Don’t Sell, Don’t Grow

This article also appeared in the 11-7-2014 edition of the Portsmouth Herald http://www.seacoastonline.com/article/20141107/NEWS/141109446/101026

I’ve been talking a lot about keeping customers customers in the past few articles, but this week I’d like to take a giant step back to consider how you get customers in the first place. In my line of work and over my career I’ve been involved with companies of varying sizes, states of maturity and revenue. Some had thousands of customers, and others have had none (at least none who were paying). Some of these little ones grew greatly, and some of the great ones grew, well, little. While the range of contributory reasons varied, a common thread was sales: the sales staff, the sales process and the place of sales within the company.

It may seem axiomatic that it’s tough to sell anything if you don’t have a sales team, but many companies do just that. Look behind the scenes of an active customer list and you often find “referral sales.” That is, customers only gotten because someone moved from an existing customer to another company and brought you with them, or one customer acquired another and mandated the purchase or a pal told another pal to look at you. So what’s the problem? Two things: first, I’ve never seen such a model successfully scale, and second, as a business person you’re stuck being reactive. Neither works for long.

Referral sales most often come along when companies are small, and the entrepreneur/owner/founder gets personal support from an early customer via an introduction to a peer, or maintains a relationship with an individual when s/he moves to another company. As often as not that initial sale was “non-standard” in some way. Might have been software customized in some way to make it more appealing, a construction project with upgrades or additional work than would be standard, in short, anything to get that first deal or two. So here’s the problem: the next guy hears how the referrer got a deal and all this extra stuff included, and now that’s expected. You’re impacting your work plan, your margins, your staffing because no deal can stand on its own—it’s being measured by what you did for the last customer. That doesn’t scale, and certainly doesn’t scale profitably!

The second challenge with this model is the fact that you have absolutely no control where John and Jill are going to go if they leave your current customer, or when. You’re at their mercy for introductions, and in my experience they’re few and far between. I’ve been brought in to numerous clients eager to break the reliance on people they know in the customer world to sell for them. An added risk exists with your initial customer in that all too often the work done or the products bought were done so because of your friendly contact, and once they move on, someone with different ideas and preferences is off to bring in their own brand of stuff.

So what do you do to break this habit and get control of your destiny? Step one is, in spite of what I said above, don’t stop looking for referral customers. They’re new business so take them. Just proactively manage the new deals down toward your standard model for margin and repeatability. And don’t count on them for all your new business!

Step two is to make sure you have a trained salesperson responsible for the selling effort. Just because your great nephew Marvin is in the building and he’s a “college graduate” doesn’t mean he can represent the company, the products or services sufficiently to get someone who isn’t a personal connection to select you. Selling takes a specific set of skills, influenced by innate personality, but ultimately it’s a discipline and a process borne of training and practice.

The third step is to map out a plan of attack—a strategy for prospecting. Consider where you have been successful (or if you’re just beginning, where do you think you will be successful?), identify the attributes that allowed that success and play to strength. Finding potential prospects that look like your current customers is no harder than using Google, LinkedIn or any one of a dozen online directories. So define who your targets are, create a story appropriate to the product or service you’re selling, identify the people within the targets who are most likely to be interested and start the prospecting process.

Finally, and this is why it’s so important to have a professional at the helm of a defined sales process, execute the plan—articulate your value, your competitive advantages, and bring them to a successful deal close. Of course depending on your industry this could take 15 minutes or 15 months, but the basic premise still remains: find the people who would be interested in what you’ve got to sell, get to them, and show ‘em how you’re going to change their lives. Next time we’ll talk more about how Sales and Marketing intersect to drive this process.

Marketing and Sales: What You Need To Grow

[Note: The following content was originally published by the author in the 8/15/2015 edition of the Portsmouth Herald. It is part of a bimonthly column series that will appear in that paper. http://bit.ly/1uBW5KL will link you to the original article. – AEG]

Whether you’re an entrepreneur working on the “next big thing”, a retailer or restaurateur trying to compete in a crowded market, or the newly appointed CEO of a $30 million business, your company isn’t going to go anywhere unless you know how to find prospects and turn them into customers. While some business people take the “Field of Dreams” approach (“build it and they will come…”) most at least intuitively know that a more proactive model makes a lot more sense. And that proactive approach requires the application of both marketing and sales to grow the business.

