“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Harold R McAlindon
I was recently in the market for a new car – just a small ‘run around’ to replace a larger, older and less efficient car – doing my bit for the planet. I looked at three options which were all very close in specification. In each case I took a test drive and then said I would think about it. All three salesmen (and in this case they were all men) seemed professional and competent. I was a real buyer… I had cash and motive… I was really interested in their products and told them so… Now five months on, not one has followed up to see what I was doing. Such a shame and also such a lost opportunity for each of them. If just one had followed up and truly been interested, they would almost certainly have their commission now. Has that happened to you in your personal life? How do you feel when a salesperson lets you down? This ‘poor service – v - fantastic service’ feeling in a customer can be enormously useful to you in B2B selling. The simple fact is that salespeople often commit and promise to do, more than they actually deliver. A lot is said, but less is done…
I was trying to break into a critical account in manufacturing. I was, as we all often are, hitting my head against the proverbial brick wall. Nothing seemed to have been working. But I had obviously done just enough to get noticed as I was then invited to compete with their incumbent supplier for the next large deal, which was really important to their business success – a truly strategic procurement for the customer. I had built an effective network of friends and contacts, both in the sector and in the local market and I heard through my grapevine that the incumbent supplier was totally unconcerned about our presence. They had a multi-year joint history, a great ongoing working relationship, good technology and a couple of staff deeply embedded (full time) with the customer. Thinking back, I guess if I was them, I would have been pretty confident too!
I racked my brains but could not think of any traditional way to win the deal and the customer relationship going forward. Then I decided I would try what I later termed ‘Service Led Selling’. (Note: not Services Led, which is another thing entirely…) It was an initial, fairly unscientific attempt to win over the customer by contrasting their experience with us and with their incumbent. Luckily the prospect was a large, traditional organisation with a methodical approach to the buying process and with a lot of their people wanting answers to a large number of questions.
The tactic was very simple. We cleared a whiteboard in the office and I and the pre-sales team agreed a headline which read… “Every request will be answered the same day”. As the questions flowed in, we ‘crawled over broken glass’ to ensure that, no matter how difficult, we always got at least the basis of an answer back to them before midnight that same day. And we openly and honestly answered every question. When we simply didn’t know the answer AND couldn’t get it before the end of the day we still responded, explained what we did know, what action we had taken to answer their question and when we would be back to them with a definitive answer. We recorded them all on the whiteboard to ensure none were missed. It was HARD work for everyone. At one point we even figured out that the customer had perhaps guessed what we were trying to do as a lot of difficult questions seemed to come in around 5pm! But we persevered. We did this without fail throughout the length of the four to five-month campaign. Of course, at the same time we were doing our traditional sales job - needs analysis, problem solving, running presentations, speaking to their technical staff and executives and building our proposal – all the normal big ticket sales activities. (BTW, have a look at chapter 16 for some thoughts on leading a team from the front internally).
On decision day we found that we had won the deal – and the account - outright. The incumbent was beyond shocked. One of their flagship accounts was gone and they just couldn’t figure out how it had happened. Had they perhaps taken their customer too much for granted? Over time as we got to know our new customer, we kept on hearing the same phrase – “From the beginning we just felt we could trust you more to deliver this critical project”. The constant drip, drip, drip of us responding quickly, fully, honestly and effectively to every request, compared with the normal approach from a big vendor – answering questions in a few days or so, not answering everything fully (particularly if a truthful answer didn’t look good), sometimes completely missing out the answers that were not positive – had created a powerful impression and impact. Psychology talks about the fact that ‘negativity bias’ (your bad feelings towards something caused through bad experience) is actually stronger than the equivalent ‘positivity bias’. So, if one vendor is constantly reinforcing a negative experience and the other is reinforcing positive actions and attitude, then you subconsciously start to see a big gap between them. But, putting aside the psychology theory, all I know is that it worked very well for me!
I would love to be able to say that I have done this religiously on every major deal since then, but that just wouldn’t be anywhere near true. HOWEVER, on those once in a while, highest-level, critical deals AND assuming you have a team that will truly agree with the idea and actively support you, this tactic can have an amazing impact on the customer relationship and trust.
Hard work pays off. Hard, consistent, detailed work pays even better… If all else is equal, then being a more responsive supplier, with a more open attitude, greater consistency and a much faster response time will directly, although subliminally, impact on the individuals you deal with. They will ‘just feel’ you are a better bet for them. Put simply, if you continue to do the right things, then the right things will happen. A warning however, you can’t ever ‘half do’ this. Starting out to work in this way and then dropping off your effort will have the exact opposite effect; they will become increasingly disappointed in you. “We thought at first you were better than that…” James Muir describes selling as “A sample of how you solve…” and that is what we are doing here. Service Led Selling is a fantastic tool to keep up your sleeve for when it’s needed…
“Once you have the commitment, you need the discipline and hard work to get you there.” Haile Gebrselassie