Saturday, January 24, 2009

It's Not Your Customer's Responsibility To Do Your Job!

Yes, this is another post about what professional sales is all about.

It seems too many of us just spend our time talking about how fantastic our products/services are; how much superior we are to the competition; how the customer cannot afford not to buy our products and services. We focus our time on presenting FAB's: Features, Advantages, Benefits. We spend most of our time on the pitch and too little time understanding what the customer is trying to achieve.

Yet later, mostly when we lose the deal, often when our customers raise objections, we can't understand why they just don't get it! We wonder why customers don't buy! We wonder why they won't take the time to meet with us! We wonder why they aren't as excited about our latest and greatest as we are!

The problem is, we are asking our customers to do our jobs. It should be no surprise, they are busy enough doing their jobs, they don't have the time to do ours. And they never should!

When all we do is talk and pitch, when all we do is drop off brochures to our customers, when all we do is talk about how fantastic we are, we are not helping our customers solve their business problems. Even if the customer has a need and desire, we are not demonstrating our value in ways meaningful to them --- so by default, the customer has to do the job for us.

We pitch our products, but the customer is left to figure out what it really means for them. They have to determine whether it solves their problems and improves their business. They often have to do the business justification. That's our job!

The sales professional must be a Business Professional (Thanks Dave Stein!)! As a business professional, it is our responsibility to understand our customers' industries, their markets, their competition, their business goals - priorities - strategies, their problems and opportunities, their financial requirements and hurdles.

Once we understand our customers from a business perspective, we can present our products/services as solutions for their businesses. We demonstrate how it will impact their business, what it means in helping achieve their goals and how they justify the investment to management. Now, we are not only doing our job, but we are creating value by helping our customers with their jobs.

There are a lot of overused words in professional sales, but they still have meaning if we execute on them. Moving from Sales Professionals to becoming Business Professionals is critical. True solutions and consultative selling works. Creating value in every interchange works. They're not new ideas, but the reason we keep talking about them is the majority of sales people don't execute them.

Our customers' have more work than they can handle. Let's not burden them with doing our work for us.

Dramatically Increase Sales!

Seth Godin seems to come up with the simplest and thought provoking ideas. I can't improve on it, so I will only repeat it. But I encourage you to go to his site, and read this and the 100's of others he has.

Seth's idea for the
"Easiest Cheap Way To Dramatically Increase Sales:"

Call or write your customers, saying:

"I know that times might be tough for you. Is there anything I can do to pitch in and help?"

Thank you, Seth!

Does Management Really Want The Truth?

I'm a great fan of Michael Wade's column in US News and World Report. He just published a provocative article: On-Staff Whistleblowers Can Help Companies Prepare for Disaster. The article was interesting, but I found the comment from "Chris of NJ" most interesting.

As many businesses see disaster striking all around, Michael suggests that large organizations charge a small number of bright "maverick's" chartered with the task of identifying potential disasters within organizations, before they strike, bringing them forward to management so they can pre-empt them and act. Interesting idea, I've seen some organizations do this with internal resources, and many doing this with external resources.

Chris's comment is interesting, I get the sense he speaks from deep experience. He identifies two flaws with Michael's ideas:

The first: Is there an audience for such a critique? Stated differently, does management really want to hear or see evidence that they are falling down in even the smallest regard? I am often called in by executives to do these assessments. Many execs seem sincere in understanding their challenges and stepping up to them. Some are, frankly, going through the motions. Regardless of the starting point, too often there really does not seem to be an audience or appetite for the critique.

I'm often reminded of the Jack Nicoholson line in the movie "A Few Good Men," where as Tom Cruise challenges him "I want the truth!" and Nicholson responds, "You can't handle the don't want the truth...."

As Chris points out, does management really want to see or hear the evidence that they are failing in even the smallest ways? In my experiences, despite all assurances when challenging them on this, it is only the most special leaders that really do.

Chris identified the second problem: The plan versus react mindset. Too many times, particularly in this very difficult economy, the knee jerk reaction prevails. We see evidence of this in many of the bail out programs, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Too often, organizations fail to take even the shortest amount of time to think about the issues, developing corrective plans that create sustainable improvement and advantage. Consequently, organizations careen from one set of actions to another, leaving in their wake, laid off people, confused/demoralized employees, wasted resources, and lost opportunity. Some people will argue that fast action is required to survive. Fast action is does not conflict with thoughtful action that produces sustainable results.

