Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to Sell Against a Competitor


You never want to badmouth your rivals. But there are other ways to highlight your strengths.

We live in a competitive world, and that means that you'll frequently be drawn into situations where you need to sell "against" a competitor, rather than simply selling what you've got.

There's an art to doing this effectively, according to Linda Richardson, founder of the sales training firm Richardson and author of numerous books on selling. She points out there are two important aspects to selling against a competitor.

The first aspect is very basic: Know how your offering is different from that of the competition. This is mostly a matter of doing your homework, researching your industry, and figuring why a customer might find your product more attractive than a similar offering from your competitors.

If you don't do your homework, you might as well forget it, because you're probably going to lose the sale. However, if you do know how to position your product, you can address the second aspect: guiding your conversation with the customer so that the superiority of your offering becomes clear in the customer's mind.
There are two ground rules for these conversations:
  •  Never badmouth a competitor. Badmouthing tells the prospect that you're bitter and petty. It makes the competitor look good by comparison.
  • Be honest with the customer. If you truly believe that buying from a competitor would be bad for the customer, you must communicate that belief.

At first glance, it seems that the two ground rules are mutually exclusive, but they're not. In order to satisfy both, you need to ask questions that raise questions.

Ask the Right Questions
This is a very important technique, so read closely.

Suppose you're selling for a start-up, and your competitor is a large established firm. And let's suppose you know from your research that the competitor's customer service department is often high-handed and annoying. By contrast, your firm is famously easy to work with, which is your competitive advantage.

Your challenge is to point out your competitive advantage without rubbishing the competition.

Now, you could simply claim to have "great customer service," but the competitor probably claims the same thing. You could also say something like: "Why would you want to work with those guys? They're a bunch of arrogant S.O.B.s!"--but directly criticizing the competition only makes you look as though you're afraid that the competition is going to steal your sale.

Instead, you should ask a question that gets the prospect thinking in a way that's advantageous to your marketing position. For example:
  • Prospect: "We had a meeting with MegaCorp about this problem."
  • You: "Well, they're certainly an established company. Have you talked to some of their customers about their service?"
  • Prospect: "No. Why?"
  • You: "I've heard that they have their own way of doing things. You might want to ensure they have a service culture that matches your expectations."
Note that you've said nothing negative about the competitor, but you've planted a seed that there's something wrong that warrants the prospect's attention.

Plant a Seed

Here's another example.  Suppose you're selling for a well-established, publicly held company against a small firm that's funded primarily through venture capital.

You could, of course, blurt out something like: "They'll probably run out of money, so I wouldn't buy from them if I were you."  Unfortunately, that kind of blunt approach makes you sound like a tattletale and a know-it-all.

It's much more effective to raise the issue with a well-considered question:
  • You: "Just so I can be sure to provide value, who else are you talking to about this opportunity?"
  • Prospect: "We've had a meeting with TeenyCorp."
  • You: "I've heard some good things about their product. Just out of curiosity, how does your company protect itself against risk when purchasing this type of product?"
Once again, you've said nothing negative, but you've asked a question that plants the seed that buying from the competitor could be risky. In addition, your question is likely to start a conversation that allows you to talk about the stability of your own firm.

Monday, October 29, 2012

World's Simplest Management Secret

Forget what you learned in those management books. There's really only one way to ensure that everyone on your team excels.

Management books have it all wrong. They all try to tell you how to manage "people."

It's impossible to manage "people"; it's only possible to manage individuals. And because individuals differ from one another, what works with one individual may not work with somebody else.

Some individuals thrive on public praise; others feel uncomfortable when singled out.

Some individuals are all about the money; others thrive on challenging assignments.

Some individuals need mentoring; others find advice to be grating.

The trick is to manage individuals the way that THEY want to be managed, rather than the way that YOU'd prefer to be managed.
The only way to do this is to ASK.

In your first (or next) meeting with each direct report ask:
  • How do you prefer to be managed?
  • What can I do to help you excel?
  • What types of management annoy you?

Listen (really listen) to the response and then, as far as you are able, adapt your coaching, motivation, compensation, and so forth to match that individual's needs.

BTW, a savvy employee won't wait for you to ask; he or she will tell you outright what works. When this happens, you're crazy not to take that employee's advice!

Unfortunately, most individuals aren't that bold, which is why it's up to you to find out how to get the best out of them.

And you'll never get that out of a management book.

There is no one-size-fits-all in a world where everyone is unique.

