A word on the role of persuasion in sales

Ever since Xerox Corporation spun off its excellent internal sales group into a separate business peddling “needs satisfaction” sales training, it has been entirely de rigueur to talk up sales that somehow, magically, sell themselves. In fact I’ve written up this approach in this very blog, for example, with reference to what I take to be “broken down” purchase decision making in global businesses that can’t move on seemingly important acquisitions. I have advocated heavy use of information gathering and collaboration with prospects on crafting decisions when and how they “make sense” in an evolutionary manner. In other words, I’ve preached selling without a close, a prescription entirely consistent with my own selling roots in the above mentioned Xerox sales approach.

HOWEVER, there is today, nevertheless, an excellent role to be played by persuasion in sales. But where and how to implement persuasion in the sales process? Look to rhetorical argumentation for useful guidelines as to where and how to commence an effort to persuade sales prospects to move forward on a purchase. Any student of the English language and literature is familiar with rhetoric, rhetorical argument, and how to frame a position in an essay. For this reason, personnel with a background in the humanities and English, in particular, make very good candidates for sales roles. The caveat is that these individuals must also enjoy interacting with prospects–introverts just won’t cut it.

Specifically, it is the “argument from authority” that provides a very useful foundation for persuading prospects to move forware. This argument from authority can be summed up simply as “Well don’t you recognize that everyone else is doing it? therefore might it not be too presumptuous to go against the tide in this area” etc.
I have used this approach successfully to open conversations with prospects and, also, to facilitate successful closure on purchases by prospects. Fact is that some slow progress is disingenuous on the part of prospects, a purposeful retarding of the natural progression of discussion and inquiry into products or services. When I catch wind that things are slowing down without reason, I then put the petal to the metal, bringing an argument from authority to the attention of a prospect to keep the normal progress of discussion on track. Nothing whatsoever wrong about hastening sales along in this manner. In fact, this type of “wake up call” can do wonders for prospects who just can’t seem to move forward despite a rationale to buy that would otherwise be inescapable.

Call us for further information on the above points. IMB Enterprises, Inc. has considerable recent experience selling complex sales of IT products and services to global business. Please telephone us at +1 631-673-2929 to discuss your products and needs. We are particularly interested in technology products–software or hardware–as most of our experience has been garnered from working with software and computer hardware manufacturers.

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2012 All Rights Reserved


Good Luck Selling Unclear Products

Technology innovators with products in flux should have minimal to no expectation of sales.

What are products in flux? Products in flux are conceived by marketers who opt for the “ready, fire aim” approach to product development rather than a more conservative “ready, aim, fire” approach. I am using “in flux” as a synonym for “in play”. Changing either products, or the method of distribution for products, subsequent to market introduction confuses buyers. Confused buyers generally are in no position to buy anything, especially if a confusing product presentation alights atop a heap of additional internal confusion within the business. Therefore, be especially careful not to opt for this product development technique for products that require a commplex selling strategy.

If you’ve already gone and polluted your market space with this lack of product clarity, then the best way to deal with your soon to be sales-less situation is to drop any/all pretense of selling and revert to listening and surveying customer prospects to garner their best thoughts of markets that you intend, ultimately, to serve with your ever evolving product. How to catch an early indication that your product might need retooling? Consider your market pricing, and preliminary estimate of the length of a typical sales cycle for your product. If realities are way off of your assumptions, then you need to reconfigure your product.

Real life example: a client of mine has built a product for a market serviced by channel partners, meaning resellers who add value to manufacturers by configuring products for end customer implementation and supporting these same products after implementation. My client opted to offer products directly to end users, without availing of channel partners. Our attempts at direct sales were characterized by very lengthy sales cycles, and a rather low level of buying interest. When we landed orders, the orders were landed at low prices. General consensus, we would not be able to achieve revenue “escape velocity” via our direct to the end customer approach for our market.