This economy presents tremendous opportunity for those leaders that really seize it. It requires a critical and honest look in the mirror. We all make mistakes and fail, we need to recognize that and move forward. In moving forward, we must take the time to select a path, not one that gets us to tomorrow, but one that creates a sustainable future. Some of the results may be deferred, but in the end, I believe those organizations that act in this way will emerge the strongest.

What is your view? Does management really want the truth? Are they prepared to act in a planned and thoughtful manner when they have recognized the truth? What kinds of leaders are needed to drive this?

By the way, "Chris of NJ," if you read this, thanks for your great comment on Michael's column!

Friday, January 23, 2009

How To Handle An Established Sales Rep Who Won't Engage In New Account Development?

Paul Castain raised this issue at LinkedIn. It's an interesting question. Let me reposition it with a challenge I've seen in many organizations.

You have a "top sales performer" -- they make their numbers, often lead in the numbers, but don't do a whole number of other things. As Paul raised, they might not spend time bringing in new accounts. they might refuse to do forecasts or update the CRM system, they might overspend on expenses, they might sell only a few products and refuse to sell the broad portfolio of products they are expected to sell. There can be any number of challenges these "top performers" create. What do we do with these people? Do we let them continue on their own, as long as they produce the numbers or do we do something about them?

I actually had one of these people working for me in my very first sales management job. You could always count on him for the numbers, but just about everything else was a disaster. He refused to collaborate with his team-mates, he thought the rules and processes of the organization didn't apply to him --- he showed up in the office when he wanted, he was months late on expense reports and they were always over budget. When I asked him for a forecast, he'd say, "Don't worry, I'll make my numbers, I always have."

He really frustrated me, I was upset that he wouldn't do all the other things that we expected sales people to do. His peers started complaining about his behavior, "Why can he get away with these things and we can't?" We had a very complex systems solution to sell, he needed support from pre-sales engineers and other people--none of them like do work with him and would come to complain with me.

I struggled with what to do. I coached, pleaded, begged. I told him to give me his receipts and I would do his expense reports, I did the same with his forecast.

Fortunately, I had a brilliant manager. He saw my struggles with this difficult "top sales guy." He recognized the problem immediately and stepped in to solve the problem --- he fired me! About 60 days later, he also fired the problem sales person.

As managers and leaders, we are expected to manage performance. Performance has many dimensions. Hitting your number is one criteria--often the top one, but there are many other dimensions of performance. These can include a variety of things. For example, if new account development is an important part of the organization's growth strategy, then the performance plan needs to include new account development criteria and metrics. There are certain performance standards important to the efficient operation of the organization. For example, timely forecasts so that manufacturing can do the right planning for customer demand. Timely expense reports so finance can manage cash flow and reporting appropriately. There are many other things.

Establishing strong performance standards and holding people accountable to those standards is critical for the success of any organization. Once, those standards are relaxed or not enforced, then the organization will not achieve its goals. Taken to an extreme, chaos reigns.

My manager was absolutely right in firing me. I did not recognize the impact this individual was having on the rest of the organization. Morale was very low. People saw this guy getting "special treatment." I lost all respect and credibility with may people and the organization. People didn't think I was tough enough to step up to managing this difficult individual. Overall performance in my group and related organizations was starting to decline. This problem was not the sales person, but it was me. I was not managing for performance, I was willing to sacrifice everything for a guy who made his numbers.

Why wasn't the problem sales person immediately fired? My manager (or by this time former manager) was right on this, as well. He sat down with the problem sales person, reviewing performance expectations with the sales person. He made it clear to the him that he was expected to meet all performance standards we had established. The manager established a plan with the problem sales person and a time frame to get into compliance. Unfortunately, the guy didn't and was fired 60 days later.

Fortunately, I learned from that experience. Today, I see to many managers and organizations that are not achieving their goals and objectives. Very often, when you start looking at the issues, they have poorly defined and/or poorly managed performance standards. In sales, too often people focus on the number only, and don't address other dysfunctional behaviors. In my experience, these have a debilitating impact on the organization.

