So How Do You Compete?
Making Sales an Integral Part of Differentiation
Recently we conducted a workshop on “Breaking Free of Your Growth Constraints.” During a fairly in-depth discussion on how to create a scalable sales function, we posited the concept that sales should be a genuine source of differentiation for B2B companies. One member of the audience, who has incredible experience leading US-wide sales for a multi-national tech company, said “Sales as a differentiator…huh…never really looked at it that way.” With that light shed, he continued on by explaining that looking at sales as a differentiator is in fact a great way for growth stage companies to think when building out their sales capability and that type of framing could provide the breakthroughs to growth they’re after.
So how do you compete? Most entrepreneurs love their product, particularly if they have an engineering-type background. Nothing is as beautiful as their baby! Hence they compete on product and features. This is not so bad if you have an absolutely dominant, game changing solution. But do they? Do you? Some other B2B companies might see the world through a financial lens and try to compete on cost, believing that they can be the low cost provider. Perhaps they can, but just how long does that game last when you essentially are playing leap frog with your competitors in a race to the bottom? Still others see operational excellence as the key and find leverage by delivering more reliably and quickly then the alternatives. It’s a great element of a business strategy, but probably won’t lead to the revenue acceleration they covet.
Successful execution of your business plan requires your leadership team to establish as much valuable differentiation as possible. When you rely on a single thread for differentiation you are condemned to the world of mediocre growth. When you over-invest time and money in the product development task you invariably under-invest in the customer touch function. Customer touch isn’t just post-sales support. I’m talking about the entire customer experience, and the pre-sales engagement is a huge part of that overall experience. The sales function is quite often the #1 touch point between your businesses and your customers. It’s where customers develop a feel for the value, sincerity, and integrity of your company. In fact, in a study just completed by McKinsey, it was found that in B2B transactions personal interactions with sales reps remained the number one influence on why customers buy. In a world where so much information is leveraged on the web to inform decisions, wouldn’t it make sense for this early view of value to be magnified to the nth degree? Might that change the trajectory of sales results in an incredibly positive direction?
The bottom line is that the sales function in your business should be an inherent part of your market differentiation. It needs to be invested in and nurtured with the same rigor as the product development or any other cherished function in the business. When companies talk to us about their fledgling sales results, they’ll often mention a few of the following concerns:
• Our pipeline promise isn’t turning into cash flow reality!
• Our deals seem to be stuck in some kind of sales black hole!
• Sales turnover is killing us!
• It seems our reps just aren’t opening enough doors!
When we see these signs, we know companies have most likely under-invested in the sales function. They fundamentally miss the fact that great sales results are the result of a very conscious and deliberate effort to create a world-beating sales capability. Great products don’t lead to great results all by themselves. Once your core offering is ready for market, a focus and resource shift needs to happen in the leadership team from product development to sales development. Focusing on and changing your product won’t affect customer acquisition nearly as much focusing on and changing the way you sell. Done right, it will change customer perception of your value, eliminate the sales black hole syndrome and start turning market potential into real revenue.
HOW TO MAKE SALES A DIFFERENTIATOR IN YOUR ENTERPRISE
How then does one go about creating a sales capability that is a significant source of market differentiation? While there is already too much written on this topic, let me at least lay out a few key concepts to get you started on your journey.
Create Customer Value: First off, a great sales capability is all about creating customer value. Then and only then is it about collecting orders. Your product creates value, right? Your internal processes create value, right? Shouldn’t your number one external facing function be about creating value? Don’t you think customers would value a sales professional that provides unique and valuable insight about improving their business?
High Touch/High Value Sales Model: Creating customer value requires a high touch/high value sales model. The frequency of customer interaction or touch is crucial, but only when those touch points create value. We used to have a rule in our own company, which was that “you must add value on every touch.” The bottom line is that if you plan on contacting or visiting a customer, only do so if you’re adding value to their job.