Friday, October 26, 2012

15 Perfect Sales Conversation Starters


Use these 15 questions to discover whether a prospect will buy from you before you waste time on the opportunity.

During initial conversations with a potential customer, your most important job is to find out:

A. Does this prospect really need my offering?
B. Does this prospect have money to buy my offering?
C. How would this prospect spend that money?
If you don't get answers to A and B early in the sales cycle, you run the risk of spending your valuable time developing an opportunity that's actually a dead end. And if you don't get an answer to C, the opportunity will probably get bogged down before the money can be spent.
To discover this essential information, start conversations that allow the prospect to "hold forth" on how the prospect's firm does business. Here are 15 ways to get such conversations up and rolling, based upon material the sales uber-guru Barry Rhein sent me a while back:

Assess Needs

  • What can you tell me about your organization... and yourself?
  • What do you like about what you're currently doing?
  • What don't you like about your current situation?
  • What would you like to be enhanced or improved?
  • What other options are you looking at?


Budget Allocations

  • What can you tell me about your priorities?
  • What prompted you to start this project now?
  • How do projects like this usually get funded?
  • How do you handle budget considerations?
  • How much support does this have at the executive level?


Confirm the Buying Process

  • How will you be evaluating different options?
  • What can you tell me about your decision-making process?
  • How will the funding for the project be cost justified?
  • What can you tell me about the people involved in the process?
  • What obstacles might get in the way of moving this forward?

Here's how to use these conversation starters:
  1. Cut and paste them into a document.
  2. Add enough space between them so that you can take notes.
  3. Introduce the conversation starters early in the discussion.
  4. As you get answers, fill the blank spaces with your notes.

When there are no more blank spaces, you'll not be certain that you're not wasting your time and you'll know how to turn the opportunity into a win as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

8 Easy Tweaks to Win More Customers

Spend a few minutes a day on these simple activities and you can double or triple your win rate.

Contrary to popular belief, winning more customers need not be difficult or time consuming. These simple activities take a total of about 30 minutes a day but can double or even triple your win rate.

1. Solicit More Referrals

The easiest kind of customer to acquire is one who found out about you from an existing customer. Make a list of your current customers, contact one each day (by phone, email or texting) and ask if they know somebody who could use your products or services. If the answer is yes, ask the customer to make the introduction.
Time required: 10 minutes a day.

2. Prioritize Your Prospect List

Most lists of prospects (especially purchased ones) have "junk" contacts that are likely to be sales dead ends because the contact has the wrong job title or the company is in the wrong industry. Every second spent selling to such "prospects" is a second wasted, so only contact prospect who you're sure fit the right profile.
Time required:
15 minutes a month.


3. Shorten Your Messages

Most sales and marketing messages are too long. Effective sales message consist of two short sentences: 1) a statement of what your offering means to a customer, and 2) why your product is different from the competition. Make each sentence shorter by eliminating adjectives, adverbs, opinions and biz-blab.
Time required:
1 hour total (one time).


4. Research Your Competition

Unless you want to be consistently outsold, you'd best know as much (or more) about your competitors than your customers know.  Make it a daily habit to check the website of a competitor to see what's changed (new products, financial news, open job positions, etc.) Rotate through your list of competitors and you'll never be blindsided.
Time required: 5 minutes a day.


5. Improve Your Listening Skills

Whenever a customer is speaking, listen to what the customer is actually saying, rather than waiting to pounce on the first opening to pitch your offering. Think about what the customer just said, repeat it back in summary, then add your own opinion and observations. This is easily learned, but takes a little practice.
Time required:
30 minutes (of practice) total.


6. Disqualify Leads More Quickly

Early in a customer conversation, don't look for signs that the prospect is interested.  Instead look for signs that the prospect won't buy. For example, ask "How will you handle this problem if you don't buy a solution?" A response like "We'd probably struggle along for a few more years" means you're wasting your time.
Time required:
1 minute per customer meeting.


7. Track Customer Milestones

Rather than tracking your own selling milestones, track the decisions that your customer must make in order to finally decide to buy. Arrange your schedule so that you provide the customer with what's needed to help the customer make the right decision. This is the opposite of the "hard sell" which always turns customers off.
Time required:
10 minutes a day.


