sales strategy

Own It.

Whether you sell digital media advertising, online marketing programs, multichannel marketing or a sophisticated ad tech solution, one thing’s for sure:  there’s not an action, a word or a minute to waste.  Welcome to the age of intentional selling.

Living intentionally has been a long-held concept in self-help programs and books.  It means getting in really close touch with why you’re doing what you’re doing, choosing what you’re choosing.  It’s past time for those of us in this industry – and likely many others – to bring intentionality to the strategy and practice of sales.

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Consider this: Never have so many had to communicate so much complexity to buyers who’ve had so little attention and so many filters and roadblocks at their disposal. If you’re selling in our world you feel it every day: the unreturned emails and calls; the sure-thing deals that slipped away; the in-person enthusiasm followed by radio silence; the ambivalence and uncertainty in your pipeline. It’s not you… it’s the world we live and sell in today. But the solution? Yeah, that’s you. Own it.

Being intentional in your sales career isn’t impossible, but it does take discipline. Here are a few keys to help you start selling intentionally right now.

Kill Your Sacred Cows. There are a thousand tropes and maxims sales people believe and act on every day. I must go all out on every RFP every time or I might not get another one… We’ve got to take them through the general presentation so they know who we are… Let’s get everybody in a room together and work things out. Being intentional means questioning – and often rejecting – conventional wisdom.  All the statements above will lead to needless detours, delays, false positives and extra work for your team. Which you’ll never know unless you consider alternatives.

Keep it Small and Honest. I’ve said in this space before that small meetings are always better than big meetings. And it’s still true. So many reps bounce between disinterested lunch-and-learns and way-too-inclusive RFPs.  The third way is to lean into small, one-on-one talks with key customers, sometimes on the phone.  And when you’re in one of these meetings, talk about what matters. Be honest and vulnerable.  Demonstrate to the customer that you want their business and ask them for commitment.

Lead with Needs. The ultimate hallmark of intentionality is to be obsessive about solving client business and marketing problems. First. It means not wasting a meeting or a call to find out what’s going on with them. It means having a point of view… a hypothesis… an educated guess about what’s ailing the customer and how you can help them feel better. You only get one chance to start an email, a conversation, a meeting or a relationship. Start it well.

Own It. Ask yourself why you’re there and have a good answer. Like I’m in this to really try to make a difference for this client… to help them succeed. That’s what owning your own intent sounds like. And if that’s the voice in your head, you’ll be just fine.

It’s Not You, It’s Them.

Often the most profoundly true things about sales are deceptively simple.  Yet they can seem maddeningly elusive.  Like this one:

The answer to why they should buy from you can’t be about you.  It has to be about them.

Sure, we all believe in customer-centricity and starting with the needs of the customer and all that.  We just don’t act on it.

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When a customer won’t see us, or when they raise an objection or say that we’re not right for their needs, the first reaction of most sellers is to say something else about their own company.  If they’re not buying us it must be because they just don’t know enough about us!  We then tax our internal research and marketing teams for more stats and slides and research tables that amount to a collective “Are too!”

The answer to why they should buy from you can’t be about you.  It has to be about them.

This is a point in the sales process when we need to fight our own impulses to answer the objection or win the argument.  If it’s the late stage of a transactional sale, it’s too late for this to work anyway.  They’ve made up their minds and telling them they’re wrong or that they’re making a mistake will only piss them off and ruin your next chance.  Instead, it’s time to ask yourself a couple of important questions:

What is truly unique about this customer’s business or marketing situation that we can really help them with? How can we not just win some of the business but actually make their situation better?

Instead of telling yet another fragmented version of your own story, you’re telling theirs.  You’re offering them a meaningful, thoughtful exception to or extension of their own strategy.  It’s a better response to being told you’re not getting the business.  And it’s a better basis on which to pursue it in the first place.

The answer to why they should buy from you can’t be about you.  It has to be about them.

Here’s How.

Somewhere out there this morning, a seller has already been awake for hours. She’s staring at a number – her sales goal for the next several months. Her company has a solid product, not a dominant one.

Her managers try to motivate and support, but only being a year or two in management themselves they can tell her to ‘be more strategic’ but can’t really tell her 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. If you answer all or mostly “no” then it’s a C account; 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.

