?  It is common that this happens and the main reasons are:

  • The proposition should clearly demonstrate your ability to satisfy customer needs and wants by delivering a positive means to achieve the required change. If these needs have changed then your proposition will no longer look like a good match. Someone may have “moved your customers’ cheese”!
  • You need to undertake research to understand what current needs/wants actually are and build this into you account management and new business selling processes.
  • Consider the price, cost and value of your proposition. Your price may look high compared to your competitors’, especially new market entrants, and you need to ensure the presentation of your proposition focuses on cost and value. The price charged by a competitor may be lower than yours but the total cost of ownership may be higher (for example the total cost of ownership for a cheap air fare is the ticket price plus all the extras they require you to pay); so don’t be shy, it is your job to demonstrate this to ensure the customer understands the full value they will gain from buying your solution.
  • A key part of the previous step is actually recognising and accepting your weaknesses – the proposition scope; what you say you can do, must be what you can actually do not what you wish you could do. If that scope leaves you vulnerable to competition you must act to address it otherwise your cheese will be moved!
  • It is common that suppliers consider their proposition to be attractive to certain vertical markets and if this is genuinely true then it is a valuable asset to have. However, it is all too easy to be seduced into believing you have a vertical offering, because you have a cluster of customers in the same type of business. The majority of businesses have horizontal offerings and the reason for the apparent vertical capability is typically based on an outbound marketing and sales focus on particular market sectors. This leads to a self-fulfilling belief which rarely stands up to scrutiny when a customer is really in need of a supplier with vertical business knowledge. This also means the supplier is limiting the breadth and depth of the market they can genuinely service.
  • When presenting your proposition avoid the trap of telling people what you do – tell them what they will get; paint the picture, help them visualise and understand what the end result will look and feel like. A common reaction to falling sales is for the supplier to start ‘shouting’ at prospects saying how wonderful they are but this usually falls on deaf ears. This reaction is often accompanied by internal conversations along the lines of “they (as in customers) just don’t get it” when it is actually the supplier that doesn’t get it.

In an apparent contradiction to what I have just said you should never lose sight of the fact that you might just have something that is genuinely new that people will want once they realise they have the need that you satisfy. When the Walkman and the tablet computer were first launched there was to some extent a leap of faith that people would want to use them. These products were creating the desire rather than just responding to it.

With any disruptive solution there will be a shortage of supporting information so the launching of such a proposition comes with a high risk of failure and this can be, and usually is, a costly diversion so; approach with caution!
Don’t kid yourself; be rigorous, do all you can to explore the potential but don’t get wrapped up in over ambitious self-belief, but having taken all these doses of cold water you might just have something that no one else has thought of.

Scurry off to your market

Your suspects’ profile will define things such as; business activities, processes and style, size, location and all other factors that together represent the type of organisation you think will be really attracted to your proposition and that you will be able to service successfully. This is how you separate the wheat from the chaff for the effective use of your resources.

Research and search for potential customers based on the profile and checklist you created. Bear in mind whether you have a truly horizontal or vertical offering and market – don’t be seduced into the wrong direction.

Consider the many options available to marketeers and decide on the right mix of marketing options to match the chosen market and your proposition.

In parallel with getting the marketing mix right you need to decide how you will handle all those nice warm leads. How are you going to turn them into customers providing you with profitable revenue growth? In short you need to decide how you will sell your proposition, which may vary to suit each prospect. Consider the tools and techniques you will need to use:

  • Techniques such as solution or consultative selling are very adaptable and often prove to be the most suitable approach.
  • Is your market mature and does it understand its own problems or might your sales people need to ‘educate’ prospects as to the range of solutions that are available?
  • If your customer has had their cheese moved they may have developed some prejudices about the correct solution to their needs/wants in which case your sales strategy must be robust enough to challenge entrenched positions and provide enlightenment. A word of caution; it may be that the customer has developed beliefs about their need and the potential solutions through contact with other suppliers so be careful not to appear to be rubbishing your competitors – focus on your positives not others’ negatives.
  • When the evolution of propositions and requirements start to move along different paths the engagement process often focuses on price which is a game with no winners. You need to ensure your marketing and sales thrust is based on Value and RoI not just the price.

In Summary

If you feel your cheese has been moved, and it came as a surprise, you need to review the way you are monitoring your business, your market and your customers. You must ensure your business management systems and processes provide you with pertinent leading indicators; it is much less painful to dodge the pothole than to repair the tyre after you’ve hit it.

Most of this article has focused on doing things systematically which is generally the safest route to success but you should also allow and facilitate free thinking as part of your business review and planning process.

