driving growth, bucking the trend

I was talking with a colleague recently about how everyone in the IT industry claims to do “value-led” sales these days. So they concentrate on understanding a potential customer’s problems and concerns first – and only afterwards work out whether they can help provide some or all of the solution to those problems (for which read “work out how they can flog the customer whatever products/services they happen to have in their carpetbag“).

Well, that’s the theory. The reality? A few moments after claiming this is the way they work, many IT salespeople inevitably end up saying “… and this is why you need Product X.” After which they subject a poor potential client to a tediously dull slide deck of features, jargon and product price points, all skewed to a technologist’s view of the world. After all, if you’re selling Product X, by definition that’s what the customer needs, right?

When I’m the customer, I show sales people like this the value they bring me – by showing them the door. On the other side of the fence, I’ve always found the only way of building long term sustainable relationships with clients is by leading with a detailed conversation about what they are trying to achieve. By going in and listening not by talking at them. And by being honest when any or all of the products or services in our portfolio don’t have a role to play. Pretty simple really.

Yet this approach is surprisingly rare. Traditional sales people often find it a frustrating experience. I’ve known them become sufficiently impatient that they will interrupt a useful conversation with a potential client at just the wrong moment only to inject some crass and self-serving point about Product This or Technology That being the answer. Sigh.

One company was kind enough to let me audit and review why their sales were moribund – and why many of their customers were, let’s put it politely, at best lukewarm about the value they brought. It didn’t take long to find out why. After watching the way the company worked, and listening to many of their clients, it was obvious the relationship was low grade: tactical and commercial, and not delivering any long-term value to either the company or the clients. Worse, it would not have taken much to start a rapid slide into decline at the company, as, domino-like, its clients found other companies with a better attitude able to bring more value to them.

After persuading the management team where their issues were – which included taking a few of their key clients into the boardroom with me to kick their butts – the next phase was to fix the problems. Instead of talking about products and features, we mentored the management team and sales staff in one of their business units to focus on understanding the client first. Sounds simple enough, yet it was met with some dogged and ugly resistance. Some sales people even argued with their clients when I brought them in: how to win friends and influence people, not.

We decided to start with just one part of the company to see if we could establish a comparison between how they performed, and how the remainder of the company, using their old sales methods, were performing. Key to the success of this for me was the help of some of their existing, and somewhat jaded clients.

Of course, you don’t change a culture overnight. But you do see results fairly quickly when you get it right. When the Director called me in to run through the figures, no wonder he looked pleased:

The team had dramatically outperformed the other business units. In a static to declining market, they’d driven growth. The other metrics, about client satisfaction, were equally as strong. From being moribund and dull, the relationships were now driving value to both sides, and the company was taking highly innovative and useful ideas to their clients.

I don’t claim anything novel here. But sometimes it takes an outsider to remind people that how they perceive themselves to be can be very different from the way the outside world sees them. In the current economic climate, many organisations need to dramatically sharpen up their act if they want to survive.

In harder economic times, older companies and organisations need to rediscover that primal hunger and passion of start-ups if they are going to thrive. And the best place to start? Sit down and listen to your customers: stop beating them about the head with your latest self-serving slide deck, product or service. You might just find it helps.

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