What is the biggest barrier to coming up with a customer-based marketing strategy?

Most of my work over the latter years has been around helping organisations to generate profitable revenues by doing a better job of addressing customer needs.  In the course of my work I spend a lot of time with the folks responsible for marketing and sales.

One of the exercises that I do is to get the right people from customer touching functions such as marketing, sales and customer services in a workshop.  And then I guide the folks through a structured SWOT type process for each significant customer segment.

The process starts of by asking the people in the room to identify what matters to the people in that customer segment.  What are the jobs that these people are hiring the company’s ‘products’ to do for them?  And what are the key outcomes that matter to the customers.  This is terminology that is not typically familiar to the people in the room so there is some tension in the room. At some point someone in the marketing function will say “Aha, you are talking about customer needs!” and everyone relaxes.

Then the answers come. Almost always the top five tend to be: brand, product, quality, price, and service.   Not particularly useful and I have learnt not to challenge people at this stage. So, I ask the people around the room to allocate 100 points between these five needs.  This is where the fun starts .  First, people really struggle to allocate weights to these five needs. And second, there tends to a lot of predictable disagreement.  Marketers rate brand and quality highly.  The Sales folks rate product and price highly.  The folks from Customer Services tend to rate quality and service highly. And if there is senior, dominant, person in the room then slowly the people in the room come around to his/her way of thinking and weighting these top five needs.  Notice something?  How confident would you be that the people in the room are providing you with an accurate picture of what matters to customers?

Next, I ask the folks sitting around the large conference table to identify their key competitors. And once they have done so I create a grid.  The columns are the company and its key competitors.  The rows are the top five needs usually brand, product, quality, price and service.  Now I ask the people in the room to evaluate how each of the competitors is doing in terms of meeting these five customer needs by giving marks out of 10. Once again the fun starts.  People really struggle to come up with weighted answers.  And there is considerable disagreement between people.

By the time we get to this stage the people around the room sigh a collective relief as if to say “Wow, that was hard work.  We are so relieved that this is over and done with.”

At this stage I am hoping for someone to say “Going through that exercise has made me realise that I/we know so little about what matters to our customers.  And how we compare to our competitors on what matters to our customers, as seen through the eyes of our customers.  So we should go and get better answers by conducting research, talking with customers, talking with the people on the front line who actually are in touch with customers on a daily basis.”  This rarely happens.

Instead, the people around the room have an air of assurance.  They are visibly convinced that they know what matters to their customers. And how they compare to their competitors. It is as if the hard work of the exercise that I have taken them through hypnotises them into believing that the answers they have conjured up have to be true, are true.

So the biggest barrier to coming up with a powerful customer based strategy is simply this: ignorance and prejudice masquerading as knowledge/understanding of customers.  The failure of people to say “We don’t know what really matters – jobs, outcomes, needs – to our customers.  We don’t know how customers prioritise these jobs-outcomes-needs.  We don’t know how our customers see us in comparison with our competitors.  Let’s go and find out.”

B2B: can you help me figure out why B2B sales folks do what they do?

A little about me

I have spent most of my working life working in the B2B space: auditing/accountancy, corporate recovery, management consulting, IT professional service and marketing services.  And there is something that I have noticed during the latter years that was not present in the earlier years.

How the B2B sales and B2B buyer dance tends to work out 

Here is what has happened more often in the latter years.  The B2B sales guy is courting the B2B buyer and the buyer makes sure that the sales guy knows that he is only one of a number of people courting the buyer.  What does just about every B2B sales guy (that I have worked with / come across) do? The one that expends (and wastes) the least effort just drops his price to the absolute minimum he can get away with.  The most wasteful one has his organisation put in a ton of effort educating the buyer, coming up with shiny objects, detours/side shows, and in the end drops his price to the absolute minimum.

When he wins he is delighted, it is something to show the folks (that matter) back at home.  The people back at home are rather simple and confuse revenue with profitability.  They don’t even think of cash-flow.  When he does not win he tends to say that the other guy won because he offered the lowest price: “we are just not price competitive enough!”

