A few years back I went on a sales call with a gentleman from Australia – we were making a pitch for Sales Training. The meeting was with the Sales Head of the Indian arm of a MNC.
The appointment had been arranged at short notice and we had a 15 minute slot in the busy man’s diary – the idea was to make a quick first impression.
After introductions I tried to build rapport by asking him some questions not related to business – the intention was to get to know the person better and to find some common ground. Since he is from the same part of the country as I a few questions focused on that aspect and he responded in monosyllables – the man just didn’t seem inclined to open up.
My friend diverted the conversation back to business and things went on normally; we closed the meeting promising to send him some more inputs to build our case. I did not visit that client again because this was just a one off case – the account was being managed by someone else in our team.
Post the meeting we did an analysis and my Australian friend was of the opinion that I had probably over-stepped and the client had snubbed me. It seemed so, but maybe not!
Dissecting the situation some more I came up with the following:
- Maybe my line of questioning could have been different. I had turned on the juice too much, too soon.
- This person was very business-like and liked to dominate the conversation; and here I was trying to control the conversation – he wouldn’t let that happen so early in the case.
- My Australian friend probably had a lot of experience in selling to Australian clients but he did not know India or Indians. He had not sold much here. But I did not tell him that.
My Indian readers will agree with me when I say that we ask a lot more personal questions than people from the West. I have had complete strangers ask me about my marriage and my income.
I am sure you have heard the statement “We are like that only!”
So it is OK in India to get a bit more personal than elsewhere given sufficient safeguards and limits – those who have lived or worked outside the country for extended periods of time would feel a bit uncomfortable or offended and some of the senior officials would probably not share too much information for fear of losing control.
But even they have a melting point – they are Indians after all. Just that we have to deal with each person and situation on merit and play our cards right.
It is also essential to sense check and retract if the situation is getting sticky – maybe I had tried the ploy with the wrong person on that day and used the wrong tack. It’s best to remember the context, the stage of the Sale we are at, the background and the position of the individual we are meeting.
I conclude by saying that it is essential for us to build relationship with our client in order to win business. One just needs to do it in style and in the right dose – get your foot in the door, not in the mouth!
A friend who runs a business in the IT Sector has appointed 2 young techies for the Sales & Support function.
From previous experience he knows that these guys won’t be able to make any big catches in the initial months – so they are used almost all the time for pre-sale estimates, post-sale support visits and to handle inbound queries on the phone.
Occasionally the tyros are sent out to handle sales enquiries – they take on such assignments with a lot of reluctance and almost always return empty-handed with more work for either the owner or for one of the seasoned campaigners.
These boys have a huge mountain to climb because the customers they are expected to sell to are in the Medium and Large Account categories. That means large ticket sizes and marquee deals, but it also means longer Sales Cycles, need for customisation in the Solutions and complexities in the Sales Process. It’s a bit like throwing minnows into the shark-pool with no warning.
They have sound technical skills and can deal with the problem with fairly high level of competence; but dealing with people is an absolute No-No! They do not know how to start and extend a business conversation. They are unable to ask the right questions nor can they convince the customer to buy a solution that’s on offer. They give up too soon and seem unwilling to visit senior level officials.
There is a a lot of discomfort and lack of confidence mainly on account of poor social, interpersonal and communication skills. Selling is an attitude, not just a skill.
My friend’s situation is not unique – it is a challenge faced by the market at large; there is an alarming drop in availability of sufficient talent for the Sales Function.
There are a number of other job options available in the market – Call Centres and BPOs are offering decent salaries to starters and then there is the added attraction of an air-conditioned work environment and a trendy crowd to work with. Even Event Management outfits and Caterers are able to entice people with attractive salary and perks. Modern Retail is another segment that is preferred by the young set. Most of these jobs are done indoors and entail less travel.
There is a huge drop in the the number of people interested in mainline Sales jobs that involve daily travel and 8 to 10 visits to customers per day.
Corporates and Businesses are exploring other ways to reach the prospects – there is a desperate need to maintain and improve the lead generation levels.
Some of the methods currently being added to the Sales Function
- Inside Sales – Using the telephone to generate leads and close sales. The entire process is done on the phone. This space is growing, albeit slowly, in India. But we have many Call Centres that are selling to the Western Markets.
