“We have the best technology. We have a superior solution. Our solution is the industry leader.” I was reading what members of the audience – all from different companies – had written on index cards in answer to the question: What is your company’s primary differentiator? I continued reading the next three. “We have the most experienced consultants. We have a proven methodology and process. We have unparalleled industry expertise.”

I was still holding another 70 to 80 cards, all with something similar written on them. But I didn’t need to read very many of them for the group to realize how similar their supposed “differentiators” sounded. It highlights how difficult it is to truly differentiate ourselves in today’s highly competitive sales engagements if we don’t target our value messages to specific buyers. Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson in their book The Challenger Sale call this “tailoring for resonance” and identify it as one of the key sales skills in today’s most effective sales people.

Most sales people are able to tailor their value messages to the customer’s business or industry by incorporating appropriate vernacular and phrases (e.g. calling financial services customers “clients” or healthcare customers “patients”, etc.) And many are able to tailor to the appropriate industry or business by focusing on the business processes most relevant to that business or industry. But that is only the beginning for true resonance tailoring.

The best sales people also tailor their value messages to the customer’s specific business goals and objectives, linking their solution directly to what the customer is trying to achieve in their own business. They reference strategies, initiative names and metric goals unique to the customer’s business plans. They further tailor their value messages to specific roles or organizational levels – changing the value language and phrasing to match the typical language of the executives, middle management, or end users who are present for the discussion. Ideally, they are even referring to specific individuals about specific benefits and value. Finally, the best of the best salespeople are able to tailor their value messages based on a customer individual’s personal agenda and goals, ensuring, that each customer buyer or influencer sees their personal “win” in the solution.

How well do your sales people tailor your value messages for specific customer resonance?

In early 2015 Esurance ran a set of TV commercials in which a less-desirable replacement presents themselves as the “sorta” provider: a race-car driver instead of the normal parking valet; a drug dealing science teacher instead of the normal pharmacist; a tattooed, muscular biker instead of the normal school teacher. In each case the “sorta” replacement explains how they are essentially the same as the normal provider while the customer appears very uncomfortable. Using the tagline “Sorta you isn’t you” Esurance makes the point that you deserve an insurance plan that’s personalized to your needs. I couldn’t agree more and believe the same principle applies to sales presentations and demonstrations: customers deserve a presentation that’s personalized to their needs, not one based on their “sorta” version.

In previous posts I’ve talked about the importance of learning about the customer’s business goals, objectives, challenges and issues. However, having that information is only helpful if we use it to customize and personalize what we show the customer in our demonstration or talk about in our presentation. Too many sales people, even after conducting appropriate customer discovery, still use a standard sales presentation or conduct a standard sales demonstration. If we don’t customize what we talk about and demonstrate to match the customer’s specific goals, needs and situation, we are essentially telling the customer that they’re just like everyone else. we might as well tell them that they’re a “sorta” bank, or a “sorta” healthcare provider, or a “sorta” retailer!

Changing a sales presentation or demonstration from a risky event into a win enabler requires careful preparation and personalization of the content. We don’t need to build an entirely new presentation or demonstration, but we do need to personalize what we talk about, what we show, and the order in which we do those things to match the unique needs of the customer. As I’ve worked with and trained hundreds of sales people all over the world, I’ve seen many consistent and universal preparation mistakes that inject unnecessary risk into sales presentations and demonstrations – taking them from “divine” to “disastrous”!

What kinds of preparation mistakes do your sales people typically make and which mistakes do you find hardest to correct?

 

Traditional solution selling encourages sales people to understand the customer’s business challenges well enough to align their solution to those challenges, and then show how their solution can help the customer mitigate or eliminate those challenges. But in today’s sales environment traditional solution selling isn’t enough; today’s best sales people take solution selling to the next level by teaching their customers something new, or challenging them to think about their businesses in a slightly different way. Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson in their book The Challenger Sale call this “teaching for differentiation” and identify it as one of the key skills to effective selling in today’s hyper-competitive, customer-knowledgeable sales environments.

But is is realistic to think that your sales people know enough or can learn enough about a customer’s business or industry to actually teach the customer something new? Can a young, relatively inexperienced technology sales rep credibly teach a veteran industry or business discipline worker something they didn’t already know? Absolutely! Teaching for differentiation doesn’t have to be mind-blowing or earth-shattering, it just has to provide the customer a new or different way to think about something in their business or in the way they leverage technology. And even the young, relatively inexperienced sales person has what it takes to execute on this – IF they are paying attention!

