Archives: July 2009

Play Safe or Get Creative

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A couple of nights ago I enjoyed several cheeky drams with an old pal around Manchester’s wannabe-bohemian Northern Quarter. He was keen to disparage Consultants as we watched a barman amazingly finish off his cocktail-making with a piece of brulee burner theatre.

The last time one of my clients employed such resource, the impact was a mixed bag. The company retained was Bain, tasked with introducing a new sales strategy that would break my client’s perceived cycle of “cutting costs and raising prices” each time they were in trouble.

The client MD raved about the Bain crew. He left for pastures new around a year later, which in itself is an insight into the strategy’s eventual results. When I (admittedly briefly) met some of their team myself, I was struck by the absence of passion, verging on disinterest. The troops also got wind of this, and mutterings akin to “take your watch to tell you the time” predictably emerged.

Yet I for one enthusiastically agreed with the main thrust of Bain’s findings. The unbreakable wall that their strategy crashed into involved implementation of the central tenet; a new sales management process.

I’ve two degrees, many years of sales experience and consider sales strategy almost a hobby. I was not alone in finding its spreadsheet reporting core incomprehensible.

Reminded of this tale, I went onto the Bain website and was delighted to find a section of case studies where you could match yourself against their top thinkers, as part of interview preparation.

It only takes a few minutes, but even from question one you can see how they think. What hits you is how relatively simple it is to deduce which answer Bain consider “right”, even as the task leaves multiple-choice constraints.

The other worry is more severe. There is no sparkle in any of their recommendations. Each option taken seems the safe one. It’s a consult-by-numbers process that will inevitably, like my spectator experience a few years back, fail to fire up a workforce.

And I say this as a fan of Consulting. I even conduct similar projects myself. There are absolutely times when a company should hire from outside to make change. And let’s not forget that you should not confuse ‘basics’ with ‘safe’, as Bain’s approach does ask correct and fundamental questions, such as why keep selling the lowest margin products?

Although I do not run a Sales Consultancy as such, the last time I was asked to “consult” in these terms was on a new product launch. My proposals where ranked on a scale of evolution to revolution. And thinking back now, my client really bought into the mindset of judging a possible action by where it sat between the poles of incremental marginal differences through to radical paradigm-shifting. What was interesting was how, when pointed out how left-field an idea might be, its attractiveness grew. I wonder if this is a trait that’d be replicated across all sales leaders as, by default, are they are more inclined to view themselves as renegades?

The most obvious topic of sales strategy that comes to my mind that just about every salesforce I’ve ever encountered could do with, is that of ‘process’, extending to its alignment with buying types and management alerts.

Re-engineering your operations to follow a best-practice sales process can hardly be considered a ‘safe’ option, yet how often do you find yourself erring on the side of caution by opting to try and emulate what you did yesterday, only a little bit better, rather than attempting to steer a new course entirely?


Improving Client Closeness

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Surfing the papers the other night, my intrigue was piqued by an article entitled 10 tips to improve your friendships. When discovering it was about female bonding, I did click away, but not before it got me thinking about how account-managing solution sellers achieve the friendly status with their clients that they yearn for.

One of my projects once emerged from my then customer’s wish to do a survey across his 150 customers. When delving deeper, it was clear that he feared not being as close to them as he should be. Although I did conduct a kind of telephone study for him, it was quickly evident that his money and my time was better spent on creating an activity schedule to follow. A kind of post-sign-up-sales-service process.

It was a fascinating exercise. For a start, unlike many Sales Ops style projects, it had self-evident measurables against which to judge success (most notably attrition rates and re-order levels). Then the main finding was that an event plan and relevant document logs were essential. Previously, the former had been sporadic and scattergun, the latter rarely done and if it was, could hardly be termed ‘customer-centric’.

A universally prescriptive list of tips is naturally fraught with possible inapplicabilities. But let’s give one a go anyway. This could be so exhaustive it’s scary, so for now here are just five starter actions that my experience suggests can help nurture such business relationships:

  1. Involve clients in product/service development
  2. Regularly review their Business Objectives
  3. Send on articles/experiences tied-in with their plans
  4. Track your supply’s usage; keep & share detailed records
  5. Introductions to people like themselves (similar plans/issues)

I’m sure you can think of several more.


Who’s On The Up?

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This week past witnessed more mixed signals on whether the credit crunch recession is recovering. One thought that struck me for certain though, is that there are definitely firms out there that are categorically not in recession mode. If you can identify one that could do with your services, then you too could share their market-defying good times.

The most obvious example is with anyone involved in government contracts. In the USA, apparently $23trillion, ‘only’ one-third of the earmarked stimulus package, has so far been spent. In the UK, new infrastructure projects are announced almost daily, this week’s largest probably being £1bn for rail electrification (London Paddington to Swansea and the world’s first ever line, Manchester-Liverpool’s 32 mile stretch). On a smaller scale, a friend of mine gets the odd day of contract work on various Ministry of Defence projects and joked to me the other day, “Recession? What recession?”