Once the delight of the win fades, reality hits home – at least to the team that has to deliver on the promise.  It soon becomes clear that it is not possible to deliver what has been promised and make enough of a profit on the work.  Here it goes one of two ways.  Either the least investment is made – people, time, effort – to get the job done so that it is done just good enough.  Or the pressure is placed on the delivery team to work long hours (not bill them) and deliver a great job.

What is the thinking about doing a great job?  This usually happens when the piece of work is being done is the first piece of work for a new customer.  And there is the carrot of a lot more work to come.  The organisations management (including the sales guy) is convinced that doing a great job will secure a promising future.  A future where the B2B sales guy has the upper hand: he can charge higher (more realistic prices) and win a steady flow of big piece/s of work usually termed “implementation”.

Welcome to the ‘dark side’ of the human condition

What actually happens?  Before I spell that out let me just remind you of the darker side of human beings. In particular what I call the ‘four prime directives of the dark side’:

  1. Look good, avoid looking bad;
  2. Be right, avoid being wrong;
  3. Strive for control and dominate, avoid losing control and being dominated;
  4. Justify self, invalidate others.

Back to the B2B sales/buyer dance and how it plays out

Back to my question, what happens?  The buyer wants to continue looking good and is at pains to avoid looking bad in the eyes of his boss, his organisation.  So he insists on getting a discount on the existing price he is paying in order for him to reward further and usually larger pieces of work to the B2B sales guy.

The buyer insists he is right, he is being reasonable.  Loyal customers (like him) should get a volume discount isn’t that what loyalty merits?.  The B2B sales guy explains that he dropped his prices to ‘cost’, even made a loss, on the expectation of higher prices for the follow on work when value had been demonstrated.  What happens?  The B2B buyer justifies himself, his stance! And proceeds to invalidate the B2B sales guy’s perspective.

During the whole encounter “negotiation” (which can be from days to months) the B2B buyer is determined to be in control and dominate the B2B sales guy and avoid being controlled/dominated (taken for a ride) by the B2B sales guy.  After all, he got to do it the first time and the B2B sales guy was ok with it.  Why change now?

Now what happens?  The B2B sales guy caves in and gives the buyer pretty much what he is asking for.  What drives his action?  Fear, the fear of looking bad in his organisation and the desire to look good.  The folks back home are not that sharp: they will rejoice in the revenue and not look too hard on the margin on the piece of work that has been won. And of course, the long hours (with no pay for the extra work) will be worked by the guys who deliver stuff.

And the same cycle repeats itself in the next sales encounter especially if it is a ‘brand name’ that is well known and thus highly valued by the organisation: a brand name that gives bragging rights.

Somewhere in the organisation is a finance guy (like me – I qualified as a chartered accountant many years ago) is wondering why the folks in the organisation are doing what they are doing.  Why are you guys selling valuable people/skills/expertise so cheaply and thus giving up revenues that are needed to invest in and grow the business – the people, the methodologies, the thought leadership, the tools..?

What I have to say about the B2B sales/buyer dance

I am not an expert in sales and yet I have done selling and account management.  Arguably, you might say that I know a thing or two about people and negotiations.  And I say to the B2B sales guy, your leverage is right at the start.  You have to position yourself and your organisation correctly right at the start by genuinely creating value for the buyer right at the start.

When I say creating I mean creating value – not talking about creating value.  I mean being/living/embodying the value.  How?  Here are some ways I have gone about it and that have worked for me:

1. Take and demonstrate a deep interest in the company, the industry and the markets that the company operates in.  That often means showcasing a good grasp of the history of the company and where it has got to be.  This is not easy, it takes time and requires real dedication.

2. Use the work that you have done to generate insight into the situation that the company is facing and the options that are available to the company.  Explore those options with the buyer (and his colleagues) by facilitating a workshop (or two) to explore the options and their implications.

3. Take the buyer (and his colleagues) through concrete examples of how exactly you/your organisation have addressed that kind of situation/issue/problem, the hurdles that came up along the journey, where they came up, why they came up, how they were addressed or not, the outcome and lessons learned.