Get Close to Your Customers: To do this requires an intimate knowledge of your target customer and how they create value in their job, what their goals are and how they are measured. It requires you to then probe for the gaps in where they are and where they want to be. You may not know their job as well as they do, but you sure should know it better than your competitors. You should aspire to be closer to your customer than them.
Drive Thought Leadership: Getting close to your customers is part one of creating value, but the other element is being the one driving thought leadership. This starts with developing your company’s distinct “Point of View” about how the market is being underserved and how companies are missing out on significant improvement opportunities. You share this Point of View early on with your customer. This is then linked with the intimate knowledge of each specific customer’s specific performance gaps and possible ways to close them. These observations don’t come in full product pitches or proposals at this point, but in concise summaries of how they can begin closing those gaps in a way that, ahem, looks just like your solution. We refer to these as solution vignettes. They provide unique insight/value that your customer isn’t receiving elsewhere. They allow you to confirm that your approach is spot on, begin steering the needs, and they save you from writing ill-conceived proposals.
Change the Dialogue: Changing the dialogue that they have with you as a provider is crucial as well. Don’t be perceived as the ones that regurgitate speeds and feeds, but talk about “needs and bleeds”. It’s important to take the conversation to a higher level regarding impact, specifically the impact these issues have on the business in terms of revenue, cost, risk, growth, agility or other competitive levers. You should by all means tie this back to your distinctive Point of View. This requires educating your sales force in-depth on the business/function of your target clients and POV. It requires your sales team have a fluency in the situations your customer is dealing with. They don’t have to be experts, but they do have to be able to carry on an executive level of dialogue.
By adopting these practices, your sales team begins to be viewed as an articulate mirror of their needs. They become the ones that, when companies look in the mirror, begin to see images of a solution that look just like your approach to closing their performance gaps. Implementing these approaches allows you to be the one framing the deals and the one becoming the customer’s trusted advisor. From a strictly competitive point of view, it allows your sales team to execute on a primary tenet of creating a differentiated sales capability:
Don’t strive to be competitive.
Strive to create situations that can’t be competed.
Supporting Sales Tools: There are tools you should create that support this approach. First you have to establish your distinct corporate POV that will engage your customer. Next, you need intelligent probing questionnaires that dig not only into performance gaps, but the impact of those gaps. Another is something we refer to as playback documents that serve as a way to succinctly play back to a customer what you heard about their world, and the challenges they have to success. Great playback documents serve as way to display your commitment to understanding them better than the “other guy,” but also as a way to begin framing those challenges/needs in a way that looks like your solution/POV. They essentially are tools that allow you to magnify your value to your customer.
Key Supporting Processes: As mentioned earlier, great sales capability is about creating customer value during the buying process. So in support of the above beliefs on creating customer value, it’s also mandatory to map a selling process to a typical customer buying process. This will allow you to not only be in concert with your customer during the process, but ideally have one hand firmly on the reins of that buying process so you can positively influence it. Simply put, by understanding the typical buying process, you can design steps and tools your reps can use to best support and speed your customer through this process. Finally, you need a way to orchestrate all of your reps across all of their deals and create some predictability of results. We have always used the weekly forecast call as the method to accomplish much of that. Performed with discipline and rigor, it becomes the weekly touchstone for the sales force as to whether they are truly advancing each deal in a way that adds value to both the company and you. It should perhaps be the most rigorous, disciplined and consistent process/meeting in your business, as it is where actions and dialogue meet accountability. True accountability leads to predictable results, and that leads to the growth you desire and the cash flow visibility you require.
There is more to be said on this topic, but suffice it to say that if you haven’t invested in the sales function with the same fervor as you have the others, then you are relegated to a world of unpredictable and sub-optimal revenue generation. Get started today. True sales differentiation creates strategic value to the business by increasing win rates, reducing sales cycle times and minimizing forecast risk.
In future posts, we’ll talk about tactical elements that support this strategic and philosophical approach to creating market differentiation through a customer value adding sales approach. We know it works. We successfully IPO’d our last company by positioning the strength of sales capability as IP.
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