Sales people have a tremendous knowledge advantage over their customers. The typical customer individual works in the same industry or business discipline their entire career, and very often only works at a few different companies within that industry or business discipline over a 30 to 35 year period. Sales people on the other hand, have the opportunity to meet with, engage, and discuss business challenges and best practice solutions with hundreds of customers, often in many different industries and business disciplines, in just a couple of years! While the sales person may not know the industry or business discipline to the same depth and detail as the customer individual, they have significantly more breadth and exposure.

The best sales people ask lots of questions, pay close attention to what their customers tell them, and take careful notes on what solutions have worked for what challenges. Then they position themselves with their other customers not as the expert, but as a conduit for truly helpful and insightful information from highly credible sources: the customer individual’s professional peers and counterparts. A well executed sales discussion not only provides the sales rep what he/she needs to advance their sales, but differentiates them from the competition by providing the customer invaluable information about new ways to address their business challenges and think about their business.

How well are your salespeople teaching for differentiation?

 

“If you were a bank, you’d really like this feature!” I can remember visibly cringing when my co-worker used this as her introduction to our most important competitive product advantage. Before I could even finish cringing, the VP of Manufacturing – from the customer to whom we were presenting – said, “Well, we’re not a bank; we manufacture Styrofoam peanuts used in shipping and packaging. Clearly we need to postpone this discussion until you’ve done some research about our business and can show us some things we might like!” … Needlesss to say, we didn’t win that deal.

That experience was a pivotal moment in my growing understanding of the importance of appropriate discovery with customers and prospects if I intended to make a compelling sales presentation to them about my solution. Twenty five years later I still see sales people who are so enamored with their solution, finding it so amazing and awesome, that they believe it practically speaks for itself and that the prospect will be equally awed as soon as they see it. However, more often than not, those prospects are unable to relate that “amazing” solution to the business goals they are trying to reach or the operational challenges they are trying to solve every day. The best sales people know they need to connect the dots for the prospect – connecting their solution to the prospect’s business.

Changing a sales presentation or demonstration from a risky event into a win enabler requires targeted and effective discovery by the sales team. That discovery needs to include uncovering key information about the customer’s business, strategic priorities, competitive preferences, and decision making politics. As I’ve worked and trained hundreds of sales people over the years, I’ve seen many consistent and universal discovery mistakes that inject unnecessary risk into sales presentations and demonstrations – taking them from “divine” to “disastrous”!

What kinds of discovery mistakes do your sales people typically make and which mistakes do you find the hardest to correct?

 

Buying choices are personal and emotional choices. It’s easy for most of us to see how that applies to the personal consumer purchases we make every day, but it also applies in a B2B purchase scenario. Ultimately, even large B2B “committee” decisions boil down to personal choices based on emotional perceptions. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that buying decisions are made based on silly, “we-like-you-better” kinds of emotions. What I am saying is that each individual in a buying decision makes their decision (or casts their vote) based on the value they perceive the solution will provide to them both professionally and personally. And value perceived is an emotional reaction. The question is whether or not the sales team understands what each individual buyer actually cares about.

The best sales people ensure they know not only who the decision players are, but they take the time to understand what business metrics and personal motivators each decision player cares about. They get to know the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) each decision player is held accountable for or is compensated on, and they know how those KPIs impact the larger business. Understanding how the business calculates and measures each KPI, or even understanding what KPIs are relevant to a given business is a critical sales skill.

In my experience, industry or business segment KPI information available to sales teams totally misses the mark. It is either way too much, way too little, or presented in such a way as to be confusing and mind-numbing. As sales leaders we need to find ways to help our sales team research and learn the most common KPIs by business type, how they are calculated, and who cares about them in order to help them understand their customer’s business “good enough”. How do you help your sales team members learn new business segment and industry KPIs?

 

“How many times do I have to tell them?!!” This exasperated cry is a regular complaint I hear from senior executives who are struggling to get their entire organization moving in the same direction. Unfortunately, very often the answer to such a cry is, “As many times as it takes!”

A reality of leadership is that most of the people in our organizations don’t think about the end destination nearly as often as we do, and rightfully so. We pay them to accomplish a particular task – a tactical, day-to-day, practical task. We on the other hand, are paid as leaders to not only make sure the right tasks get accomplished, but to make sure how those tasks are accomplished moves the organization in the right direction and towards our identified vision. Which often means repeating our plan many more times than we think is necessary.

Effective execution is as much about leadership communication and motivation as anything else. As leaders we have an obligation to communicate the “plan” how our vision and strategy and tactics are connected as often as possible, to keep it center of mind for everyone in the organization. It is our responsibility to make the plan a day-to-day topic that drives action rather than a once-a-year or once-a-quarter conversation that drives people to sleep.