4. Take the buyer (and his colleagues) as concretely as possible through the journey he/his organisation is going to go through.  Help him to visualise the assets he/his organisation has.  Help him visualise the obstacles that are there already and the ones that are likely to show up given his organisation/his unique situation.  Work with him to develop ways that you/your organisation and he/his organisation can work together to handle/overcome them.

I hear you say that this is a lot of work.  I agree, it is a lot of work.  I hear you say that this is simply not possible because you situation is such that you are not allowed to meet the buyer (and his colleagues) to do what I propose as the whole process has to be done at arms length.  I say that when that has been the case I have made it clear that the price of my participation in the game is access (one or two workshops) to the buyer  and the key people who are party to the issue at hand and addressing it.  And where this has not been granted I have walked away.

As a result of the time/effort that I have taken and the value that I have created, I have had the confidence and desire to charge the right price. The price that goes with the value that I have created (already) and am committed to bringing to the customer when I take him on as a customer.  Put differently, when I have done it right, like I know it can/needs to be done, I have not had to discount my price to win the work.

It might just be that I do what I do because first and foremost I have the being of an educator, a coach, an advisor. .  And I have never been put through ‘sales school’ and come out as a sales person.  What do you say?  What is your experience?

And can you please help me understand why B2B sales guys do what they do – again and again?  Why do they continue doing what they do and yet expect a different result each time?

Generating revenue: are these the 14 questions to ask your customers?

I say that the customer experience movement is, or should be, about  creating superior value for customers and making customers feel valued.  Why?  So that they stick around longer, buy more and get people in their networks to do business with your organisation.  Put differently, the focus on customer experience must at some point show up in revenues and profits.  Else, it is not sustainable.

How does one go about generating more revenue and improving profits? How about asking the following questions of your customers:

I wish to give credit where credit is due: I have taken the work of Kristin Zhivago as shared in Roadmap to Revenue and added/modified it so that it fits with my experience and my style.   If Kristin’s book interests you (in my view it should) then you can read my review here.

Sales: are you cultivating desire when you should be focussing on dealing with skepticism?

The situation:  buyers are interested in what you have to sell and yet you are failing to sell

Situation 1: You have a website and you get your fair share of visitors to that site.  You don’t have to pay much to get them to your website as they come naturally via Google.   Your website is not an entertainment destination and you are not in an ‘entertainment type of business’.  So you can be confident that the bulk of the folks coming to your website are clearly interested in what you are offering.  You have an attractive proposition.  So why is it that only a small percentage of interested buyers actually buy from you through your website?

Situation 2: I was with a client this week and some of the folks there shared their frustration.  What is their frustration?  They they have a set of inter-related jobs that need doing and they need a ‘solution’ that does these jobs.  So they invited in a well know brand whose marketing claims to provide just the solution.  Several meetings (including demos) have taken place and my client has yet to see the ‘solution’.  To date the client has listened to lots of talk and sat through poor demos of products that the sales reps claim can be knitted together to create a solution. My client remains unconvinced and is totally unimpressed – he hasn’t even been told what the total cost of this ‘solution’ is likely to be.

What does Kristin Zhivago (Roadmap to Revenue) have to say on this?

I recently wrote a post praising Kristin Zhivago’s book Roadmap to Revenue.  As I was grappling with the question “Why do websites and sales folks fail to sell despite being in front of interested buyers?” Kristin’s wisdom came into my mind.  And that is the wisdom that I wish to share with you (and I don’t use the word ‘wisdom’ lightly):

“When someone sets out to buy a product or service, they bring two antithetical emotions to the process: desire and skepticism.  Desire compels them forward, skepticism yanks them back.

They desire certain product/service attributes.  They desire a smooth buying process, including friendly, helpful sellers, straight forward and reasonable pricing and an easy way to examine the product and compare the product with other choices.