Today, managing this issue is more difficult than ever. With most companies looking for sales and deals wherever they can, should we be firing top producers who consistently do not meet other performance expectations or standards?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sales Manager: Stop Wasting Your Time On Coaching Meetings!

I get complaints from both sales people and managers on the topic of coaching. Sales people don't feel they are getting the coaching they need---their managers don't have time. Managers, don't feel they are providing the coaching they should---they don't have time (and they don't know how to--but that's another post).

Somehow, people have the notion that coaching is something that you do differently, it's kind of like the performance review, a specific coaching session or meeting is scheduled and the manager has to devote a certain amount of time to the "coaching meeting." The reality is the meetings are scheduled, then rescheduled, then cancelled, then combined to be part of the annual performance review.

Is that the way we should be coaching and developing our sales people (this message also applies to any other business professional--just do a global replace of sales with whatever function you manage)?

Coaching has to be integrated into the daily business. The impact of the immediacy of the feedback is phenomenal, and, pragmatically, it's the only way it gets done.

Every sales manager that I know conducts reviews. Pipeline/funnel, account, territory, deal/opportunity reviews. Usually, these are focused on the business, but sales managers miss the opportunity to use these normal reviews to coach their teams and each sales professional.

The review process is part of the normal set of activities sales professionals are involved in every day. They present the sale manager not only an opportunity to monitor the status of the business, but also to coach. In these review meetings the manager can:

1. Reinforce strategies, priorities, processes, even the use of key tools (like CRM).
2. Identify best practices within the team or individual performance and reinforce these great behaviors.
3. Identify weaknesses or disfunctional behavior and correct them.
4. Use the meetings to subtly develop new skills and capabilities by suggesting changes in approach---even discussing them in the meeting.

These review meetings are a tremendous opportunity to accomplish a lot of things, let's not just limit them to sharing information about the status of the business. (If you are interested in more information about how to leverage these reviews, we've written some white papers on these, just email me and I'll send you a copy).

Separately, managers travel with their people (or should be). These represent great opportunities to catch your people doing something right, coaching to reinforce the good behaviors and eliminating the bad behaviors. Unfortunately, the tendency is to focus exclusively on the business issues, and even worse, managers push the sales person to the side and "take over" the sales process, acting as super sales people. This usually doesn't help the deal and certainly has a negative impact on the sales person's performance.

Traveling with your people is a great opportunity to move business forward (only if you can add value that your sales people can't), and to coach and develop your sales people in real time.

Coaching is critical! The only way managers will be successful and have the impact they need is to integrate coaching into the daily business process. We need to stop the notion of scheduling specific coaching meetings and use every opportunity we have to coach our teams and people.

As A Sales Manager, What Would Your Top 3 Activities Be?

David Batup raised an interesting question on the Sales Best Practices group in LinkedIn. He posed the question: As a sales manager, what would your top 3 activities be?"

I couldn't limit myself to 3, but my response is below:

"Nice question:


1. Make certain you have a strong sales process in place, everyone understands why it's important, and how to use it in managing their own territories and activities. Make sure you have the right tools in place to support the effective execution of the strategies and processes. Make sure your people understand how to use them.
2. Clear identification and communication of priorities, focus, and metrics. (both within the sales organization and to the rest of the enterprise) Metrics need to be both forward looking (perhaps activity and funnel metrics) and historic (bookings, revenue).


1. Leverage the normal review process (funnel/pipeline, territory, account, deal reviews) to reinforce the sales process and priorities. Use these reviews as opportunities to communicate and reinforce priorities, to coach on skills, to provide ongoing performance feedback. Make sure you are measuring and tracking against metrics.
2. Travel with your people, but in a value added way. Dive into deals where you can support them in improving the strategy, accelerate the sales cycle, improve their odds of winning. Use the windshield time to communicate, coach, mentor. Catch them doing things right and reinforce these good behaviors. Avoid the tendency to take over the call/deal and be super sales person, but help build the sales person's capability to effectively and efficiently manage the process.
3. Keep aware of what is going on in the industry, with your customers, competition, and company. Communicate to your people, make sure they understand what it means to them and how it impacts what they should be doing. Continually identify best practices and new ideas and communicate.
4. Support, defend, communicate what your team is doing internally. Make certain people within the company understand their contribution. Listen to people internally and see where you and your team may need to make changes and take corrective actions.
5. Address performance issues immediately, don't wait until the performance review, don't avoid addressing them. "Nip them in the bud."
6. Network within your industry, keep a short list of potential candidates, nurture them. Keep current with what's going on.
7. Integrate your coaching into the normal "day to day business" rather than "coaching/mentoring" sessions. Those will never happen.
8. Finally, become agile in leaping over tall buildings with single bounds ;-) Start with low buildings!"