8. Ritualize Your Follow-through

Many deals are lost simply because the seller dropped the ball. Whenever you make a commitment, log it in your schedule, and make certain that you do it, no matter what. Turn follow-through into your own personal religion, and your customers will gradually realize that you're always to be trusted.
Time required:
5 minutes a day.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Take Advantage of the Recovering Economy: 5 Tips

Use these five tips to adapt your sales and marketing efforts to the improving U.S. economy.

Founder Silhouette

Evidence is accumulating that (at long last) the United States is emerging from the Great Recession of 2008. Unemployment figures are down and consumer confidence is up and, according to the Brookings Institute, the U.S. is a "bright spot" in the world economy.

Here's how to change your sales and marketing approach to take advantage of these trends:


1. Make your messages more optimistic.

In hard times, buyers are cautious and even paranoid, so what works best are sales and marketing messages that emphasize the negative: avoiding risk, protecting investments, and cost-savings. When things are looking up, buyers resonate with messages that emphasize the positive: innovation, market share and revenue growth. 


2. Develop some strategic opportunities.

It's harder to make sales in a bad economy, so you've probably been focusing almost exclusively on "tactical" sales that will generate short-term revenue. As the economy picks up, you'll want to expand into harder-to-win "strategic" sales that will pay off longer term, like customers in new (to you) industries.


3. Tighten your discounting policies.

A weak economy allows buyers to call the shots, which means that in order to sell you must be flexible in your pricing. In a growing economy, though, buyers are often more concerned with making the best decision rather than the cheapest one. Don't fight a price war when your customers are looking for the highest quality product.


4. Revisit your "dead" accounts.

Chances are that you've got a list of customers who stopped buying from you because they simply didn't have money to spend any longer. Guess what? While they probably aren't rolling in dough, it's likely that money is less tight. This is the perfect time to revisit those accounts to discover if they're ready to renew the relationship.


5. Become an industry "thought leader."

As economic activity accelerates, more "noise" gets into the system. As an increasing number of sellers clamor for the buyer's attention, your challenge is to differentiate yourself to "cut through" that noise. The best way to do this is to communicate a unique and powerful vision of where your industry is headed.

Monday, October 15, 2012

5 Reasons People Fail (& What to Do Instead)

These barriers to success are easy to overcome, but only when you know they're there.
Why do some people achieve their goals while others fail? I believe it's because successful people manage to overcome five barriers that, in many cases, guarantee failure. Here are those barriers and how to overcome them:

1. Uninspiring Goals

When most people set goals, they envision a "thing," such as a particular amount of money, an object (like a new car), or a specific achievement (like writing a book). Unfortunately, these "things I'm gonna get or do" goals don't appeal to the core of what motivates you, because they miss the point that what you're actually seeking in life and work is the POSITIVE EMOTIONS that you believe those things will produce.
Fix: Rather than envisioning a "thing" as your goal, envision--with all the strength in your imagination--how you will feel when you achieve the goal. That way, you'll be inspired to do whatever it takes (within legal and ethical bounds) to achieve that goal.

2. Fear of Failure

If you're afraid of failing, you won't take the necessary risks required to achieve your goal. For example, you won't make that important phone call, because you're afraid that you'll be rebuffed. Or you won't quit your dead-end job and start your own business because you're afraid that you might end up without any money.
Fix: Decide--right now!--that failure, for you, is a strictly temporary condition. If things don't go the way you'd like, it's only a setback that, at most, delays your eventual success. In other words, accept the fact that you'll sometimes fail, but treat that failure as an unavoidable (yet vital) component in your quest.

3. Fear of Success

In many ways, this fear is even more debilitating than the fear of failure. Suppose you achieved something spectacular, like enormous wealth. What if it didn't make you happy? What then? What if you ended up losing all of it? What then? Would your friends start acting weird? Would your family be envious? Such thoughts (and they're common) can cause even a highly motivated person to self-sabotage.
Fix: Decide that you're going to be happy and grateful today and happy and grateful in the future, no matter what happens. Rather than focus on possible problems, envision how wonderful it would be to be able to help your friends and family achieve THEIR goals. (Hint: Watch the last season of the TV series Entourage!)

4. An Unrealistic Timetable

Most people vastly overestimate what they can do in a week and vastly underestimate what they can do in a year. Because of this, most people try to cram too many action items into the short term rather than spacing out activities over the long term. The inability to get all the short-term steps accomplished creates discouragement and the impression that the final goal is slipping away.
Fix: As you list the activities and steps required to achieve a goal, schedule only the 20% of the activities that will produce 80% of your results. (I explain more about this in the post The Secret of Time Management.) Beyond that, set ambitious long-term timetables, but always leave some "wiggle room" when you plan short term.