Their skepticism comes from past experiences with sellers who promised good products and exceptional service but who delivered disappointing results.  The product or service was substandard.  The buying process was uncomfortable, confusing or difficult.  Customer service didn’t help.

Reading copy on websites, you’d think that 1) buyers have no desires and 2) buyers are not skeptical.  For some reason, marketers and website copywriters completely ignore these two realities.  The copy treats the customer as if he had to be encouraged to spend money – when, in fact, most people spend every penny they can. “

Kristin goes and elaborates on this critical theme (p115):

Desire is what starts the person on his buying process.  However, as soon as he begins the buying process, his skepticism kicks in.  The more expensive and complex the purchase, the greater the scrutiny that the customer will apply to the purchase.

The answers the customer seeks must be easily accessible on the website.  And if the buying proceeds to the next stages, the company representative must be available – and able – to answer the customer’s questions.

All companies, small and large, in every industry, don’t get this right.  They behave as if they want your business, but when you come to them, eager to buy, they behave as if your business doesn’t matter to them.  They don’t help you take the next step.”

Desire brings the customer to your website.  Once there, he doesn’t need anyone to stoke the fires of his desire.  He needs the website to allay his skepticism. He needs your website (or a salesperson) to answer his questions so he can decide if the product or service is going to solve the problem.”

Then Kristin lays it out on the table for all to see clearly and get present to what is so:

“A sale is what happens at the very end of the customers’ buying process.  Marketers typically focus all their efforts on the beginning of the buying process.  They think that what happens at the later stages of the buying process and after the sale, is someone else’s responsibility.”

Is this issue only limited to smaller less sophisticated companies?  This is what Kristen has to say on the matter:

Big companies also fail to support the latter stages of the buying process.  One of the largest companies in the world runs clever commercials showing people getting their business problems solved by the large company.  But  when the customer actually decides that the large company might be able to meet is need, he goes to the company website – and his buying process is stopped dead in its tracks.  He can’t figure out where to start.  There is nor relationship between those clever commercials and the products and messages on the company’s website.  There is no easy way to figure out whom to contact.”

What does Kristin advise?

“We have all set out to buy something and have soon become discouraged from doing so.  Our skepticism – and or our inability to find exactly waht we wanted – forced us to abandon the effort…This is one of the reasons to map out the entire buying process for our product or service, from the initial desire all the way through the purchase, and beyond, including customer support. From the customer’s perspective, all phases of the buying process are important.  Customers are just as likely to ditch the process near the end as they were at the beginning…..”

Final thoughts 

Would you buy a car without actually sitting in it, driving it and talking with (even if that is via social media) others who have already bought that car and lived with it or several months?  So why do you expect our customers to do what you would not do yourself?

From where I stand and view the world, based on lived experience, it occurs to me that Kristin speaks ‘truth’ – she has identified what is so.  Too much focus on cultivating desire and little or no consideration on addressing the skepticism by answering the questions honestly/accurately.  Too much focus on messaging, telling and making loft claims and almost none on professionally demonstrating the solution AND showing such a solution in actual operation.

An invitation, an offer – do you want to get a free copy of Roadmap to Revenue?

I think so highly of Kristin’s expertise captured and shared in her book Roadmap to Revenue that I asked her if she would be happy to send me a copy that I can offer you free.  She agreed and I have that book in my possession.  So here is my invitation, my offer:

I have one FREE copy of Roadmap to Revenue and I will post it to the first person who sends me an email asking for it.  I have one request – please only ask it if you are going to read it / make use of it.  If you know that you are not going to do that then leave it for one of our fellow human beings who will use it and get value out of it.  A useful book should not be left sitting on the shelf!”

Want to grow your business? Build a Roadmap to Revenue – sell the way that customers buy!

Why are you focussing on the Customer Experience?

Isn’t the answer something like:

  • turn more of the people who have a need for and/or an interest in buying the ‘products’ you are selling into customers of yours;
  • increase the happiness of the people who have bought from you (customers) because you have made it easy for them to buy what they are looking to buy.  And because what you sold them does the job they expect it to do for them / enables them to arrive at their desired outcome.  And because the experience of using your ‘product’ matches and/or exceeds their expectation; and
  • helps you to get more interested buyers to turn up at your store and/or website (without heavy marketing spend) because they have heard good, even great, things about you from the people who have already bought from you?