Glaxo SmithKline are set to make an extra £3bn from orders for 180m doses of swine flu vaccine. A figure set to rise even higher.

And even those derided bankers are back in the money, with American’s Wells Fargo reporting incredulous Q2 profits of $3.17bn.

Elsewhere, both discount retailers and retailers offering special discounts are buzzing. The UK food multiples are growing. Anywhere around 6-12% it seems, and all at a time when the economy has tanked almost 5% the other way. And clothing store chains that stack high, sell cheap are no different, with Primark’s sales up 18%.

So the message is clear. Some firms are doing well. What can you sell to them? How do you identify them on your patch? What can you do to share in their trend-bucking bonanza?


800m Attitude Change

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I just saw an impressive 800m win at the London Grand Prix by Jemma Simpson. It pushes her closer towards world class and she will soon hopefully be a serious Gold contender. In a post-race interview, she was asked what had sparked her current rise through the rankings.

The factor she majored on was her ‘attitude change’. When asked to elaborate, she made a telling observation, paraphrased as follows:

‘I feel that before I was running in someone else’s race, whilst now I’m running my own race.’

The message was that she was now focused on her own agenda. Previously, she’d been swept along in someone’s else’s tactics. Now, she was executing her own plans rather than reacting, or waiting to react, to the plans of others and this new clarity was patently paying significant dividends.

It’s a small point perhaps, but a vital one for these Sales times. There’s always a powerfully pervasive agenda from elsewhere that can easily derail us, yet the solution is to remain steadfast, and stay true to what you want to make happen. Are you conducting business on your terms, or the terms dictated by others?


Obama Goes Reppin’

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Catching a snippet of BBC News covering his latest prime-time press conference of Wednesday night, their introduction included the ear-pricking phrase “the top salesman for the administration, the President himself”.

Then the editor of the clip displayed impressive sales acumen by showing three healthcare reform related soundbites, each tellingly solution sales-savvy.

Skyrocket – I’ve long coached people in the use of more colourful and evocative language then the unimaginative default ‘increase’, ‘decrease’, ‘rise’ and ‘fall’. In part, this was inspired by the McLaughlin Group discussion shows I got into in the early 90s, where he’d always shout out “soar” or “plummet”. Obama likes the word “skyrocket” to indicate an up. It is indeed just such a winning word.

Deadlines – He noted that one thing he’d ‘learned around this town, is that without deadlines, nothing gets done’. Of course it won’t.

Inertia – He also homed in on the simplest position to take being that of “inertia”. It’s easy to not embrace a change as that change inevitably makes a few people unhappy. Drive it through.

Three small points that if good enough for him, should be good enough for us.


Debt Collector Mentality

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I caught a documentary (from Channel 4’s excellent Dispatches stable)attempting to expose the sharp practices of debt collectors the other night.

95% of the footage suggested that successful people in these roles, driven by the lucrative profit of recouping entire amounts often purchased from primary lenders for as little as a tenth of their true value, used scare tactics that could make even a hard-nosed fear-uncertainty-doubt practitioner recoil.

These typically involved misleading statements allowing the debtor to infer they were about to be declared bankrupt and pretending to be calling from solicitors rather than a debt recovery company.

The undercover reporter that’d got himself a job at such an outfit for six weeks clearly had his own agenda, although this was balanced with several references to the fact that it is only proper for a creditor to expect repayment.

I was pleased that it wasn’t a wasted hour’s viewing though, as three tactics deployed by the top collector are worthy of solution selling attention: 

Consult For Authorisation

When negotiating over a new repayment scheme, the collectors would always pause the conversation and say that they had to ask someone else if it was all okay. In reality, they just press ‘hold’ and give the appearance of doing so. This allowed them to think for a moment and let the debtor feel that greater forces were at play. There must be many a similar sales situation that could benefit from taking a breath and going back to ask someone at HQ for guidance.

Make Yourself Different

He remarked that you were unlikely to be the only person calling about a lapsed debt, as when people default it is typically across several simultaneous fronts. So what do you do to ensure you get paid when you’re just one of many squawking beaks demanding food? His route was to be different. Whatever you thought the others may do, you take another tack. As he reckoned that they’d all be scaremongering relentlessly, he’d start off by adopting a determined, yet collaborative demeanour. It is a good tip to work out how your competition would behave and distinguish yourself from them.

Detached Scare Factor

I was intrigued by the language they’d learned to use. Whereas we’d often use forceful tones, such as “I recommend you avoid trouble this way…” and “you will face ruin if you don’t do this…”, they preferred to plant seeds in a more subtle, abstract manner. “Others have found…” and “what may happen is…” might sound at first listen to be too woolly, but their impact certainly seemed to be heightened by their less inflammatory, more advisory wording.


Wrong Thinking

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Another sales idea gleaned from guests on Evan Davis’ Bottom Line. Vacuum cleaner game changer and über inventor James Dyson uses an approach to innovation that has an application for sales campaign planning. He advocates a mindset that he calls wrong thinking.

