August 14, 2007

Where's the Content?

Remember the old ad for Wendy's hamburgers where Clara Peller would lift the bun, squint at what she saw, and then bellow, "Where's the beef?"

Great ad. Good question. It's one that senior executives often ask themselves when they see canned presentations or boilerplate proposals from sales people. But unlike Clara, they typically react by dismissing the sales person or tuning out of the presentation.

So here it is: A definition of the exact kind of content you need to provide to make a senior executive feel they're getting some substance.


A study conducted by the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler School of Business interviewed hundreds of CEOs, Presidents, and General Managers to find out what it takes for them to give a sales person a hearing.

The most common answer: "Demonstrate an in-depth knowledge of my business."

This matches well with the advice Mack Hanan gave to professional sales people more than a decade ago. Hanan, one of the earliest proponents of selling solutions instead of products, said that to gain your customer's trust, their long-term loyalty, and a willingness on their part to pay you a higher margin than your competitors ask for, you must demonstrate three kinds of knowledge:

First, you have to know all about your own stuff. You need to come across as an expert in the things you're selling. That makes sense, of course. People don't want to listen to somebody who's unprepared or ill informed.

Second, you have to know a lot about the customer's business, what they make or provide, how they operate, what their goals and objectives are, what they value, how they are approaching the market, and anything else you can uncover. That matches up pretty well with what UNC's survey revealed.

The third thing you need to know? How your customer interacts with their customers. The relationship between your customer and their customers is the nexus of value. That's where profits are generated. If you can pinpoint ways to improve that interaction, you're delivering content that can translate directly to the bottom line.

So that's what content is all about. It's not enough to just provide information about your products and services. You really have to leverage that information into "working knowledge"--insight that creates value.

August 2, 2007

Selling Fast in a Slow Economy

The economy has slowed down. There's no question about that.

But you need to keep selling, right? So what's the secret?

I think we can learn an important lesson from one of the pioneers of human psychology, Abraham Maslow.


When the economy slows down, selling becomes more difficult. People feel vulnerable and they become reluctant to spend money or allocate resources to anything new. From a psychological standpoint, they are moving down Maslow's hierarchy of needs toward the basics-the survival issues.

Maslow believed that when any two needs were demanding satisfaction at the same time, it will be the more "prepotent" (to use Maslow's jargon), the more biologically urgent, that will take priority. Needs that are less prepotent are pushed into the background, delayed, or ignored. A person who is dying of hunger forgets about food when he or she is deprived of oxygen, for example.

So what does this mean regarding our customers? It means that because they feel threatened in a declining economy, they will tend to hoard what they have. They will pull back from completing mere "transactions." They will be reluctant to exchange the organizational equivalent of oxygen-money-for any product or service that doesn't meet their basic needs. As a result, when you try to sell a product or service for a particular price, the customer may perceive doing business with you as purely transactional. And they want to minimize the number of transactions they complete in order to hold on to scarce resources.

There is some good news, though. In a down economy, decision makers are eager to find solutions. They want to do those things that will help them cope with changing circumstances, that will meet their basic business needs for revenue and stability.

Selling solutions is consultative, not transactional. Selling solutions requires:

  • a broad business perspective
  • alignment with the customer's objectives
  • an ability to demonstrate value that matters to the customer

If you ask most sales people, they will tell you that they are writing proposals and delivering presentations that are solution oriented. But in reality they are not. The customer perceives their offers as transactional and pulls back from making a decision to buy.

Why do many solution-oriented proposals and presentations fail to communicate themselves that way to the customer? They fail because they are NOT client centered, value based, or decision oriented.

Often, sales people resort to "clone and go" proposals. They think that it is enough to provide a boilerplate, "checkbox" proposal, one that focuses mainly on their products or their company. But to be seen as a solution-oriented proposal, the document must focus on the customer's needs-the most "prepotent" ones, to use Maslow's term-and link whatever is being recommended to meeting those needs.

Similarly, many proposals do not contain any value proposition. They present a price, but they don't contain any calculation of return on investment, of reductions in operating costs, in reduced cost of ownership, or any other measure that will is linked to survival and coping in a tough economy.

Finally, many proposals are not organized to help the customer make a decision. They tend to be information dumps, and they fail to differentiate the offer from alternatives and fail to provide grounds for moving forward with the decision.

To sell faster in a slow economy, we need to make sure we focus on what matters to the customer, spell out the concrete benefit they obtain from doing what we recommend, and present our recommendations using a structural pattern that leads logically to a decision.