How exactly are you going to find out what matters to your customers and convert that into a roadmap?

The question is how exactly are you going to find out what really matters to your customers and then convert that into roadmap that helps the people who are in the market to buy (buyers) to buy from you rather than your competitors?  That is the answer that Kristin Zhivago has answered comprehensively in her book Roadmap to Revenue.   Roadmap to Revenue is a book that speaks to me, it occurs to me as being grounded in experience (not theory), speaks/points at the ‘truth’ as shown by experience and is useful/actionable.  What makes that good?

The tag line for the book says it best “How to sell the way your customers want to buy”.  In this book Kristin lives up to what she preaches in the book – she delivers on the promise set out in the tagline.  Roadmap to Revenue provides a actionable, pragmatic and robust method (and tools and tips) for generating insight into customer needs (as buyers) and converting this into an actionable roadmap for giving giving customers (buyers) what they are looking for and thus growing you revenues.

The skeleton upon which the book hangs, the heart of the book, is the Roadmap to Revenue method that consists of three steps:

DISCOVER is concerned with figuring out how to make buying easier for the people (buyers/customers) who would benefit from the ‘products’ you are selling.  Kristin gets that there are various ways of getting at this insight including interviewing employees, conducting focus groups and using social media.   She also gets their limitations.  Based on that understanding and the kind of actionable insight customer interviews provide, Kristin strongly advocate interviewing existing customers to get at buyers needs and experience.  Furthermore, Kristin is clear that these interviews should be carried out over the phone, not face to face.  Why?  Because, our customers are that much more open, more honest, more disclosing when this interviewing happens over the phone.  If you have questions/doubts then think back to the faux pass Barclays made in asking me for my feedback face to face.

DEBATE involves the key players in your organisation to take part in conversations where they discuss, analyse and prioritise the feedback provided by your customers in the earlier Discover step.  The objective is to come to an agreement on the “essence of your promise to your customers” (in my framework I refer to this as the value proposition) and to determine which buying category your ‘product’ falls into so that later you can determine/get to grips with the customers buying process.  Kristin recommends a 2 day offsite “Brainstorming and Planning Meeting”  to do the work that is necessary in this step.

DEPLOY involves taking all that you have learned and turning that into a “Buying Process Roadmap” for each of the distinct ‘products’ that you are selling.  This map will show: the different stages of the customers buying process; they concerns that show up at each stage; the actions they take; the questions that customers are asking/grappling with,;the answers that satisfy them; and the best tools for providing those answers.  Once the Buying Process Roadmaps have been constructed it is time to put together the “Revenue Growth Action Plan”.  This is the implementation plan which sets out what you are going to do to improve what needs to be improved, to fix whats broken, to create what is needed and is not there……

Highlights from Roadmap to Revenue

Here’s a truncated list of the stuff that jumped out at me, resonated with me, created value for me:

1. “In order for you to sell, someone needs to buy.  If you make it easy they will buy from you.”  This is the essential concept out of / from / on which the entire book is constructed.

2. “The fundamental problem: When you thinking like a seller, you’re not thinking like a buyer.”  I absolutely love this oneWhy?  It is the ‘disease’ that infects just about every Customer initiative and the people who are infected cannot see that they are infected!  So any ‘customer-centricity’ is always driven by the needs and vantage point of the seller and selling. 

3. “Nothing gets the attention of a customer or prospect more than giving them what they want”  Why?  Because most sellers don’t give buyers what buyers are looking for and want in order to buy.

4. “There are dozens – even hundreds – of ways to market your product or service.  Only your customers can tell you how they want to buy what you sell.” People inside your company are so disconnected from buyers that they fall for whatever is the latest fad (think social media) or the most convincing salesperson.  They forget that the right person to ask is the buyer – only she can give you access to her world.  Only she can help you to find the right ways to market your ‘product’.