- Inviting prospects to the office for a Demo cum Sale. Relationship Managers of Banks, Insurance and Holiday companies set up meetings with prospective clients on the phone and invite customers to visit them for a discussion.
- Leveraging the Sales Team of another organisation – some organisations are offering a fat commission to other organisations for generating fresh business – even government departments, the Postal Department is one such, have got into this game.
- Usage of intermediaries to increase the size of the catchment area – Insurance Companies have been using banks as a channel to generate insurance business; even loans and other products of their sister concerns are sold by many banks.
- The Internet and Social Media are being used to pull the prospective buyer into a sales conversation – the early part of the sale or in many instances the entire sales happens on the internet.
My friend has had to resort to appointing people with poor sales talent on account of the huge dirth of talent in the market – he is more than willing to pay for good resources, but they just aren’t available. At present, he is busy sprucing up his website to make it more attractive, informative and user friendly and considering tie-ups to improve the prospect pipeline.
The business of selling is seeing a sea change!
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It’s not enough that you say that you are good, it important to have others shouting for you? Quite often customers need confirmation either through direct verification or from a neutral / authoritative source. What steps have you taken to reassure your customers?
Demonstrations, Certifications, References and Testimonials are ways that customers get convinced about your products and services.
You might wonder why an organisation of international repute, such as Volkswagen (just to name one), needs to prove it’s worth – they have been producing quality vehicles for 100 years and sold to millions of customers; still getting a good rating by industry benchmarking organisation such as J D Power matters to them. I met a Senior Manager of the German manufacturer’s local dealer and he described in great detail how the organisation manages processes to get every step in the pre-sale, post-sale and service stages just right. Giving a demonstration to every prospective customer is compulsory and can’t be avoided and so are many such important steps that go a long way in establishing the right impression in the buyer’s mind. In fact the dealer’s earnings depend on feedback received from customers on quality of Sales & Service.
Do you remember the Marquis de Carabas character in Puss in Boots story? That was a smart ploy used by the clever cat in the story to establish the fame and stature of his master. Many weeks back I had mentioned a situation I faced during the finalization of a prestigious order. The competitor in the race for the order had used two influential customers to discredit my organisation. We almost lost the deal and clinched it by the proverbial whisker thanks to two very strong counterpunches we delivered through two other equally influential individuals.
Support from a third-party, an existing user or influential individuals make a strong case in favour of your pitch – haven’t we seen organisations using celebrity endorsements and approval from experts in the field to prove the credibility of their product or service offering.
I make it a point to get a testimonial from all the major clients I work with – it helps to convince my next customer. The feedback and appreciation left by readers at my blog go a long way in adding value to the articles I write – the anecdotes shared by readers validate the arguments presented.
What are you doing to convince the prospective clients?
- Do you actively ask for testimonials from your satisfied customers?
- Are certifications received from experts used while making presentations?
- Do you arrange with existing users to put in a good word for your solution?
- Are demos given to prospective clients to put the products through its paces?
It important that you keep an eye on relevance and number – providing too many testimonials may be seen as a sign of desperation; and it is important that you choose a client or expert who is from a similar industry to provide the backing for your solution.
In today’s competitive business environment nobody takes a risk – clients scrutinise everything and regularly ask for evidence; so sellers need to back product offerings with testimonials, references and demonstrations.
Have you got the necessary backing?
The 150th post at this blog!!
It is said that we can’t choose our parents or our Boss; we have to make do with the ones we’ve got. This article is about a 3rd category that I wish to add to the list … Our customer!
Most times we don’t have the privilege of choosing the customers we wish to deal with; the only option is to quietly accept the ones who are willing to transact business with us. Is that true?
Well, in recent times a lot of people have been beating a fiery path away from the door to rid themselves of intolerable bosses; and having done it myself, I know for sure all customers need not be accepted either.
But there are yardsticks and ground rules for this – you don’t just walk away!