This post, in its original form, was first shared in January 2015.

Objection! Objection!

Technologies and publishing models change.  But sales objections are forever.  And this post from December 2014 is evergreen.

Objection ObjectionA couple of years ago in this space, I wrote about objections that we hear from buyers. More accurately, the post was about the statements that sound sort of like objections that we hear from non-buyers – those who have no intention of doing business with us, and who frankly just don’t want to face another option or have another conversation. I call these Scarecrow Objections.

This morning I want to add another bit of language to the canon: Objection of Interest. I’ve just started using this term in sales workshops and it’s proving valuable. An Objection of Interest is a (1) legitimate question or issue that’s (2) raised by a customer genuinely interested in a commercial relationship with you and (3) has the authority and means to advance the deal.   An Objection of Interest is like the bridge to a sale: if you can cross this, we can continue down the path together.

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The Scarecrow Objection, on the other hand, is not a bridge at all. It’s a parachute that allows a disinterested or non-qualified buyer to eject from the conversation. They’re not going to volunteer the fact that they’re not really interested: why would they? So they ask us rote questions about minute differences in technology or policy. Or they tell us they need a case study to prove a point. And sometimes they simply put us off with vague promises of later consideration – an RFP which leads nowhere, a buying cycle that never materializes.

My advice is to measure any objection or issue you hear from a potential customer against the 1-2-3 test outlined above. If you think it fails to meet two of the three standards (or if it does not meet the second one alone) then you’re looking at a Scarecrow Objection.   Do not waste time and energy uncovering facts or chasing down details and case studies: those are hours of your life you’ll never get back. Instead, simply qualify the objection: “If we could successfully solve that issue, would you then make the recommendation to fully invest with us?” On rare occasions, you’ll transform a Scarecrow into a legitimate Objection of Interest and create a new opportunity to sell. More often your “buyer” will show her true colors and the conversation will melt into a puddle of non-commitment.  I hope these ideas help you avoid the costly, pointless exercise of debating with a Scarecrow.

Fixing Fractions.

Swinging_strikeoutI regularly quiz my customers on fractions.  Specifically I want to know about ‘the win rate.’

Your sales organization answers dozens – if not hundreds – of RFPs every year.  You turn on the proposal machine, engage your creative and/or marketing people, and generally draw down company resources and good will in order to do battle with a fixed set of competitors.

And for what?   If you’re like others in our industry, the answer is 17 percent.  Go to market a hundred times and you’ll win 17 deals.  Be twice as good as everybody else, you’ll win 34.   So if you are awesome… you still lose two of every three times your organization competes.  If you’re OK with this – and you think your organization can live with these fractions – then stop reading now and get back to your day.  If not, read on.

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There are two ways to fix the broken fraction that is your win rate.  You can continue to try to make the top of the fraction — the numerator –- bigger.  “Let’s not be satisfied winning 34 percent of the deals!  We won’t settle for anything less than 40 percent!”  Good luck with that.  Buyers today are armed with tons of information before they ever engage with you.  And it costs them less than nothing to invite way too many companies into the competition for their business.  A buyer sending out an RFP in 2016 doesn’t even have to buy a stamp:  ‘Control/V’ puts the RFP in to your inbox.

The other way to fix your fraction is to make the denominator– the bottom number – smaller.  Simply being more selective about where, when and on what basis you are going to compete can have an outsize impact on your win rate.  Ask yourself these questions:  how many deals did we pursue last year that we now wish we’d never gone after?  What did those customers or deals have in common?  Had we screened and qualified them better, how many could we have walked away from with zero financial impact on our bottom line? What rules can we write to fix our denominator, which is almost certainly much bigger than it needs to be?

Sellers and sales leaders may reject this thinking for one of two reasons.  First there’s the belief that it’s really a volume game and the more you compete for, the more you win.  In my experience, that’s a load of crap.  Chasing flawed business just taxes your organization while adding nothing to the top line.  Then there’s the irrational fear among sellers that they’ll be somehow blackballed by buyers if they don’t dutifully submit best efforts on every single RFP.  Like most behaviors rooted in fear, this one simply doesn’t stand up either.

Swinging at every pitch does not raise your batting average.  Quite the contrary.  Bring some sanity and judgement to your process and start qualifying prospects.  The P&L you save may be your own.