We decided to reconfigure our distribution plan. We approached channel partners with an interest in discussing their expectations for products like ours in their market, etc. We also reassembled his product to better conform to channel offerings. All of this work transpired during his initial “go to market” effort. Revenues lagged, but we had taken a promising turn that bodes well for the future of his product.

If your product is unclear, better strive for clarity before expecting much of sales. Your time will not be wasted. Once you’ve repositioned your product you may be able to hasten revenue beyond the timing you assumed in your product plan.

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2011 All Rights Reserved


Leverage Operational Incentives to Motivate Channel Partners to Work for Your Business Objectives

In the 1980s and 1990s it was en vogue to implement enterprise sales strategies on a “win win” basis with channel partners. This strategy was built on the premise that working with channel partners to achieve important, but differing objectives was a highly valued endeavor and, in fact, the best way to move solution sales forward to its next level of enterprise sales effectiveness within a channel partner model.

In 2011 this strategy of mutual attainment of objectives is passé. Now what matters is winning the business by delivering precisely what the channel partner needs–end of subject. Most products and services vendors have to make do with whatever they can get out of the sale, and make do without complaint. Of course there are astute marketers who, despite market conditions, still manage to sell products and services their way, thereby achieving their objectives, but they are clearly in the minority.

What kind of effect has this market shift had on Channel Sales? The Marketing Leadership Council of the Corporate Executive Board published a piece on November 22, 2011 by Shelley West on this topic on their “Wide Angle” Blog, Give Your Channel Partners the Right Incentives. Ms. West astutely points out that financial incentives simply based on purchasing volume don’t work: “While simple to administer and easy to track, volume-based incentives often don’t deliver what we want them to.” Ms. West goes on to refer to a complex incentive program which, she contends, empowers the manufacturer/services provider to directly manage four key points with regard to channel partner performance, including “Core Product Sales”, “Services Solutions Integration”, “Sales Growth” and “Partner Investment in Relationship.”

All well and good, but I have to ask the question, is there a real partner in Ms. West’s model, or are we providing incentives to prod a reluctant business into a partnership? I suspect the latter. I would rather see partnerships for my clients orchestrated around plain and simple operational assumptions (as opposed to financial assumptions), including:

  • We built it, your selling it
  • You manage the end customers, we have the right to influence them, meet with them periodically, but with you tagging along
  • We create our brand, you receive sales leads

Financial incentives ought to be derived from margin. End of story.

The pollution in today’s channel partner programs, as I see it, stems, in part, from an effort on the part of some manufacturers and service providers to maintain direct selling efforts to the end customer while ostensibly operating a channel program. This pollution makes of the channel partner a rather useless component who will have to be cajoled and pampered into performing some type of service. I would rather remove the pollution and then address channel by crafting operating procedures that make sense for partners and manufacturers and service providers.

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2011 All Rights Reserved


Maintain Distance Between Customers for Optimum Success

Effective Customer Relationship Management (CRM) requires a “not too tight, not too loose” approach. Customer opinions, of course, are important, but be sure to handle findings with discretion. Discretion, in my CRM context, requires that customer realities (including their opinions) be filed separately and certainly not co-mingled.

Maintaining this discretion can be quite an effort for businesses operating under the radar. Large customers tend to wield their size menacingly, in an intimidating manner, to obtain special treatment or, worse, to monopolize time and attention. Never succomb to such intimidation. If you’ve set expectations properly, then the issue ought not to come up. If you’re selling products, make sure customers understand that your products are never sold exclusively to any one customer unless it’s expressly in your best interest to do so. If you’re selling services, then never commit to work on any one project full time. Maintaining boundaries between opportunities is the only way to go.

Price work correctly to win the right to execute, simultaneously, on several projects. A colleague who brought several start ups to public offerings once educated me that each of his billable days netted 2% of his annual income expectation. Not so far fetched (nor that greedy) when you consider how much marketing time he required to find a customer for his unique consulting work. At least he remained well fed and sheltered from the elements while he spent the better part of a year to get his consulting practice on track.