Imagine meeting someone like Steve Jobs – extremely demanding, strongly opinionated, overbearing and difficult to convince (these are not my usages or deductions – I picked these descriptive terms from the articles on his persona available on the Internet). People often found it difficult to get a word in edgeways with him and one had to be prepared to answer extremely sticky questions. It was a high stress situation. But people who were able to convince the man probably walked away with deals worth millions of dollars.
On the other end of the spectrum would be someone like A K Antony, India’s Defence Minister, a man of few words and extremely slow in making decisions. He would mull over details, form sub-committees to double check every line of the contract. For him it is safety first. He does not wish to be a part of any scam or controversy. Recently when the entire country was making a huge fuss over the Army Chief’s age issue Minister Antony did not speak with the Press even once through the entire episode. You probably might sit through an hour long meeting with him and hear him speak just a few sentences. But he too has the power to give you deals worth millions.
And then you meet really sweet guys who invite you in, speak with you for hours, even take you to the Executive Canteen for a sumptuous lunch or a snack; he would include you on Facebook and LinkedIn and send forwards and photos, but at the end of the year you would remain emptiness handed. That’s when you realize that this bonhomous guy was leading you up the garden path!
Customers come in all shapes, sizes and wrappings. It’s for you to decide which one to keep and which to let go. Here are some suggestions on choosing your customer:
- The fit
Do you have a solution that meets their requirement; if not an exact fit can it be made suitable with a little bit of rework. Will you be able to provide the volumes and the service levels that they expect? Do your standards match theirs? Unless you have a good product the chances of making inroads into the account are remote.
- The opportunity
How much business can they offer you? Can they take all your produce or at least a significant amount? Are they willing to accept the price levels you set for the product? Even if you have to offer discounts are they within acceptable range? Is the business going to be commensurate with the time spent?
- The relationship edge
How badly do you want them as your customer? Would having them on your client list bring you other accounts? Can their patronage add value to your brand? You might even have to accept a deeper price-cut to get them on board but that can be made up through the extra business you win from other customers thanks to the big account’s patronage.
- The outlook
Can they offer you recurring business? Are they in a growth business? Are they seen as a leader in their industry? If they win you stand to gain too. So choose an account that is doing well and has a good future – your future is made if you continue to serve them well.
- Dealings and practices
Are their business practices good? Do they have a good standing in the market? Do they make high quality products, or at least reasonably good ones, and do all their customers get a fair deal? Are their dealings with you fair? Do they give you reasonable amount of time to fulfil the orders and they pay you on time?
- How they treat you?
Do they see you as a partner or a vendor? Do they respect your credentials and counsel? Do they keep you waiting? Do they play hard to get? Do they browbeat you into accepting their terms? Are the dealing with top Executives or a junior functionary? Do they call you for advice?
- X Factor
Is there anything you have seen, heard or felt that tells you that this is a client worth holding onto – maybe they are not big now, maybe they have not been giving you huge business in recent times but you know for sure that being on their radar will help directly or indirectly. Their industry that is on the wane presently but is expected to rebound in the near future, they are recruiting in the near future and they have a breakthrough product that is going to rule the market. These are not easy to enumerate and address logically, it’s an intuitive thing – but then huge success stories are the result of gut feelings.
We don’t have to live with the ones we have got – we can help them change and we can change too. But relationships are built on trust, values and respect; relationships last only when both sides win and all dealings are on level terms.
Barring exceptions or dire circumstances it pays to choose your customer. You are worth it!
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I am sure you have noticed how the ancient civilizations had this habit of building large fort complexes or walls around the city? The Great Wall of China is a massive remnant and in India we have brilliant examples in Delhi and Rajasthan. Impressive palaces and forts with impenetrable walls, usually built on hills with easy view in all directions and difficult to approach without being noticed.
These structures were created as safe havens – to protect the people and the wealth of the Kingdom from the enemies.
Can you create such strongholds to protect your precious revenue sources? Of course, I am speaking about your customers?
How do you ensure that all the major customers that you have nurtured and grown into regular business yielding accounts are not stolen overnight by a marauding rival?
- Create a plan
Ensure that you have a proper strategy in place to deal with the major / revenue-yielding accounts. This should then be broken down into a plan to do a series of things such as making regular visits to the account, who would meet whom, when your top management would theirs, what activities/campaigns you would conduct during the year to stay close to the customer and so on.