David, great question, thanks for raising it!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Why Do Sales People Have Such A Bad Reputation?

It's Friday evening, I'm cruising some of the blogs and other forums as I wind up the day. I saw a question posed on the Sales Best Practices board in LinkedIn.

The question concerned the Reputation of Sales, asking about why do we see such bad stereotypes of sales people -- lazy, unprofessional, etc. It went on to ask why people don't like sales people.

For those of you that are regular readers, you probably know that was all that was needed to set me back on my soapbox. Here's my response:

"I've been a proud sales professional for all my career -- though often my title doesn't say that. At the same time, I am not proud with the lack of professional practice in our profession.

I'm not talking about the hucksters, peddlers and bottom feeders. Unfortunately, they will always exist, but I don't think our profession is judged by them.

I think too often we do it ourselves through sloppy undisciplined practice.

I talk to 1000's of sales people a year, one of their common complaints is: It's impossible to get appointments and to talk to people, no one will see us.

When you think about the reasons for that, it's easy to see why we can't get appointments: We waste the time of the people we want to see! We don't create value in every interchange we have with the customer. No wonder they don't want to talk to us.

Think about it. How many times have you heard people talking abut a "Howdy Call?" These are a pure waste of everyone's time.

What about the calls, where all the sales person does is tries to pitch the latest new product? The only question they asked was "How are you?" (And they didn't wait for the answer--they went into their pitch).

What about the sales person who is unprepared? Too many of us are smart-fast, that's part of what makes us good, but shooting from the lip does not make up for the lack of preparation.

We interview customers, they complain: Sales people don't understand my business, priorities or problems. No wonder, we are too busy talking and not asking questions.

The reputation of sales people can be changed if all of us start doing one thing. Customers will open their doors and answer their phones if we start doing one thing.

We must create value in every interchange with our customers! If we don't, we are wasting their time.

In planning for a meeting, if we cannot identify the value we will create, then we are not ready for the meeting and must cancel it.

The concept is so simple, why don't we execute it?"

Well I'm off my soapbox, why do you think we have such a bad reputation, what can we do about it?

No Grin-F#!?ing Allowed!

Well, I've got your attention with the implied profanity! Sorry about that, but we all know what I mean. We've all seen it, experienced it, even actively participated in it. We all know what is happening.

Think of the endless meetings we have, whether they are internal meetings, with customers, suppliers, and others. Everyone presents a polite face. There is an air of
"superficial congeniality," seeming agreement, then the meeting ends and everyone goes off and does what they intended anyway.

It may be a passive aggressiveness, it may be an avoidance to confront and openly discuss the tough issues. It can be a fear of facing reality, or an avoidance of discussing substantive performance issues. It is group and self-deception. It is letting form triumph over substance.

Michael McKinney calls it
"Living Within The Lie." Everyday, in the news we see the extreme consequences this behavior creates --- stories of catastrophic failure --- of systems, organizations, and people. Companies failing, 100's-1000's of layoffs, bailouts, and the list goes on.

Let's not let the catastrophic failures divert our attention from the fact that this happens all too often in little ways, with each of us every day. While the result may not be a catastrophic failure, in the least this behavior drives under performance, and lays the foundation for potential catastrophic failures.

Many of my formative years were spent in IBM. At the time we had something called the "contention system." It was a process to actively stimulate different ideas and approaches. It stimulated active, sometimes heated, discussion and debate. The goal was to consider many alternatives, evaluate their merits, and to emerge, with a consolidated view that everyone supported 300%. I have to admit, it didn't work all the time, but it did work most of the time.

The good news about the current economy, it that we no longer have anything to hide behind. Behaviors and practices around avoidance, confronting reality and the tough issues can no longer be masked or hidden.

The solution is simple, though hard to execute. Superficial congeniality can no longer be acceptable in any organization. This doesn't mean being impolite or mean. It requires each of us to commit to engaging each other in talking about the tough issues, not to let ourselves be fooled, not to blow people off in meetings -- leaving and doing what we want.