The most important objective is to maintain as many ongoing engagements as possible to ensure that the loss of no one customer will result in substantial damage to your business. As I’ve mentioned, set customer expectations properly to obtain your objective. Holding the line on pricing while efficiently executing on marketing during non billable time will eventually pay off.

Failing to implement some version of this method can be dangerous and, perhaps catastrophic. What could be worse than to spend 6 months entirely wrapped up in one project only to complete the work with no follow-on project in hand? This condition (ending a project with no short term income opportunity on the horizon) is referred to as being “on the beach” in the Staff Augmentation business. Who’s on the beach? Typically it’s a fish. We all know what happens to a fish that’s left on the beach for too long. Catch my drift?

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2011 All Rights Reserved


Selling Products & Services for Enterprise Business Through Partners

A method can be used to mitigate some of the difficulties related to the complex sale for enterprise business. Specifically, enlist the assistance of an intermediary who is already entrenched within the prospect business. Opting for a channel sales strategy should be a natural decision where some facts have been determined through prospecting calls or visit with the prospect:

  • Products and services are purchased by a central procurement organization
  • Central procurement maintains an approved vendor list and
  • There is either no opportunity for your business to be added to the approved vendor list (they are no longer “taking applications”) or
  • Your contact lacks the authority to purchase in a manner but through the central procurement organization

If the above factors are in place then you have no choice but to work through one of the approved vendors. This necessity is not necessarily a negative. Choose a partner who is not an “order taker,” but a business with complementary offerings who can introduce your product or service to other prospects. This type of partner typically is not after a discount on your product; rather, the partner has a relationship with the prospect that will be benefited through provisioning products like yours. Of most importance, your partner, an approved vendor, is already a trusted resource for the prospect. Leverage that familiarity to cut through gobs of time that you would otherwise have to spend building trust with your contact, his/her management, etc as you schedule meeting after meeting in an effort to push the sale forward.

Neither does including partners within the complex sale strategy remove the opportunity of maintaining a national sales effort of your own. I have substantial experience working with businesses where it made sense to simultaneously operate channel sales and national sales efforts. Invariably these two teams of ambitious sales people would collide within prospects, but our solution was to provide a clear incentive to our national sales teams to defer to partners where possible. In fact, we utilized a lead generation system of delivering these national opportunities to motivate partners to allocate substantial attention to us. We also experienced strong cash flow as these “approved vendors” fast tracked our sale through the procurement organization.

Where products or services are built for the enterprise computing market–meaning personal computers, local networks and shared access to larger computing systems (mainframes, etc), it is a pure natural to leverage a channel sales strategy, which has always been a familiar characteristic of such markets. Use the channel to your advantage.

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2011 All Rights Reserved


Top sales people fill large funnels with prospects and constantly manage volume to the upside

Top sales people feed off of pools of prospects. These sales achievers successfully maintain these pools of prospects at a constant, optimized level. This feeding process is referred to, in common parlance, as a funnel. The premise is that the right feeding interval (the phenomenon of gravity pulling material through the tube of a funnel) in conjunction with the right volume of prospects in one of these pools (meaning the amount of material added to the cup portion of a funnel) will result in a successful engagement whereby the sales person is paid an attractive compensation (commission) while the business realizes or exceeds the amount of revenue included in the sales plan.

Maintaining the funnel should constitute the majority of sales activity for sales staff. Sales management should take the steps required to ensure that funnels are in good shape across the entire sales organization. Monitoring funnel conditions can be as easy as keeping an eye out for high pressure sales activity and, conversely, inertia together with a lack of a sense of urgency.

The former condition is indicative of a lack of volume in the funnel and a need to force every “precious” opportunity through to a close. I’ve learned over time that a sales person who calls on the same prospect too frequently is a sales person who lacks the right number of prospects.

The latter condition, inertia together with a lack of a sense of urgency, is indicative of a sales person who has overestimated the prospect volume in the funnel; in other words, a sales person who has either over estimated the probability of sales, or a sales person who is marching to a different drummer, perhaps assuming that the firm will pick up the tab on compensation just to keep his or her at the job.