5. “If the CEO isn’t speaking up for your customers, there’s nothing that anyone else can do – regardless of their position – that will turn the company into a customer-centric organisation.”  I absolutely love this as it speaks to my experience of what is so within organisations and why most customer-centric efforts wither.

6. “Branding is the promise that you make.  Your “brand” is the promise that you keep.”  How many brand marketers really get that?  How many CMO’s get that?  How many Tops get that difference?  That small difference is the difference that makes a difference – the difference between the sellers perspective and the buyers perspective.

7.  “If the product or service is substandard, the word will get around.  Marketing won’t be able to save it.  The Roadmap to Revenue system is designed to get people together with good products and services, not to trick people into buying bad products and services.”  How much of current business practice is the latter – focussed on tricking people into buying ‘bad’ products and services?

8.  “The critical characteristic is the function that is so important to the customer that it compels the customer to buy the product.”  This reminds me of the needed to focus, to keep present to the 20:80 rule – to concentrate on that which really matters and do that excellently.

9.  “Perception is reality.  More specifically, your customers’ perception is your reality.” That is the way that organisations should work.  And almost every single one that I have interacted with, worked for/with, consulted with does not practice this.  The default condition in organisations is the opposite – it is the reality of the people (with power) in the organisation whose reality counts everyone else is mistaken including customers!

10.  “Desire is what starts the person on his buying process.  However, as soon as he begins the buying process, his skepticism kicks in.  The more expensive and complex the purchase, the greater the scrutiny that the customer will apply to the purchase.”  Why?  This is clearly spelt out in this aptly titled post by Kristin: Why Do Buyers Agonize?  Because Sellers Lie and Minimize.

Final words and disclosure

Kristin has written a gem of a book and I wholeheartedly recommend that you put this on your reading list.  I’d go further and say don’t do what I did: buy it from Amazon and have it sit on my Kindle for a month or so.  I am grateful for Kristin for sending me a physical copy (free) and inviting me to review it on this blog.  It is only when the physical copy turned up that it got my attention and I started reading it.  Once I got started I had to read it all as I found it that insightful, that useful.  If you do read it and don’t get value out of it then I’d love to hear from you!

Klassic Books: an excellent example of how not to write an email requesting help

You might have guessed this and if you have not then I can tell you that I am a prolific reader.  As such I tend to buy more than my fair share books and most of the time I am good at leaving reviews for booksellers.  My thinking: put something into the game, help people out (buyers) and reward good behaviour by booksellers.   It just so happens that I have been particularly busy this month and so have not kept up to date with that which needs to be done including writing reviews. Most of the time when I get a reminder I act on it.  Then I got this reminder – asking for feedback – and it instantly it got my back up.  Why?

How did this email land for me?

Here is the email that I received from Klassic Books – please note that I have highlighted certain parts of the email (the original email was not highlighted):

“Dear Mazafer Iqbal,

As informed to you earlier,  your order number 202-3674826-8273966 for book titled ” I am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj”  placed with KLASSIC Books at Amazon.co.uk has already been delivered to you.

We once again request you to leave your valued feedback on this purchase. To leave feedback, go to http://www.amazon.co.uk/feedback  and sign in with your e-mail address and password. When you find this order, click the ”Leave feedback” button.

As we are a new seller, a positive feedback from you shall help us become a valued seller on Amazon.co.uk

We look forward to another  opportunitity to serve you again.

Regards,
Klassic Books”

So let’s just take a closer look.  I buy a book from Klassic Books via Amazon and as such I enter into a contract: I pay for the book and Klassic Books agrees to send me the book I ordered and that book has to confirm to the listing (new, used etc).  That contract was fulfilled when I received the book within the agreed timescale and the book was in perfect condition.  I am not obliged to do any more.