- Find ways to build stickiness
Can you send them information in their areas of interest? Can you talk to them about developments in your field which can benefit them? Can you introduce them to potential customers? Give them ideas to grow their business and to build their networks.
- Personalise the experience
Do things differently for this group of important customers. Can you send them an occasional hand-written Thank You note instead of the routine email? Can the stationery used for these customers be different? What other ways can you make the experience unique for this group?
- Don’t give them an opportunity to complain
Can you give them privileges not available to other customers – a separate hotline for service, faster turn-around-time for complaints / enquiries? Can the overall package of sales, service and support be provided seamlessly so that the customer has an experience that is hard to give-up and equally hard for others to replicate.
Make sure that you let your customers know that they are top-of-mind for you and conversely can you create an agenda to ensure that you are top-of-mind for them? When the talk is about the product / service you provide how do you ensure that the discussion involves you in a favorable and positive way?
How do you stop your competitor from getting a look-in at these accounts and when the customer thinks about buying again they are only thinking about you?
Have you built a wall around all your customers?
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How does it feel when a dear friend leaves town for good and you get to know only when another person tells you why he’s suddenly gone missing? Or a colleague expects you to pinch hit for her when she is on vacation and has not left any information to help you do it well?
I am sure the first is bound to make you feel terrible – you wonder why the other person had been uncaring about your feelings and you may question the value of relationships. And in the second instance you feel annoyed because the co-worker had taken you for granted and created room for errors – there is even the chance of getting (unjustly) blamed for “messing things up”.
Both these are cases of relationship lapses.
Key Account Management is essentially good Relationship Management – your first and possibly even the second sale to an account may be awarded due to good product or service values – it’s the benefit accruing from the purchase that tilts the deal in your favour. But long-term business associations are based on strong relationships. Let me repeat, at the risk of being called a parrot, that people enjoy doing business with friends. So you need to develop a strong emotional connect with your clients in order to maintain a strong repeat business inventory.
When you leave one employer and move to the next make sure that you speak with each of your top accounts and tell them what’s been planned to continue the relationship – how their life can go on without hassles even in your absence. You will do well to introduce your replacement to all the key personnel in the top accounts.
Isn’t there a win for you in this? People change jobs more often these days; there is a good chance that you may meet one or more of your present business associates elsewhere – and they would love to continue doing business with you if the relationship had been good in the past. The other benefit being that they may put in a good word to the next employer or to another business associate if you had been effective, professional and reliable.
In the second case I mentioned earlier it’s best for you to be proactive and get the necessary information from your co-worker even at the expense of disturbing a person who is on a holiday. Make the person aware of the possible pitfalls and the potential business loss due to poor relationship management. Let the person know that taking the trouble to provide the inputs will give her greater peace of mind while she is on holiday and later, when she returns to work.
If the person is not reachable you can do either of two things:
- Inform your manager that you are doing it blindly because there is no support information available. You intend to do the best possible but should not be blamed later for messing up something you were not aware of. But don’t use this as an opportunity to mess things up.
- Talk to client proactively and ask them to provide you all the support information. Without blaming your co-worker tell them that you are not aware of some details and would need their support to help take the process forward.
When you leave an organisation or go on vacation don’t ever get into a eye-for-an-eye mode and walk-away without leaving information – it can backfire on you when least expected.
Cheap thrills are short-term; relationships are for the long-term…. Make your choice!
It was a fight for Prestige. The volume of business was decent, not large, and the recurring revenues would be above average rather than fantastic.
Over a decade ago my team was in pitched battle with our only competitor, to strike a major deal with the State Government. At stake was the honor to provide mobile phone connections to the Chief Minister, his team of Ministers and the top Government Secretaries – it was just 25 connections in total. But with the contract would come crowing rights – the winner could proudly announce that they are the “Official Mobile Service Provider of the State!”
No quarter given, it was a dour struggle.
Mid–way through the campaign we were feeling pretty smug – both parties had submitted the initial proposals, then been called for negotiations, and it was learnt, based on information gathered after the two rounds of discussions and review by the Purchase Committee, that our offer was not just lower on price, but it also matched almost all the parameters listed in the RFP.