Generally it is much easier to manage high pressure sales people than the laggards. After all, high pressure sales people are, at least, adequately committed to the sales activity to deliver, under effective management satisfactory results. Better to jettison the laggards to keep the business afloat.

Above all, management activity must be largely directed to establish and maintain profitable funnel activity for each and every sales person. For a telemarketing operation this generally means monitoring outbound sales call volume together with the number of substantial conversations (generally conversations of 5 minutes or more on the telephone) on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. As a rule of thumb, for every set of 100 outbound calls, look for somewhere between 10 and 15 meaningful conversations. Any proportion less than a 10 – 15% prospect engagement rate should be analyzed. Keep an eye out for a poor call list or an ineffective sales person. Take remedial action promptly to avoid problems.

For an outbound sales staff the measure should be a top account list with an adequate flow of prospects into the list together with a reasonable close rate as predetermined by the sales plan.

For either type of sales staff, the method is to take remedial action promptly or else risk failure.

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2011 All Rights Reserved


Four Essential Methods for Successful Sales

There is a science to sales. Despite rumors to the contrary, sales is really not magic. True, certain personality types have a proclivity to sales, but no, personality types alone will not determine the success or failure of sales efforts. From the perspective of a business owner, or a head of sales and marketing, the success or failure of sales efforts should depend on a disciplined application of several methods including:

  1. Creating a formal sales plan that includes a realistic, achievable and satisfactory (meaning sustainable) dollar (or any other currency) volume of sales revenue to be achieved on a monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, and annual basis
  2. Plotting a useful chronological model of the sales cycle for the specific product or service sold by the business
  3. Calculating the number of prospect opportunities required to produce the volume of sales revenue required to meet the business plan given the amount of time (chronological length of the sales cycle for the product or service you are selling)
  4. Reporting regularly (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, and annually) on actual activity undertaken to deliver a successful result to the sales plan. These regular reports should include summaries of sales activity, prospect lists, lists of prospects who have expressed an interest in buying the product or service including a record of whether or not identified prospects went ahead and bought the product together with an assessment of why the sale did or did not happen

In my experience, merely the ability to deliver successfully on points one through four often spells the difference between success and failure for a business. Fact is that most managers and businesses lack the stamina and determination to follow through on each of these critically important steps. Realistically, simply following through with these steps can open an opportunity to redesign products or services that have not been thoroughly thought through, effectively buying time to “change the wheels” on the “bus” while you “drive”.

Of course, the question then becomes whether these methods will produce a remedy sooner, or later. The preference is always for sooner, but really the “heavy lifting” in the area of product management is the responsibility of marketing, not sales. The boon and the bane of it is that sales can continue to trudge along regardless of the success or failure of product marketing; hence the close alignment, as I see it, between sales and marketing for businesses with new technology that operate under the radar.

Over time, the practice of these methods will provide management with the most accurate picture of what it takes to successfully operate. Plan on the initial effort to be a crap shoot. Be willing to revise on the fly.

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2011 All Rights Reserved


Selling Commodities to Enterprise Customers

Commodities exist in the world of enterprise business. These commodities have either tangible or intangible value. For the purposes of this post I am going to concentrate on commodities purchased for business processes, specifically software.

Unless a blanket site license is in place, or other form of exclusive provisioning agreement, successfully selling software and supporting accessories for any prevalent platform within an enterprise business, for example, MicroSoft® Office, requires much of the same effort that I have described throughout this blog with regard to complex product sales to the same type of customer. In both cases the successful sales person will legitimately partner with the customer based upon a shared commitment to attain a specific value metric within the context of an enhancement to specific processes that are core to the business, or business unit within the enterprise.