5. Worrying About "Dry Spots"

It's easy to get discouraged when you reach a point at which nothing you do seems to advance you toward your goal. For example, suppose you're trying to master a certain skill. You make swift progress at first but then, after a while, it seems as if you're not doing any better, or maybe a little worse. Some people use these "plateaus" or "dry spots" as an excuse to give up and therefore fail.
Fix: Whenever you reach a plateau or dry spot, it's time to celebrate rather than give up. A plateau is almost always a sign that you're on the brink of a major breakthrough, if you just have the patience to stick with it and trust that you'll eventually achieve your goal.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Top 6 Lies That Sales Gurus Tell

Sales training can be a big investment so best you know where they're fooling themselves (and you).
10 lies never to tell investors
Sales training is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States alone and is probably the most common type of employee training that most companies provide.
For the past ten years, I've interviewed well over 100 sales trainers, from firms big and small. Most of them are wonderful, upbeat, positive folk, but...some have a tendency to tell whoppers when they talk about the services they provide.
To be clear, I don't think that the sales trainers themselves realize that they're telling lies.  They're communicating ideas and concepts that they truly believe but which, in my view, don't correspond to reality.
Here are the six most common lies:

1. We did real scientific research.

Many sales gurus claim to base their techniques on exhaustive research. In most cases, the "research" consists of anecdotes resulting from previous sales training engagements.  Usually, when there is some kind survey involved, the sampling is usually too small to be of any scientific validity.

2. We can create sales stars.

Many sales gurus claim that their techniques and tools will allow average-performing salespeople to sell as much as top-performing salespeople. In fact, sales training usually provides incremental improvement, turning average salespeople into above-average, no higher.

3. We studied best practices.

The lie here isn't that they haven't studied successful organizations in successful companies, but that the "best practices" that work well inside one firm will automatically work as well in another. In fact, most sales environments tend to be idiosyncratic, because every firm must address its customer's needs uniquely.

4. We teach the latest techniques.

Give me a break. While there are a few exceptions, almost every sales training program in the world is some variation of the 1970s concept of "solution selling." The training firm may trick the concept out with some fancy new terminology (e.g. "The Challenger Sale"), but most of the time it's the same-old, same-old.

5. We can motivate your troops.

The truth is that nobody can motivate anybody else because motivation comes from inside. It is possible to set the conditions so that it's easier for people to motivate themselves, and you can suggest ways for people to get themselves more motivated, but a rah-rah keynote is of value only as entertainment.

6. We customize to match your needs.

Every sales training firm provides some level of customization. However, most sales training firms specialize in a particular aspect of selling and thus tend to build programs that address that aspect. Remember: to a guy with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
This is not to say that sales training doesn't have value. Quite the contrary, I've observed that sales training often has a faster ROI than investment in new technology. I recently discussed some of these issues (and how to avoid getting taken in) during a webinar hosted by AchieveGlobal. You can find a recording of the webinar HERE.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Train Employees to be Exceptional: 5 Rules

These simple principles ensure that your firm gets real value out of any training program.
Companies spend billions of dollars a year on training. Unfortunately, a lot of that training is simply wasted effort, according to sales guru Duane Sparks. A while back, he gave me a set of principles or rules for training employees. Our conversation was mostly about sales training, but it applies to any kind of training. Here are those rules:

1. Teach Skills Not Traits

Rather than trying to change the personality of the individual, focus on training skills that can be taught and learned.
For example, suppose you're responsible for a field engineer whose duties entail going on customer calls. If she is naturally introverted (a trait) don't try to convince her to be more extroverted (a trait) in order to help you sell. Instead, train her how to listen actively (a skill) and how to use terminology customers will understand (a skill).

2. Teach the Appropriate Skill

Only teach employees skills that you're certain will produce tangible results, within the context of that employee's job.
For example, if a sales team consists of hunters (who find new business) and farmers (who develop existing accounts), it's wasteful to train everybody on the team on cold-calling techniques. Limit such training to the hunters and provide training in other skills (like account management) to the farmers.

3. Reinforce and Support the Skill

Whenever you train a skill, provide multiple opportunities to check on how well that employee is executing that skill and provide coaching as necessary.
Learning a new skill entails making it into a habit. Unfortunately, doing so usually involves overcoming existing habits, which is inherently difficult. Coaching allows you gradually reinforce the skill and overcome the habits it replaces.