While the specifics of how marketing and sales get applied depends greatly on the type of business (i.e. business to consumer, business to business, technology, services, retail, etc.), the core principle remain constant: marketing and sales are the tools—and means—by which potential business is identified and converted to real business. Sounds simple, right? But it takes more than a brochure or a flyer and a few phone calls for follow up to get the job done. What’s also required is a roadmap, a plan. Not a P-L-A-N, just a plan. It doesn’t need to be fancy, or for that matter very long. It just needs to map out what your business objectives are, who your target audience is, where to find them and how to reach them. You’ve just taken your first step into marketing! There’s certainly a lot more that can—and should—go into your plan, but just taking the first step of thinking about those key points will point you in the right direction.

Once you know who you want to reach, the work effort turns to determining what you want to say and how you want to deliver that message. Here’s where strategy and planning meets execution. Depending on your business type, you may use advertising, social media, PR, coupons, flyers, brochures, videos, demos, even a blimp with flashing lights to tell the world about how awesome you are. It’s critical, though, to know what your message is: it may be a specialized talent, the ability to do what you do at a very low cost, that little extra something that costs a bit more but is worth it. Or, you may tout convenience, variety, functionality, value, security. Whatever your story, get it down and get it out there! A good marketer works to get the right message to the right prospect at the right time, and in the right way—using the right tools.

Sales is a lot more than a pleasant “can I help you find something?” or pounding away on the phone trying to get someone to say “yes.” The sales process, like marketing, will vary greatly depending on the type of business, but again there are common threads: a successful sales person needs to understand your marketing message, have the ability to deliver it, and equally important, when to deliver the story. Good salesmanship is about reinforcing the prospect’s wants and needs, and demonstrating that your products or services can fulfill those. Really successful sales teams will tell a prospect when what they’ve got won’t meet their requirements! A forced fit always comes back to bite you—financially as well as by damaging the business’s reputation.

These days sales teams have to address an extra challenge: prospects are much more informed than they used to be. Sometimes called “the social buyer” by analysts and pundits, these consumers (B2B or B2C doesn’t matter) research (thank you Google), review, ask others and then go off to find possible vendors. The implication for a sales team is that they need to be knowledgeable, sincere, and factual; unless they’ve specifically asked to be educated (which does happen), a prospect doesn’t want a salesperson to assume they’re completely ignorant. When all is said and done, though, people buy from people, and particularly from people they like. There’s no substitute for being informed, sincere and supportive while you gently take your prospect down the sales process to a closed deal.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here: the trip started with knowing your business, your potential customers and their needs. From there we crossed over from planning to doing, and from telling the story to making sure that story is consistent all the way to a closed deal. While the pathways will be different depending on your business, understanding and leveraging the fundamentals of marketing and sales will be the keys to potential success. How you execute those fundamentals gets you from potential to realized growth. We’ll explore that as we go along.

Rewriting the Formula

“We’ve given you, like, a million leads!  You don’t follow up on any of them!”

“All the leads you give my team are crap!  We need good leads!”

The two lines above—or some variation—are probably the most often-used in the annals of Sales and Marketing interactions.  So who’s right?  Marketing people often think that Sales guys are lazy, knuckle-dragging order takers who couldn’t find a deal if it bit them on the nose.  Sales execs often think that Marketing folks are academic pukes who spend their lives second-guessing the Sales team but who couldn’t close a deal if their lives depended on it—and who are terrified of anything resembling accountability.  So who’s right?  Both are.  And neither are.

One of the challenges, I think, is that Sales has a more focused mission, or at least one that can be described more succinctly than Marketing’s: find a deal, close a deal.  Rinse.  Repeat.  I don’t want to imply that this mission isn’t tough, sometimes brutally tough; it‘s just focused.  And yes, there are differences between “hunters” and “farmers”, and “strategic account execs” and “telesales reps” but the objective is the same.  Reel ‘em in, sign ‘em, and on to the next.  And I say again, it’s really hard if you’re the one having to do it.

Marketing, on the other hand, is really an umbrella term for everything from public relations to collateral development to product strategy and roadmaps and a laundry list of other functions depending on the company and the industry.  But often the output of Marketing’s work effort, at least from the Sales team’s perspective, is a brochure or an opaque, long “201x Marketing Plan” document that is filled with jargon and directives.  “How does that help me close a deal?”, quoth the salesman.  “Good question”, says I.

What I propose to discuss in this blog—with your help, I hope—is the Sales/Marketing nexus.  How the groups could and should work together, and even explore if the current division between the functions even makes sense in today’s business world.  I want to talk about a shared vocabulary.  A shared accountability.  A common goal.  Something that can bring the teams together at more than the executive level.

Stay tuned.