Of course, the danger in selling commodities is that the sales plan will call for a streamlined approach; specifically, an approach that will skip the task of collecting information, determining reporting lines, unearthing activities with a high cost for the customer, etc. The rationale for this type of plan is that the software platform is already built into the business; therefore, the customer has little chance of capturing significant additional value; “let’s not waste time, let’s go for the order”. Implementing this type of sales plan relegates the sale to no more than a question of price and availability. The sales person who will win the business will either have the lowest price or the quickest delivery. Yuck.

But there are still many successful sales people selling commodities who do not utilize this type of plan. As I’ve mentioned, they continue to pursue the tasks required to unearth rich and promising areas of need within the business. They understand the opportunities represented by these needs and utilize the specific characteristics of accepted computing platforms within the enterprise to deliver substantial value to their customers.

These characteristics include the fact that platforms are, by definition, ubiquitous throughout the enterprise. Since everyone operates within the platform, implementing planned enhancements with components from the manufacturer of the platform will be significantly less expensive than bringing in an alternative from another vendor that may be incompatible with the platform itself. Consider the following features:

  • Support for the planned enhancements can be obtained from the support structure that is already in place within the enterprise. Any additional required skills may be obtained from existing staff who simply master a new feature, rather than bringing in new personnel who may be in short supply and less likely to take a job with the business.
  • Re-engineering Business Processes will attract quicker user acceptance where the new processes are built in the form of modifications or enhancements to existing processes and procedures.
  • Finally, related programs that are already in place can be used with the new software, as required; for example, databases, communications programs, etc.

The combination of these features, together with the achievement of the required changes in business processes will result in clear cost savings for the customer and substantial enhancements to productivity–just the type of tangible evidence required by the customer to determine value. Once the value is apparent the position of the sales person within the enterprise will be established in a useful capacity as a collaborator who will likely add increased value in the future.

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2011 All Rights Reserved


Build Highly Successful Products to Deliver Palpable, Clear Cost Savings and Win Big

Jeff Thull, in his book “Mastering the Complex Sale” makes a strong case for delivering tangible, observable cost savings to customers as the foundation for successful complex selling to enterprise business customers. I agree completely with Mr. Thull’s point. In fact, I see clearly how products targeted to markets that require complex selling efforts should be designed entirely around cost savings. If you cannot deliver tangible cost savings to a customer with a conceptual product, then don’t waste your time.

Using this rule of thumb, that products must deliver tangible cost savings to justify a purchase at some planned price (I’ve italicized the word “some” to convey the importance of flexibly approaching the task of pricing products in a ratio to cost that delivers persuasive savings to customers to successfully build a market) or else move on to a better idea, it is easy to see why solutions like online website development have disintegrated into low price/low value offerings. After all, isn’t the market message for online website development some version of “everyone else has a website, why not you”? Where is the value proposition in this rationale? Where is the presentation of clear, measured cost savings for the customer? How different and how much more persuasive would be a market message that details the cost savings packed into an online store versus the expense represented by a brick and mortar store! Sadly, this type of cost savings centric market message is generally absent from the online website development marketplace.

Designing products to deliver measurable cost savings ensures maximum return on investment from selling efforts. After all, sales of these products should deliver long term relationships with satisfied customers, just the type of business that most business ought to crave. If you opt to follow this approach, then be fully prepared to truly deliver savings via your early customer engagements or else relegate your market message to the trash can. Therefore, delivery and after sales support must be completely aligned with marketing & sales to deliver success. Complete alignment means understanding the cost savings for the customer and taking whatever steps are necessary to deliver those savings in each and every engagement.

In the world of the complex sale, there are no purchases made without saving capturing some substantial saving against costs that would otherwise have to be incurred by the business. This is especially true for businesses in highly regulated industries where costs can result from improper policies and procedures. It is remarkable how open prospects with “external drivers” (meaning unfavorable regulatory reviews) are to discuss these drivers and to communicate the costs that they need to save. Successful marketers to highly regulated industries learn quickly to collect as much detail about these “external drivers” as they can to construct their custom, individualized presentation of tangible value to prospects. Don’t fail to do the same.

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2011 All Rights Reserved