Mind Your Verbs.

Mind Your VerbsWe live in a world of nouns and adjectives. Our platforms are transparent, our audience segments are discrete. Most of us in the digital ad business generate enough nouns and adjectives to crush the spirit of the most ambitious high school English teacher. But when it comes to the verbs, we get really wimpy.

Rather than approaching sales situations with boldness and conviction, our verbs tiptoe in on little cat-feet.  Ask a digital seller to describe the objective of a sales call with a would-be client and you won’t hear disrupt, close or persuade. You’ll hear him talk about educating, sharing our story or evangelizing. Is he there to sell something? Perish the thought! No, better to just try to be top of mind when they need us later.

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You may think I’m a little obsessive at this point, but I can live with that. I know that words matter. And salespeople rarely act bigger on sales calls than the verbs they use to describe their actions.

If you’re a manager, how are you going to hold your seller accountable around soft verbs? “So you went in to educate them? How’d that go? How much more educated are they now than they were last week?” And please tell me what the desired outcome is for evangelizing. I’m assuming it must have something to do with customers falling to the floor and speaking in tongues, which seems fairly rare.

If you’re a seller, ask yourself an important question: “Why am I avoiding verbs that mean something?” Do you not talk about selling and persuading to avoid being rude or to avoid being accountable?   It’s gut check time; time for us each to own why we’re in our jobs, in front of customers, in this business?   We’re there to change the outcome. To ask hard questions. To persuade. To secure commitment. To sell.

Next time you’re talking with your manager or seller, listen to the words you’re using. Get the verbs right and you’ll be amazed how clear and compelling your sales picture becomes.

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Strategy, 101.

Strategy 101Somewhere out there, early on a January morning, a seller has already been awake for hours. He’s staring at a number – his sales goal for the next several months. His company has a solid product, not a dominant one.

His managers try to motivate and support, but only being a year or two in management themselves they can tell him to ‘be more strategic’ but can’t really tell him how. Here’s how.

Triage. What are the factors that make one prospect more likely than another to become a customer? Are they cranking up spending this quarter? Do you have even one ‘truth teller’ at the agency or client who could give you the straight story? Do their preferred metrics and buying style align at all with your offerings? Have they been a customer before? If you answer yes to all or most of these questions, these are your focus accounts – your A’s. All no’s? It’s a C; drop it. Mixed results? It’s a B, so set it aside for work later.

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Decide What You Control. It’s easy to waste time lamenting what you don’t have, what a competitor might be doing, or how bad the decision making is at the agency. Instead, inventory those things you can control. They are: (1) your intent – are you really out to do a great job for the customer? (2) your POV on the customer’s business situation – not just what you know but what you think is important; (3) the agenda for your meetings – a good answer for “why are we here today?” (Hint: if it’s about ‘updating’ the customer, ‘introducing them’ to your product or ‘learning more’ about their challenges, you will lose); (4) the quality of your recommendation; stop with the big capabilities deck; nobody cares. Decide what combination of products and services will help this client at this moment in time. If you tell ‘em everything, you’re telling ‘em nothing.

Start in the Middle. In between the CMO and the media planning team, there are a lot of people who can help you: account owners at the agency… strategic planning… group VPs… functional specialists at the client. Put away your pitch for a while and start teeing up honest conversations and email exchanges with these people.

Ask Better Questions. Ask questions customers can say “no” to. Will you buy from me? Do we have your commitment? Do we really have a chance here? Hope is too often the opposite of clarity. What you want to constantly be asking is Where do we really stand? and What can we do to keep moving forward?

Stop Waiting. If things are not closing because you’re constantly waiting on something – a product feature, a call back, a change in the budgeting process – then you’re not making a difference.  You can wait till things calm down, till you get through your inbox, till the weather changes. Or you can simply act. Take chances, try one new thing each day. Ask forgiveness, not permission.

It may turn out that the one you’ve been waiting for is you.

Say the Words.

Say the WordsFor the sales teams I work with, the list of symptoms is remarkably consistent:  long, unstable sales cycles; buyers going radio silent after receiving proposals; small deal sizes; low close rates; too many small ‘tests’ that lead nowhere; lack of pipeline visibility ; weak forecasting.

Sound familiar?  The symptoms are so consistent because they all stem from the same disease.  Your sellers aren’t closing.  This may sound simplistic, and your senior sellers might even take exception with my diagnosis, but look a little closer and you’ll see that I’ve actually got it right.

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Closing isn’t a cliché, nor is it just a general attitude or posture on a sales call.  It’s a very specific event within the discussion; a direct question that either does or doesn’t get asked.  But rather than guess about whether your sellers are closing or taking their word for it, take this simple test.

  1. When you ask your team members about their upcoming sales calls, do they often use words like education and evangelism?
  2. Do they talk about seeing how the customer feels about the program or opportunity?
  3. Is the program or package in question usually attached directly to an urgent business problem?
  4. Does it have a specific expiration date attached to it?
  5. Is there a specific dollar figure attached to your recommendation? (Instead of just a range of options and levels.)

If your answers tended toward yes, yes, no, no and no, then you’ve got a closing problem.  Your seller is choosing (consciously or otherwise) a comfortable, non-confrontational conclusion to the meeting.  They’re telling the customer to please consider it or lamely offering to touch base again soon to see what you guys want to do.  They’re saying anything and everything besides asking the question that will improve all your business metrics.  Will you buy this from us?

