sales strategy

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.

Your Wind-Up Toy.

Your Wind Up ToyI’m devoting today’s Drift to reforming a dysfunctional relationship that plagues a great many companies and sales teams. I’m speaking of the dynamic between your sales team, your customers and your wind-up CEO and senior execs.

Here’s how it currently goes. Through no fault of his/her own, your CEO (and frequently your CMO, CRO and other key execs) is used to delivering a monologue of data and insights on your company; months or years of investor pitches, board meetings and conference keynotes will do that to you. The CEO tells the sales team to bring him on calls — he’s more than happy to help and ‘just loves to spend time with customers!’ – but once in front of clients he becomes a wind-up toy, a virtual lawn sprinkler of company facts, figures, updates and catch phrases. And once the call ends and everyone flies home, the worst thing happens: nothing.

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Because the CEO so often ends up delivering the digital executive’s version of the campaign stump speech, he neither truly hears the client nor helps advance the sales goal. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s rewind, see where things went wrong, and how they can get better.

You Were Too Deferential: Sales people are either too afraid of the CEO or just too darned grateful for his presence to dare offering any guidance on what should or shouldn’t happen on the call.   But this deference serves no one. Most CEOs are pretty self-aware and actually want to do what helps. They go into default ‘sprinkler’ mode because nobody gives them an alternative.

There Was No Plan at All: Too often, it’s even worse. There’s no strategy or rationale for the meeting other than “let’s bring in the CEO and make them feel important.” At very least the CEO should get a full briefing on who he’s meeting with, what you are asking them to buy, what issues need to be addressed, and what kind of political agendas are in play. Even better, lay out the roles that the rep and CEO need to play on the call.

The Levels Didn’t Match: If your sales people are bringing the CEO in to see the media supervisor and planner, you’ve got a problem and you need to do some level-setting. Your CEO will wonder why you’re wasting her time, and the account will think your company is pretty desperate if the CEO is out on the hustings fighting for your spot on the media plan. Big accounts, big decision makers and strategic deals. Period.

Sure, your CEO may be used to being “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral” but when she’s in the field in front of advertisers, she works for sales. And if you choose not to manage that resource effectively, you’ll get what you deserve.

Suffering is Optional.

Man Sitting In ValleyEveryone who spends time in sales ends up hitting the wall eventually.  Things feel stuck:  prospects don’t seem to be listening and buyers definitely aren’t buying.  The seller feels as if he’s swimming through Jell-O.  It’s at this point that I’m often brought in to work with sales teams.  Perhaps you’re in that place even as you’re reading this?

Any sales situation is really just an extended set of variables:  (1) price, (2) included features and services, (3) decision maker, (4) value rationale and (5) available funds.  It’s pretty much impossible to change an outcome – to unstick an account or a deal – without changing one or more of the variables.

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But when facing the wall, far too many frustrated sellers choose struggle over change; under stress, they cling ever more tightly to the familiar moves, the known patterns.  The solution, they irrationally believe, is in simply working harder; putting more of your back into it.  But this makes as much sense as repeating the same English words more loudly and clearly to someone who speaks German or Farsi and expecting them to suddenly comprehend.

OK, so what I’ve written so far is only mostly true.  Sometimes a pressured seller will try to change variables 1 and 2.  Slashing price or throwing armloads of “added value” at the deal might open things up a bit.  But the effect is shallow, temporary, unfulfilling and ultimately unprofitable.  You may convince your company to provide more goods and services for less money, but you’ve also trained your buyer that either (a) your deal wasn’t worth your initial asking price or (b) you’ll go even lower next time.

No, it’s variables 3, 4 and 5 that you really need to change.

(3) Decision Maker:  Whether out of fear or habit, the seller often sticks with the same non-responsive buyer relationship.  Bringing new decision makers into the mix seems hard, and dangerous.  But only by putting in the work and taking the risk does she shift this variable and open the account.

(4) Value Rationale:  Too often we go into the sales discovery process without a strong point of view on the value we deliver and – more importantly – how to measure it.  Instead we simply ask the buyer about their metrics and ROI yardstick and dance to their tune.  But there’s nothing wrong with telling a customer “we’ve both been looking at this the wrong way.”  Heck, I’d argue that you’re doing them a service.

(5) Available Funds:  The dirty little secret is that lack of available budget has never prevented a qualified decision maker from buying something he really wants to buy.  When you hear “our budget’s gone” it means “we just didn’t want your product badly enough.”  Suggest alternative budgets or build an argument for going back to ask for a budget increase.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Pressure is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.  And if you’re the one changing the variables in your deals, you’ll suffer a whole lot less.