Until this bad behavior is reversed, it is impossible to drive and sustain real performance improvement.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Reducing the Learning Curve: Rapid Onboarding Critical to Sales Performance

Guest Post By Jeffrey Stanley, Director of Sales Excellence, AT&T Mobility

All sales managers know the problem…we’ve spent months recruiting, interviewing and hiring the right person. The great hire has started, all of a sudden management is complaining: Why aren’t they producing sales?

Or even worse, we know that we’ve made a great hire, sent them to training and assigned them a strong territory. However, after 3 or 4 months they get frustrated and leave. Not only do we have to take the time to go through the process all over again, but we have the tremendous expense and more importantly, the opportunity costs. We experience months with no coverage and lowered productivity in a critical sales territory…more months of recovering, re-building relationships, and restoring sales momentum.

It’s a nightmare every sales manager lives and in our experience, there are two root causes to this problem. The first is poor hiring; the second is that organizations do not have an adequate onboarding process.

Much has been written on hiring. However, having a focused, disciplined onboarding process is critical to success and retention. Onboarding for many companies is: “here’s your Blackberry and PC, here are your log-in’s and the bathroom is down the hall on the right”. New hires then receive some amount of product training, their territory assignment, quota and the following question…what’s your forecast for next month? And the result:

- Very long ramp times to productivity—meaning you are losing lots of business;
- Frustrated new hires, resulting in higher attrition;
- Return to go…do not collect $200…Do Not Make Your Numbers!

A proactive onboarding process rapidly assimilates new hires into the organization, makes them comfortable with their role, and gets them productive much more quickly. Sales Onboarding initiatives have demonstrated upwards of 40% improvement in productivity and an ROI within 2.5-3 months.

Regardless of whether your company has an extensive new hire development program, there are some best practices that will help with new hire onboarding, productivity and reduced attrition:

1. New hire onboarding needs to be well thought out and effectively communicated. Document “administrative” onboarding activities (id, systems access, laptop, mobile device, contact lists etc…) and timelines associated with each. Arrange for administrative onboarding items as soon as SLA’s will allow. The more transparent this part of the process, the more quickly a new hire can feel comfortable with the new position and focus in on their development. This helps set the tone in your relationship as a coach and advocate with the new hire.

2. Clearly communicate your expectation of the new hire, as well as the onboarding process. Define skill requirements, sales systems, processes, activities, resources and associated timelines within new hire lifecycle. Determine how this relates to the ramp to full-quota and what is the plan to get there?

3. Utilize the diverse resources that are available to you including: HR, formal training programs, web resources, subject matter experts and multiple levels of leadership. Expose the new hire to company resources, strategic partners and senior executives to better enable their understanding of the “big picture” and provide a model for success in the new organization.

4. Engage the new hire in his or her development. Use an internal assessment if available. If not, get their input as to the level of expertise in certain skill areas. But beware of biased self assessments…validate with observable coaching.

5. Assign a mentor to help a new hire navigate and prioritize their way through the company.

6. Conduct regular 1on1’s with your new hires. Be honest in your assessment of their progress and openly address any issues and concerns. Consistently review activity, sales funnel, performance metrics and expectations vs. results.

7. Start formal and informal training early in the new hire’s lifecycle. Don’t send your seller off to new hire training 5 or 6 months after they have started. At that point they are most likely (hopefully) too engrained in deals and customer engagements to truly benefit from new hire training. Along the same lines, drive your training organization to develop a curriculum that is appropriate to your sellers and your sales process.

8. Develop an understanding of what is and isn’t covered in the new hire curriculum and to what degree. Reinforce and inspect where necessary and work with your new hire to create an individual development plan to reinforce and complement formal training.

9. Make territory planning and reviews a high-priority with the new hire. This ensures an understanding of their module and agreement on the prospecting strategy. It also will help eliminate excuses of inequitable territory assignment should there be sub-par performance.

10. Make onboarding one of your top priorities. If you feel like other sales and operational imperatives make this an impossibility, then perhaps you should consider creating an “Onboarding Sales Manager” who would assume management and developmental responsibility for new hires in their first 4-6 months; ensuring a focus on the fundamental skills, practices, processes and systems necessary for a new hire’s success.