Here’s an exercise you can do with your team that will start to immediately improve the situation.  As your sellers prepare to go on their next sales calls, ask Exactly what are we asking this customer to do?  and What’s the specific price tag or estimate you’re going to give them?   Now sit down across from your seller and role play:  have them ask you for the order in the exact words they would use with the client.  Is this going to be an uncomfortable moment?  Absolutely.  But if they can’t say the words to you, they damn sure can’t say them to the customer.

Comfortable, inconclusive meetings are a luxury you can no longer afford.  Ask your sellers the hard questions today so they can start asking your buyers hard questions tomorrow.  And be sure to let me know how it goes.

All About Urgency.

A consistent thread connects hundreds of workshop discussions I’ve had with sales teams over the past 15 years:  how to generate and foster a sense of urgency in a channel where there are no closing- or air-dates?  It’s a huge issue, to be sure.  Without urgency, deals drift, pricing erodes, pipeline visibility becomes cloudy and your forecasting turns to mush.   The absence of urgency presents itself in many ways; here is one of the most common – and puzzling – scenarios.

You meet with a client directly – or perhaps with someone very senior at the agency.  They express strong interest in “working together” and perhaps are even “very excited” by what you’ve had to say.  In fact, they’re even going to recommend you go and see someone in the buying group. (Let’s call him “Steve.”)  Maybe they’ll even send you on your way with an email referral or introduction.

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Many of us would be delighted by such an outcome – at least initially.  But 95 times out of 100 you either don’t get the Steve meeting scheduled or, if you do, Steve has zero alignment or concern for the idea you’re there to discuss.  What felt like positive progress toward a sales was actually a deft bit of redirection.

The client chose not to stay engaged in the deal.  He chose not keep his hand in.  Why?  No sense of urgency was created.  So what would create that much needed sense of urgency?

Attaching the Idea to Hard Sales Goals: Mostly we speak in the clinical, antiseptic language of advertising, media and digital.  We’re peddling impressions and clicks and the cotton candy of “branding.”  How will your idea actually drive sales, or the incremental outcomes that lead to sales?  Nobody wants to be the one who says “Those incremental sales aren’t important.”

Humanizing It: Along the same lines, instead of “users” or “page views” or impressions, how many actual people will your program speak to?  Where do they live?  How important will they be to the success of this brand in a given market?  Losing interest in the latest complicated digital advertising idea is understandable.  Turning away potential customers?  Not so much.

Putting It On the Clock: What’s the critical launch date of the product?  What holiday will make or break the brand’s profit this year?  How long is their special offer valid?

Weaving it Into the Competitive Dynamic: How often do we talk about the specific competitive advantage our idea will provide over Brand X?  (That being, of course, the brand they truly dislike.)  Will this give them a competitive head start?  Will it help them exploit the competitor’s weakness?

Asking for Personal Commitment: This one sounds overly simple, but when was the last time you “personalized the close?”  When you asked the customer, “I know there’s a lot more to be done, but is this something you want to happen?   Do you think this is a good idea and can you help us make it real?”

It makes no sense getting to higher level decision makers and then leaving satisfied that you had “a positive call.”  The great sellers are the ones who will think deeper about the business, challenge, and remain fearless about pushing the customer a little out of his comfort zone.  And that’s really all urgency is about.

The ABCs of Closing.

I’m fresh out of a really interesting and compelling workshop today in which we spent a good deal of time on an age-old sales topic:  closing.  To the ear of the oh-so-sophisticated and evolved digital media seller, the word may have a rather tinny ring to it.  At worst it evokes the hard-sell used car dealer asking “what would it take to put you in this car today?”  At best, it basks in the retro-afterglow of Alec Baldwin’s classic Glengarry Glen Ross cameo.  (“Third prize is you’re fired.”) But closing is not just relevant in our world, it’s an especially vital survival skill.

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Let’s start with the symptoms and the prognosis.  In digital media, there are no closing dates or air dates.  Most anything that we could run on Tuesday can just as easily run Thursday instead.  While we have the occasional dated content connection, there’s very little that systemically creates urgency.  So it’s just that much easier for buyers to sit on a decision, to let the deal drift, to offer soft, meaningless non-commitments.  Add to that the compounding issue of scale:  thousands of customers x thousands of vendors x billions of impressions = a seller with a forecasting nightmare.

In some respects it’s a self-inflicted wound.  Sellers sometimes don’t even attempt to close, preferring instead the shallow satisfaction of “a really positive meeting.” (Why spoil a perfectly good call by asking a question that might make someone uncomfortable?)  Still others water down their closing questions to the point where they become virtually meaningless. (So is this something you think you might consider somewhere down the road?As I’ve said in a previous post, this often stems from an overcautious desire to preserve “the relationship” at all costs.

But we need to start closing.  Desperately.  So here are a few practical tips to bring this dying all-too-rare practice back into play for you and your team.

A. Know what you want. You can’t close on an ask that’s not fully formed.  What exactly is it that you want this particular customer to do in this particular meeting?
B. Ask something they can say no to. If your ask isn’t something they could reject, then it’s probably too soft and fuzzy.
C. Make it personal. “Jane, is this something you personally want to do?”  “Rich, is this a decision that you personally support?”  Making it about the person across the desk is a great way of blowing away all of the abstraction and white noise.  You will know precisely where you stand.

Managers, you owe it to your company and to your team members to hold their feet to the fire and constantly practice the language of closing.  Your sellers will push back at first: closing will feel alien and mildly uncomfortable.  But who says being a little uncomfortable is a bad idea?  Your comfort zone is a place filled with non-committal, soft support and bad forecasting.