 

It’s easy to lose sight of the customer when what you’re selling is so amazing! In my experience working with thousands of sales people around the world, the most common mistake sales people make is they literally forget the customer during their sales pitch. We fill our sales teams with so much product information and so many generic value propositions that when faced with a “live” customer, they drop into “throw-up” mode and start regurgitating everything they know. They literally forget that the customer is only listening because they hope eventually the sale rep will get back to something that matters to them.

The best sales people understand that the more they understand how their product or service impacts the customer’s ability to make smart choices in running their business (i.e. manage costs, maximize profits, pull cash levers, etc.), the more effective they will be. But understanding how our product or service impacts the operational side of their business means we have to understand how their business works. We need to know what their major expense categories are, what levers they have available to impact profit, and what levers they have available to impact cash flow.

Historically, industry or business segment information available to sales teams has been problematic at best. It is either too much, too little, or not the right information at all. The trick is to teach your sales team the key minimum questions they need to ask themselves and research in order to understand their customer’s business “good enough”. How do you help your sales team members learn new business segments and industries?

 

How hard is it for the people in your organization to understand your business execution plan? Do you actually have it documented in a share-able format? Creating a business execution plan that everyone in your organization can understand is challenging; but it is absolutely necessary! As leaders if we expect our organization to help us achieve our vision, then we owe them a clear and understandable plan of how to get there. Easier said than done.

The vast majority of business execution plans that I review as a consultant are fabulously written, full of excessive detail and responsibility assignments, and utterly un-understandable to the average execution worker. From unachievable, misrepresented goals like “Drive product adoption” to pages and pages of market trend dynamics, too many business execution plans are created for the people who wrote them instead of the people who are supposed to execute them. They are often too long, not organized in a way that makes sense to the tactical worker, and too vague on how the various organizational goals are connected.

If we expect people to conduct their day-to-day activities with the passion of achieving our higher level strategies, then we have to provide them a business plan format that is easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to remember. We need to provide them a plan that easily shows how their activities and efforts are contributing to the bigger picture within the organization. We need to give them a “map”.

 

Smart sales people know that there is a lot more to selling than just getting a customer to sign a check or issue a PO. In fact, the best sales people realize that selling has very little to do with the “superiority” of their product or service. One of my favorite ad campaigns of all time is from BASF in the late 1990’s: “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” I like it so much because I think it is analogous to smart selling: We don’t sell our product/service to get you to use our product/service. We sell our product/service to help you do what you do better.

The best sales people understand that the more they understand how their product or service impacts the customer’s ability to run their business (i.e. sell their product or service, manage costs, etc.), the more effective they will be. But understanding how our product or service impacts their business means we have to understand how their business works. We need to know who they sell to, what their go-to-market strategy is, who they compete against and how they compete against them in their market.

Historically, industry or business segment information available to sales teams has been problematic at best. It is either too much, too little, or not the right information at all. The trick is to teach your sales team the key minimum questions they need to ask themselves and research in order to understand their customer’s business “good enough”. How do you help your sales team members learn new business segments and industries?

 

As a leader, creating the company vision is easy; putting together a plan that gets everyone in the organization passionately marching in the same direction to achieve that vision is much harder! The missing link for so many leaders is to connect their vision to their strategies to their tactics. Many organizations seem to “get off track” because the day-to-day tactics of well-meaning individual contributors are often counterproductive to achieving the strategies that contribute to the overall company vision. And it’s not the individual contributor’s fault; it’s our fault as leaders! One of the most important things we can do as a leader in fact, it may be the single most important thing we do is to ensure that everyone in the company not only understands the vision, but also understands how their day-to-day contribution impacts the strategies that support the vision.

Ultimately it’s all in the “how”. When faced with a customer service issue, do our service reps understand why a happy customer is so important to the company’s strategies? Do they understand that “how” they satisfy this customer actually makes a difference? You see, if their goal is simply to get the customer to check “Very Satisfied” on all the survey questions, they’re going to approach that customer service issue differently than if their goal is to ensure the customer is so satisfied they will buy from us again. As a leader, I need to be confident that my customer service people know that customer satisfaction is a key contributor to achieving our recurring revenue goals which will help us become the “#1 Provider of Widgets in the Tri-City Area”.

Tactics connected to Strategies connected to Vision. Creating that type of connectedness throughout your organization requires that you lead with purpose by clearly connecting the company’s tactics and strategies to the company vision. What are some of the ways you create connectedness in your organization?