Don’t leave the onboarding of your new hire’s to chance. Manage the entire process proactively and you will reduce the time to productivity and maximize retention.

Jeff Stanley has 20 years sales and management experience focused on telecommunications and outsourcing. Questions and comments can be directed to

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stop Pitching, Start Listening To Your Customers

Last week, I wrote a post "Stop Assuming Your Know Your Customers, Start Listening To Them! The post stimulated a lot of comments on the different sites it was posted on. Thanks to each of you who took the time to offer your great ideas!

In that post, I ranted about the focus sales and marketing professionals seem to have on "Pitching," arguing we need to stop pitching and start engaging our customers in conversations.

I'm back on my soapbox, I read a post from someone I hold in high regard, but he set me off. The post was entitled, "How Persuasive Is Your Pitch." We all fall victim to it, we spend too much time focusing on the pitch and not having an effective conversation to engage our customers in solving their problems.

I did a quick, very unscientific experiment. I googled "sales pitch" and got 1,900,000 hits. I then tried various queries on listening to customers ("sales listening, effective listening for sales, etc.) I finally settled on the query "effective listening" only because it showed the highest numeric result. I didn't limit it to sales. I got 202,000 hits --- a little more than 10% of the hits on talking.

I think the results are an interesting reflection of the behavior I see too often in business, particularly with sales and marketing. We all spend too much time talking and too little time listening. Asking good questions and actively listening is the first critical step in engaging customers in meaningful conversations.

We cannot demonstrate or produce value for customers until we engage them in meaningful conversations about their business --- and meaningful conversations--not pitches---about the value of our solutions to their businesses.

To the sales/marketing consultants and guru's, I appreciate the need for helping people improve the effectiveness of their presentation skills or their pitches, but let's start building the skills and capabilities of professionals in listening and engaging customers in powerful --- even "fierce" conversations.

To sales and marketing executives, make sure your people are spending at least as much time in listening and having meaningful conversations with customers. Measure them on their questions/comments(talking) ratio. Get it to at least one, strive to get it to be greater than 1.

Sales and marketing professionals, raise the value you bring to your customers, improve the results you produce by pitching less, questioning and listening more.

How do you make certain you are engaging your customers in a conversation? Let's share experience and tips so we can all improve.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Work On Stuff That Matters

Thanks to Jim Estill, I came across this outstanding post by Tim O'Rielly: Work On Stuff That Matters, First Principles.

As you read this post, you are reading the fourth re-write. At first I summarized Tim's post, adding my views. Then I tried expanding on it.

As I re-read and edited, I realized I was trying to polish something that didn't need polishing. Read Tim's post, it's important. Then figure out what matters to you and work on it!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Moving From Customer Acquisiton To Customer Engagement

For some strange reason, in the past few days, at least four different executives have called me to speak about changes they see with their customers markets and organizations. The conversations all began at different points, for differing reasons, but seemed to be converging on a central issue: The need for organizations, marketing, and sales to focus on Customer Engagement as critical to success and growth in the future.

I have to admit, I am still sorting out some of the issues and what they mean, but some of the things we see are:

1. Traditional means of acquiring customers is not working. Yesterday, I had a spirited discussion with a colleague in France around the topic: Cold Calling is Dead, How Do We Leverage Social Media for marketing! Sales people, don't cheer to quickly, I don't think cold calling is dead, but I do believe the nature of cold calling needs to change. As an example, every day, I have conversations with new people-prospects-potential clients. These are, for all intents, cold calls, but the nature of how we chose to engage in a conversation has changed. In our discussion, we talked about how our own work was changing and the role of new social networking tools was changing the types of conversations, who we engaged, and the means by which we carried on those conversations.

Yesterday, I participated in a review of one of my client's demand generation programs. They have well defined and refined programs, well targeted lists, and a reasonable value proposition. Years ago, their programs would have been considered by many to represent best practices. Now, while the programs are producing results, they are far less than two years ago.

2. This morning the EVP of Sales for a major technology company called me to shoot the breeze about what's happening in the markets. His view was the differentiator for many organizations was going to be customer acquisition. As he looked at his company, his competitors, his customers and the markets they participate in, he viewed that most of the companies were at parity in terms of costs, pricing, product offerings, quality, and other factors. He believed the critical success factor for his company would be the ability to acquire and support customers in a way that differed from any one else.