4. Implement Skill-based Metrics

There are no truer words in business than "What gets measured gets done."  If you really want employees to integrate a skill into their day-to-day performance, you must, must, must measure the results of the application of that skill.
For example, if you're providing training on some aspect of your sales process, you should measure the conversion rate at that stage of the sales process, rather than just measuring the total revenue that's booked at the end of the quarter.

5. Consistently Measure Progress

If you do all of the above, you should be able to watch the metrics improve as the new skill becomes second nature. If you don't get the expected improvement, there's something wrong. Either you've been training the wrong skill or not providing enough reinforcement and coaching.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Do Your Employees Know What They're Talking About? (And What You Can Do About It)

You must demand the highest level of knowledge from your salespeople--and train them to make that happen.


Yesterday I went to a store that specializes in mattresses to purchase a mattress pad.  One of the three sales associates took me to see the hypoallergenic pad I asked about, and on the packaging of the display sample, I noted that it was available in the size I needed.  When I asked to order it, the woman helping me told me that it did not come in the size I wanted.  Pointing out that the label showed the manufacturer indeed made that size, I was again met with denials by another associate who could not find it in the computer.  In a failed attempt to make the sale, she suggested that the standard size would do just fine because it was only "a few inches shorter."  I was frustrated by the associates' lack of information about the products and--after I checked online that the right size did exist--I thought carefully about the importance of knowledge in growing a business.

So if you have not thought about your knowledge management process lately, it's time to get on it.  Here's what I mean.

Knowledge is king.
As business owners, it is our responsibility to be sure that anyone who represents our companies is well-trained.  Not one of the three mattress associates I mentioned knew enough about the product to be working in the store--and, as a result, the company lost a $150 sale. Given the current state of the economy, businesses, especially small ones, cannot afford to let that happen.  You can have the nicest sales people in the world, but if they don't know your product, they are simply useless.  For my company, this means an incoming rep will spend weeks learning the products--ours first, then our competitors'.  She will be taught, quizzed, observed, and tested on these products.  She will be asked to write comparisons between our products and similar ones available elsewhere.  She will be asked to role play problem encounters where using product knowledge is the only way to resolve the situation. All of this will happen before she can ever speak to a customer.  Whether the new hire comes to us with "industry experience" or not, there is no exception to this training.  We ask her to start over and learn everything from the ground up, so there are no gaps, no misconceptions, and no misinformation.  The reality is: the only way an unknowledgeable rep makes it to a selling floor is if the business owner has not made product education important enough in the training process, or if he is not doing follow-up to make sure his reps use the knowledge they're expected to learn.

It's not just what you know, but how well you know it.
Face it.  The information age has changed the way we process knowledge.  We now rely heavily on technology to tell us what we know.  Unfortunately, the down side to this is that we often don't truly learn information anymore.  We read it, use it, and lose it.  Take the example of the sales associates at the mattress store.  They insisted that the product I wanted did not exist because it was not in their computer system.  At some point, someone probably showed them these products and assumed they had learned them, but clearly that was not the case.  Reps should be monitored on a regular basis to guarantee that they did not do a cram session during Product Knowledge 101 in order to graduate to the selling floor--only to quickly forget all the information they studied.  It's every good business owner's responsibility to constantly check in with her sales team to see how employees use the instruction they have been given.  I ask customers for feedback on my reps, do frequent review sessions on important concepts, and listen to calls in order to hear firsthand exactly how good a rep is at conveying product information. 

Learning never ends.
Any salesperson who does not actively try to learn more at all times is not worth keeping.  A great rep should be reading industry publications, asking customers questions, keeping up with competitor innovation, and integrating all that she learns into her daily interactions.  As business owners, it is in our best interest to inspire and even incentivize this continued learning.  When one of my reps learns new information that could be useful to the company as whole, she tells all our team members about it.  If she wants to find out more about a new tool or product, she is given the go-ahead to take a class, do research, or just about anything else that will help her get the knowledge she needs--even during company hours.  At the end of the year, the reps who get better bonuses and bigger raises are the ones who have learned the most about our products, who have sought opportunities to acquire more product knowledge, and who have questioned insistently.
So when you think about knowledge management and how your company handles it, remember this: You have to demand the highest level of knowledge from your salespeople, and the highest level of training and encouragement, to make that happen.