Leaving a review for this seller or any other seller is a DISCRETIONARY effort on my part. Does the writer of this email from Klassic Books get that?  Does he/she have any understanding of human beings as human beings?  I don’t think so – the email has ‘ruined’ a good experience and left a sour taste in my mouth such that I have no intention of buying anything from this seller.  Why?  Because there email, lands in my world, as both a telling off (for not responding to their first email) and an order to leave a review this time!  Also, it is all about Klassic Books – not about me, not about a worthy cause/mission, not about creating or contributing to a ‘better world’.  Finally, it lacks any sign of that human touch.  And the word “opportunity” is misspelt – a sin that is all too common (include me in here) when it comes to email.

The lesson

If you want a customer to help you out then take time to craft the communication such that it lands positively in the customers world.  Whatever you do, do not make it sound like you are giving orders and/or telling the customer off.  None of us likes to be ordered around and told off.  Why?  We intrinsically value autonomy – being ordered around violates that need/drive for autonomy.  The telling off violates our sense of self worth, self-esteem, dignity – it puts us back into the classroom being told off and feeling humiliated, in front of the class, by an oversized ego called Teacher.  We didn’t like it then and we don’t like it now.  Incidentally, this is why most performance reviews, over the longer term, destroy relationships, intrinsic motivation and performance.

Some questions worth pondering?

How much of your communication lands in your customer’s world as:

  • you talking about your self and your needs (like the Klassic Books email)?
  • you selling stuff that is simply irrelevant to the customer’s situation and needs?
  • to hard to read due to the design (layout, text, fonts….) and so is not read?
  • incomprehensible because you use complex words and industry jargon that leaves your customers confused?
  • snake oil as your claims seem overblown / far fetched / too good to be true?
  • incomplete – not providing all the information that the customer needs to make a decision, to move forward?

Finally, how much of your communication ruins the customer experience and thus incentives your customers to stop doing business with you?

Why ‘sales gurus’ and CRM systems can’t increase your sales effectiveness

The other day I read another ‘sales guru’ offering his sales elixir and have written this post to debunk  these elixirs.

In the land of B2B selling there is real pain.  Whenever people are in pain they turn to the ‘gurus’ to give them answers.  And there are plenty of ‘gurus’ selling their particular elixir.  In the process companies have spent many millions on training, methodologies, negotiation skills and CRM systems.  Yet, the task of B2B selling has not become easier and the sales folks have not been raised to new heights of sales effectiveness.  Let’s take a deeper look at the issues and associated elixirs.

CRM systems make life harder for the folks at the sharp end

The theory and the rhetoric is that CRM systems make the people actually doing the selling more effective and efficient. The reality is almost the opposite: the sales folks spend time entering data into a system and get little value out of it.  The CRM system does not magically offer better customer insight (needs/wants), nor automatically select the right product/solution.  And it certainly has no influence on how well the sales folks interact with prospects: answering their questions, addressing their concerns, negotiating and closing the sale.  Most CRM systems end up diverting productive time into admin activities.  Allow me to elaborate a little.

The problem with most CRM systems is that it is quicker for me to get the details of my prospect from Outlook than the CRM system. And it is quicker for me to scribble down the details of any conversation on paper than it is easy to punch this into a CRM system.  What happens in practice?  I talk with a prospect and I scribble it down on paper – taking down notes in the course of the conversation.  Later I have to spend time entering these details into the CRM system.  What value does that add to me?

In theory CRM systems help in team based selling.  In practice, as a team member you cannot be sure that I have updated the system with the latest details and conversations.  It is highly likely I have not.    I will probably do it an hour or so before the weekly sales meeting to please the boss: the sales manager.  And if I have entered the details it is quite possible I have entered it against the wrong account; you’d be surprised how often the same account has been set-up but with different names!

Sales managers, not sales folks on the sharp end, have bought CRM systems.  Why?  Because they have promised and given the sales manager greater visibility and control over their sales folks.  This has come at a cost to the sales folks: time spent entering data and making things up to ‘please the boss’ or at least not get into trouble.  The CRM system has often became a master to be served and not a tool to help me sell.

Training – how much of it is useful?