We started talking about what that meant---I saw were moving beyond the traditional view of customer acquisition to a different way of engaging customers and potential customers in conversations about their business.

3. No sooner had I hung up the phone, then another call from the VP of Strategic Accounts for another company called me. I felt like deja vu all over again! But the conversation also had a different twist. He was having a heated discussion with the CEO of his company that just because they had Salesforce working well for their company, they couldn't stop their marketing activities. He was trying to convince the CEO (who was trying to cut people and money), that this tool was just a tool, but could not displace many of the programs they had for generating business. As we got into the discussion, it became clear that his CEO, was starting to read too many blogs, getting too many tweets, and had gotten a big dose of social media over the holidays and saw that as the salvation for business generation.

For some strange reason, I could go on with the stories, all they do is reinforce the fact that profound changes are afoot.

To some degree, I think the silver lining to the economic and financial challenges we all face is that thinking about how we do business is no longer a nice thing to do, it may mean survival. The current crises gives those of us who take the opportunity, the chance to profoundly change the way we build relationships with our customers, retain them and acquire them. I think those organizations that choose to engage customers in a different way will emerge the winners.

I'm still sorting a lot of this stuff out. I don't know the answers, but have some suspicions about the changes.

1. I think the old ways are far from being dead. Cold calling is not dead, prospecting, advertising (traditional), trade shows, direct marketing, telemarketing, websites, SEO, "adwords." and all the stuff we have grown up with and which consume much of our customer acquisition and retention time, money, and energy is here to stay----but needs to be evolved and modified.

2. I'm still trying to figure out things like LinkedIn and Facebook and how they contribute to business development--at more than a personal level, but in helping enterprises do business differently. I'm convinced there is a role for these (other than advertising), but I (and others) are still learning. I'm starting to see some of my clients engage their customers and partners in very interesting ways, using of all things, You Tube. Their customers and partners are taking matters into their own hands and promoting my client's products in very interesting ways. Fortunately, my client was smart enough to encourage it rather than try to stop it.

3. Likewise, I know that blogging has a role, but at an enterprise level, a lot of challenges remain. I recent newspaper article discussed the challenges of corporate blogs and their believability. I'm also sure that things like Twitter have a role to play (I'm almost embarrassed to say I just signed up yesterday and have yet to send my first tweet --- I think that's what they're called).

In the coming years, rather than displacing anything, I think we will see creative intermingling of these tools and approaches, creating a richer dialog and experience with current and potential customers.

In the end, all of these things are just tools. It's important that we not lose sight of what we are really talking about. Business growth, marketing, and selling in the coming years will require us to engage our customers differently.

I think we will start having conversations not presentations. I think customer acquisition will become less about marketing and selling, and more about collaboration and partnering.

I think the number, depth, and richness of the conversations will increase profoundly---the tools and technologies enable this---they also enable all this to happen in real time.

I think organizations, buyers and sellers, will be more selective about the number and quality of the relationships they establish. After all, this takes time, energy, commitment, and has a cost. No one can afford to have deep relationships with everyone.

I think fluid networks of "just in time" collaborations will become important to building business. If each organization can only afford to develop and nurture a limited number of deep relationships, a way to grow and expand is to begin to network those relationships in real time, when they produce value.

While things change, some stay the same. Relationships are important, the virtual world will complement, but not displace deep human relationship--face to face or voice to voice. The traditional tools we have used will still have a place, but have to be positioned with all the other tools to create richer customer experiences.

Sales will have to change. For the first, consultative or solution selling must become the fabric of the sales process, not just buzz words. Sales professionals will have to leverage and use the new tools to enrich their relationships with customers and influencers in the markets. They will have to move from pitching to listening to engaging the customer in a conversation.

Maybe I'm wordsmithing, but I think we are talking about something different than customer retention or acquisition. Those sound too one way or push oriented to me. I'm also not talking about the pull orientation in some of the new social media (or traditional consumer advertising).

Somehow the concept of Customer Engagement seems to be the closest to embracing all of what needs to be done to survive, grow and thrive.

Does this make sense or am I just playing with words?

Stop Assuming You Know Your Customers, Start Listening To Them!