Free your mind, break with convention, think the impossible and it might just become possible and sometimes the audacious land grab can work delivering a great jump in performance and results.

Having decided what customers need (or will desire) and what you are able to supply, you now have a guide that will help you build a profile and checklist to identify your likely ‘suspects’ and indicate how and where to find them.

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.

Customer engagement for win-win deals

Customer Engagement

If your customers are slow to make decisions and your pipeline forecast is forever moving, we can help you.

If your sales force are submitting bids with a low uptake so you feel you are just providing free consultancy, we can help you.

Markets are changing and customers have more opportunities for research before they buy, consequently the sales force has different challenges in order to engage with customers. Gaining insight into your Customer’s world and thereby understanding how you can deliver greater value than your competitors can be key to how you approach your target market.

We have helped companies in various sectors re-focus their propositions and markets for greater customer engagement, leading to more new and extension business. This also assisted the sales management to obtain more reliable forecasts.

“Working with Performative greatly improved the quality of engagement with potential customers and our ability to forecast outcomes from those.” MD, Mobile Technology company.

Feel free to call us for a confidential discussion.

Integral Mobile Data

The Outcome:

A well-focused and carefully positioned market offering and go-to-market model.

Working with Performative helped management and the board clarify its strategy for the next stage of the company’s development. It also greatly improved the quality of engagement with potential customers and our ability to forecast outcomes from those.”    Philip Neame, MD, IMD

The Challenge

Integral Mobile Data (IMD, now owned by Hytec) spent its first four years developing a mobile computing solution that enabled companies to improve customer service and reduce costs by providing mobile staff tailored task-orientated computing power in the field.

IMD engaged Performative to help move the focus of the business onto sales and marketing to grow revenue and to move into a profitable position.

The Performative Solution

Performative initially led the management team through a Market Focus Review (MFR) designed to review and consider:

  • The objectives of the next stage of the business, to provide context for the activities.
  • The business assets – products, knowledge, processes – and consider exploitation possibilities.
  • Target market and customers.
  • The portfolio and its positioning.

Subsequent work focused on addressing the points raised in the MFR and included:

  • An extensive win-loss review exercise, which explored the reasons for IMD’s past success or failure at closing contracts.  This exercise helped in understanding customer perceptions, which fed into defining the true value and positioning of the company and its products.
  • Full definition of the product portfolio and its market proposition.
  • A target market strategy including research into potential target companies.
  • A promotion strategy to rapidly create visibility to a large market.
  • A multi-level sales model to ensure that IMD targeted senior customers and did not sell purely at the technical level.

ERA Technology

The Outcome:

The end result was a fully integrated end-to-end Lead Generation process that focused on target customers and ensured valuable sales resource was engaged appropriately and at the correct time in the sales cycle.  This process delivered in excess of 10 fully qualified new customer opportunities against which in excess of £330,000 additional business was secured.

As a result of Performative developing and executing the Performance Initiative Programme we have benefited from the potential of more leads in 4 months than we would have been able to generate ourselves in 12 months.”    Divisional Head, ERA Technology

The Challenge

ERA Technology provides specialist engineering consultancy to owners and operators of large-value capital assets and systems; helping clients to reduce risk, improve operational performance and comply with functional safety and regulatory requirements.  The division of ERA focused on the Telco sector was finding it increasingly difficult to find and win new business.  A very large customer was also planning to move to off-shore operations thereby threatening the loss of a major revenue stream.  The management team recognised the need to rapidly gear up to proactively acquire and develop new customers, but there was a lack of internal sales staff to focus on this as they were fully engaged in protecting the existing revenue.

The Performative Solution

ERA engaged Performative to assist in the drive to increase new business.  An initial Sales Maturity Assessment (SMA) confirmed a number of potential improvement areas, which led to a two phase Lead Generation programme.

Phase 1 involved a series of preparation steps, tailored to the divisional objectives, to establish a solid and reliable base for generating new contacts.  This included:

  • Crystallising the value proposition and defining Service Lines and associated benefits.
  • Conducting structured “sales focus” workshops, resulting in a re-definition of the ERA product proposition and the market segments to be targeted.
  • Developing and implementing processes to separate new customer creation and development from the identification and pursuit of individual sales opportunities.
  • Creating a fully populated database of potential new customer contacts.

Phase 2 involved:

  • Creating an effective telephone-based Lead Generation process.
  • Undertaking the Lead Generation process designed to generate qualified meetings for the ERA sales team with a view to creating 8-10 new customers.
  • Handing over structured information packs to the sales team for the arranged meetings.
  • Assisting with the transition of this approach, and the associated knowledge, in house.
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