No sales person should need ‘personal skills’ training.  If they do then you have recruited the wrong person and they will struggle because you are asking them to push a boulder uphill.

Every sales person has to understand the ‘product’ he is selling and I can totally get the value of practical, hands-on, immersive training that provides this understanding.

People that are new to selling can benefit greatly from sales skills training.  The issue that I have with most of the so-called ‘skills training’ is that it is ineffective.  Bombarding people with motivational stuff does not make them better sales people.  Bombarding them with lists of techniques does not make them better sales people – not by much.  The most effective way to build good sales people is to apprentice the new to the ‘masters’.  That way the ales stuff that really counts is absorbed – it becomes muscle memory.  Think about children they do not sit in a classroom learning the rules of grammar, the simply imbibe ‘best practice’ by experiencing it and practising it.

In theory negotiation skills training sounds great.  The reality is that the organisations that are busy sending their sales folks on this training have no negotiating power.  They are offering ‘me-too’ products/services and the guy on the other hand knows that.  Your negotiation strength rests on your ability and track record in walking away.  And that is the very thing that most sales folks will not do because any deal is better than no deal.  Why?  Because that is what the sales manager expects.

Processes and methodologies promise much and deliver little

Process fixation is great for a manufacturing where you are acting on matter which is always the same and which has no intelligence.  So repeating the same steps again and again – provided they are the right steps – gets you ‘zero defects’.  This is not the case when you are dealing with human beings who have ‘personalities’ and ‘intelligence’.  Each person is unique and the same can be said for ‘sales encounters’.  What counts is your ability to be flexible and adapt to this variety: one prospect might want you to get to the point whilst another may want to have more of a discussion and get to know you better before he buys from you.

Simple methodologies like SPIN selling tend be useful for people that are new to selling.  I found it useful back in my Andersen days when I moved from doing the consulting work to selling and leading the doing of consulting work.   My issue is with the more complex methodologies where you have to gather lots of intelligence, enter it into the CRM system and figure out what strategies you are going to use: are you going for full frontal assault or are you going to adopt a flanking strategy? What is forgotten is that in a competitive situation (RFP, pitch) your competitors are doing exactly the same.  So how do you figure out which strategies your competitors are going to use?

Let’s assume that you have no competition, it is just you and your prospect.  And let’s take a simple methodology SPIN selling.  SPIN tells you that you have to figure out the prospects Situation and his Problem/s.  Once you have that insight then you draw out the (negative, undesirable) implications of the prospect failing to take action.  And when you have your prospect there you can propose your solution.  Negotiation. Sale made!  Great theory but sucks in practice.  Why?

How do you get that insight?  The fact is that prospects are no longer open to talking with us sales folks.  Why should they?  They can find all the information they need and it is usually a few clicks on the mouse.  The sales gurus tell you that it is up to you to get this insight and then come up with a compelling proposal so that the prospect will see you.  But how do you do get the quality of insight you need to put such a compelling proposal together?  On that the sales gurus are silent or offer platitudes.   I put a proposal together and there is world of difference between version 1 and 2.  Why?  Because the person on the other side of the table opened up and told me all about his situation, pointed out the weaknesses of version 1 and described exactly what he is looking for in version 2.

My View

The key to sales effectiveness is insight.  Insight into the people you wish to do business with.  This insight has to be at two levels:  the person/s that you wish to sell to and their business situation.  What are they like people?  What do they want to achieve personally?  What is their business situation?  What are they seeking to achieve?  What are the problems/issues they are facing?

Process will not give this insight.  Methodologies will not give this insight.  CRM systems will not give this insight.  Sales training will not give this insight.

Only the person who you want to do business with or his inner circle can give you that insight.  So the key sales challenge is how do you get into that inner circle.   Many years ago Andersen arranged for one of the partners to live next to a CEO and frequent the same golf club.  It paid off.  In politics and in warfare extensive use is made of spies.  If you think of that creatively then it may offer some avenues like seminars, conferences, so called ‘independent’ research organisations…..

Sorry I cannot offer you a magic elixir. I am no sales guru just a student of life.