A quick web search uncovers more useful insight, although they tend to major on examples like his hunch to ignore market researchers when they said people wouldn’t want a see-through dust collector (whereas he knew it’d be compelling).

Yet in this show, his slant was about how to approach the creative process. When we’re shaping overall bids and next action deal tactics, his framework is well worth bearing in mind.

Most people, he believes, try and think of the “right” way to find a solution, come up with an idea or answer a problem. In fact, he recommends that you should follow a contrary path. So he first thinks of the “wrong” way. Deliberately think of how you would not reach your goal. That apparently takes you to a “better” result.

This and more of his experience can be found on this five minute video on more of his thinking (half-way down the page, the section I mainly refer to starts around 1’20” in).

Rather than follow the logical path, go in the opposite direction. Sure, your first attempt won’t work, but the solution it takes you towards will be different (translation: better) than anyone else’s.

So next time you’re pulling your hair out about how to progress on a tricky deal, try a touch of ‘wrong think’.


Talent v Character

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Being a cricket nut I couldn’t let England’s cricket win go unmentioned. So many hoodoos banished. First win at Lords for 75 years, scenting blood first since 1997. Yes, I know it’s only one victory with a long battle still ahead, but to give the Aussies a thumping Ashes beating feels great.

It was my cheeky pleasure to read all the online comment and analysis from former protagonists over my morning cuppa. The coach that last won the Ashes and (alongside Nasser Hussain) changed our second-rate English mentality made some particularly sharp observations. Duncan Fletcher remarked that in adversity,

“talent will only get you so far, but character will get you further”

and he added there was:

“truth of that old mantra about attack being the best form of defence”

following that with,

“It’s one thing for a captain to preach positivity; it’s another for the team to put it into action”

Change the word captain in that last statement to sales manager and there must be several salesteams that understand the issues there.

Overall, it feels like the kind of reminder that we all must be exposed to every day during these credit crunch recession times about how we’re best able to make our selling goals happen.


Sales Tips from a Marketeer

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It’s a Sunday morning for which the town where I’m visiting at present is renowned. Manchester, mid-Summer? It can only mean a fourth straight day of rain and midday temperatures shivering along at 14°. Luckily, my aim to get tucked into the cricket and hopefully watch England edge towards our first win over the Aussies at Lords since 1934 should distract from the awful weather.

Before a ball is bowled, I chose to flick through a blog that my Favourites reminds me to check-in on every couple of weeks. I believe it is the most read Marketing blog, making a name for it’s author, Seth Godin.

As a salesman, I enjoy the insights into how ‘new marketers’ think. On this visit, I was delighted to pick up two terrific solution-esque sales tips:

Make Video

When you next try and persuade someone to do something, don’t talk ’til you’re blue in the face about your vision’s merits. Instead, take your phone and video clips of third-parties saying why your idea is good. The context of his blog was when selling inside your own outfit, which is a brilliant tactic when you get customers talking about why an internal change is essential.

As a rep that’s spent a career diligently chasing down supporting quotes from around my prospects to present back to their top brass, this is a real winner. When you’re in front of key prospect decision makers, showing them film of their colleagues describing a problem and framing you as a solution is surely cutting-edgingly brilliant.

Ditch Graphs

And this one really banged at my open door. Why does everyone show graphs exactly as produced by spreadsheet ‘wizards’? A little time and imagination can produce way more memorable results. And the other great selling take-away was why show a graph anyway?

I’ve been forever telling reps to use less slides, less text and create more memorable images. The example of jettisoning pie-charts for showing several of the same picture, but crucially with them either black ‘n white or colour was a terrific tip. If, for instance, you’re showing a marketplace with a four-out-of-five split, and you want to target the fifth, then show the same picture (in his blog example, the same person) and have four of them monochrome, and the fifth in full colour glory to ram home your point. Excellent.


More To Fill Your 25-hr Days

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I’ve blogged in the past about the long-term rewards of leveraging your personal expertise and being your own micro-marketing and marcomms manager. Yes, it’s a ton of work, yet if you accept the discipline required to maintain a continual process, your funnel will undoubtedly be the largest on the block.

So it was with instant sales recognition that I was grabbed by the recent tale of work experience 15-year old making waves for a merchant bank. Morgan Stanley garnered front-page news and competitor-slaying column inches of comment by asking their intern for a report on how teenagers consume media and communicate.

It apparently enthralled its target audience, as the initial FT article details.  For balance, the same authority printed contrary opinion from their Letters page and also their own comic placement schoolchild.

I think there’s a winning sales lesson here for any of us solution sellers that do commit to sending a regular permission-granted email on the state of the industry around their target market.

People want to hear about how others in their field are dealing with the self-same problems, issues and challenges that they are. So the message of this tale is seek out unusual oracles, analysts or those with experience. Capture and spread their advice, and you too can generate “five or six times more” the normal buzz.