Thanks to one of Fred Wilson's recent posts, I discovered Whitney Hess, a user experience designer in New York. She was quoted: "In order to survive, companies have to stop assuming they know their customers and start listening to them." Simple and profound.

I spend a lot of my time with business, marketing, and sales executives. Many espouse being customer focused. Many are making good strides, but in my experience we have a long way to go.

Whitney's comment got me thinking. Why is it so difficult to listen to our customers? Why is it so difficult to engage our customers in a different conversation?

These are not new concepts, but why is it so difficult to execute?

I'm not sure I have a lot of insight into these issues, but I have some ideas --- by the way, I'd welcome yours.

1. We have met the enemy and it is us! Most of the organizations I work with are filled with brilliant, creative people. People who have accomplished a lot and produces results. Sometimes, however, this creates an arrogance that we know more and better than anyone else. We stop listening and start telling. The challenge comes when they --- the customer --- stop listening to what we are telling them, Usually they stop listening because we really don't understand them and are not producing value.

2. We've stopped seeing the forest because we are focusing on the tree! (Not the trees, but THE tree.) People develop a selective listening. We've succeeded in becoming focused and goal directed, but that may leave us blind to what is really being said. We focus on The tree, Our tree, and ignore the neighboring trees and forest. Except those may be more important to the customer or create new opportunities for us.

I'll linger on this point a little. One of my clients has very good product managers. They come from the industry---many are former customers. They engage customers in deep conversations about technologies and their needs. The problem is, they are engaging in talking to a specific group of customers---specialized technicians. These technicians important in providing infrastructure to support the business but they aren't driving the business. They only respond to the needs of the business users. My client would do well to expand their view to include the business users, understanding their needs and drivers, along with those of the technical users. They will discover new opportunities---new trees.

3. Our mother's taught us not to talk to strangers! Good advice when we were kids, but now it is too limiting. If we only talk to our friends, if we only do assessments of our own industry, if we only track and respond to competitors, we narrow, blind and inbred. We don't get to see and experience new things. Our strategies become incremental, not game changers. We continue to exchange places with our competitors for superiority, yet each evolve slowly and are probably not seeing and creating breakthrough opportunities for our customers and ourselves.

I spend much of my time working with top executives in high technology B2B organizations. At the same time, I also do work in certain niches of the fashion/lifestyle industries. I am always struck by the innovation, creativity, and some of the business models I see in the fashion/lifestyle sector --- mostly because some of them have so much potential when applied to high tech B2B! I don't have to be smart, insightful or innovative, I just have to learn how to adapt these creative ideas to a different set of circumstances and industry.

4. We've lost the art of having conversations. We focus on the pitch ---- What's your elevator pitch? Let's go pitch the customer! Even in this day of Zen Presentations, we focus on the pitch, on presenting, on talking, on winning a one sided argument.

Where do we talk about listening? How do we develop the ability to have a good "elevator listen?"

Actually, it goes beyond listening --- it's establishing a conversation or a dialog. It's about engaging the people we are with. It's about learning something new, realizing we might have to change our position. It's about challenging our own and other's ideas and positions. It's about having a healthy debate and maybe some conflict --- all oriented around creating better solution -- for our customers, for our businesses.

I could go on, but will stop here. I owe a big thanks to Whitney for her insightful comment: "In order to survive, companies have to stop assuming they know their customers and start listening to them."

I'd love to get your ideas --- perhaps we can start a conversation!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

New Year and Goals

I've taken a brief holiday from posting, now am back in full force---partly a reflection of goals I have set for myself, the business, and this blog. Getting started in the New Year had me reflect on setting goals--somehow on January 1, we call them resolutions, the rest of the year they are goals. I am constantly amazed at how casually most people treat goals--particularly those they set for themselves.

Rather than repeat what lot of well thought out recommendations and observations, I thought it more useful to point you to some good blog posts on the topic.

Seth Godin has a nice, brief post on goals:
The Thing About Goals. It's a fast read and makes a point about people who get things done: All have goals.

Over at the
Power Of Less blog, by Leo Babauta, he offers great tips to help each of us achieve our goals. I've become a great fan of his blog and the Power Of Less offers great reminders and insight.

At Gill Corkindale's Harvard Business Review blog, he offers a great tip:
Schedule Regular Meetings With Yourself.

Goals are important. I've established mine, I'll be talking about them in later posts.