It was just a matter of time before the order was signed, sealed and delivered to us … or so we thought!
A few days before the formal letter was to be collected we heard from a source that the Review Committee had done an about turn and was now favoring our rival. Based on some new information received, the Committee decided to have another sitting because the users were high-profile and needed uninterrupted service – they weren’t taking any chances.
The reason for the review: It was “found” that we were suspect on After-Sales Service!
We were shattered – everyone, from the State Business Head down to me, scrambled to get in touch with our contacts in the Procurement Department and the Purchase Committee. We zeroed in on the “trouble-maker”. A member of the Technical committee, who even in the negotiations stage had made a strong bid to favour our competitor (he was using their service already), had been fed information that a major client had cancelled the connections taken from us and had moved over to their side. Our detractor used the news to queer the pitch for us.
We had built our case carefully at every level, but had not done anything to neutralise the threat posed by this person and that lapse had returned to haunt us. We thought he wouldn’t be able to sway the committee away from us.
While we did have a case of a Service lapse which cost us a valuable customer there were numerous instances of major organisations coming over to us from competition – but we had not used it against them during the bid and negotiations process. Our rival obviously did not believe in such niceties.
After working hard to stall the finalization of the order we submitted proof to substantiate the strength of our after-sales service – this time we did not hold anything back and a detailed presentation was made on how we were superior on every count. Service Quality Assurance was also given.
The Government Purchase committee saw merit in our pitch and finalized the entire order in our favor – to this day I treasure the photograph of me handing over the mobile phone to the Chief Minister and showing him how to use it.
We almost lost the order due to complacence. The message is that at no time during the campaign should you lower your guard and take things for granted.
Only when you have covered the bases you are ready to make the play!
“To hell with patience, I am going to kill something!” said a scrawny Vulture to the other; both perched on a petrified tree in an arid landscape.
That was just a cartoon trying to poke fun at one of nature’s toughest characters.
Isn’t it said that people often give up just short of success – a few more steps and they would be drinking sweet water from a spring; instead they give up and perish.
In Sales it pays off to be patient, and persistent!
A few days back I had mentioned that we should not waste too much time to win one big sale at the expense of the many small ones available in easy reach.
Today, I am asking you not to ignore the big ones – I only said you should not devout all your time there. They are tough to crack, but when their doors open eventually you can expect abundance. Play your cards right and you can win big!
During my various stints in the Major Account Sales I have had to work really hard to get business from extremely large organizations, some with branch offices all over the country. They were patrons of my competitors and these guys hung on for dear life because the revenues under consideration were huge – often just one account giving them 30–35% of the annual quota.
There are times when I wanted to give up. Absolutely nothing to show in spite of what seemed like a million attempts. It was frustrating.
But there was support from my team; I was advised by seniors to keep persisting – they knew. So, in spite of ZERO returns I kept plugging away.
- I would make periodic visits to make presentations
- Every year I would remind them to include my products in their purchase plan, knowing well that the business would go to my rival.
- When a senior official of my company made a visit to my branch I would take him to visit the top managers in these accounts.
- They were sent festival greetings and congratulatory messages when their organisation got any recognition.
- They were called to our Customer Meets and Special Industry Presentations.
In short, they were constantly reminded of our presence – we kept telling them how they would benefit by bringing their custom to us.
And then one day the magic happened – our competitor slipped. A large bank that was opening 5 new branches had relied on just one supplier and delay in supplies caused postponement in the inauguration of 3 branches. That meant a revenue loss for the bank and they did not take it lightly.
We were in! I had already got the news from one of my sources about the goof-up and was expecting a call. When the Purchase Manager called we kept our cool and heard him out. We knew that he had to save face and by helping him we would be in for good – he needed all the products for the 3 new branches in a short time - ranging from furniture, to storage equipment and security equipment. I’d hit the jackpot!
This opportunity could not be missed – we begged and pleaded with our manufacturing team, even got some items meant for other locations diverted to us and supplied all the items before the committed date.
It was a huge victory – the Purchase Manager thanked us for saving him from disgrace. I don’t have to say what happened afterwards.
If a Vulture can be patient, so can you …. And when the time is right you can make a killing!