Sound familiar? It's a question that I am hearing more and more often. I'm sure you have run it through your mind a few times.
"My customers seem to have less time available for me than before. They are harder to see, and when I do get in front of them, they often seem rushed or preoccupied. What can I do about this?"
It may be that the problem is you. You may be irritating and abrasive, and over time your customers may have decided that they don't want you around.
But it's probably not you. It's your customer. No matter what you sell, it is likely that your customer has more to do and less time in which to do it than ever before. Your customer's lack of time is a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn't much of an issue a few years ago, but it has become universal and growing in intensity day by day. Your customer is overworked and pressed for time. As a result, there is just not enough time in the day to get everything done. Some things have to go. A long, leisurely conversation with a salesperson is often one of those things that is going.
I believe we are the beginning of a new trend - a trend with awesome implications for salespeople. It used to be that being viewed as a "value-added" vendor was a desirable position to occupy in the customer's mind. That meant that the product or service you represented brought your customer more value for the money than the offerings of your competitors. It was why they did business with you.
Notice the focus was on the product or service you represented. The process involved - the sales calls you made on the customer, and the discussions you had with him or her - were viewed as a means to an end. It was what both of you did in order to come to the exchange of money for your value-added offerings.
Those were the rules, and customers and salespeople understood them. These rules of sales interactions are deeply ingrained - so deeply, in fact, that many of us cannot conceive of the profession of sales being done any other way. It is what we know, and how we have made our living.
But the rules are changing. We are at the beginning of a new paradigm for the field salesperson.
The new paradigm is this: Today, not only must the product or service bring value to the customer, but the time you spend with the customer must also be of value to him or her.In other words, the sales process itself must bring value to your customer. Your customer must gain something from every sales call. He/she must see a reason for spending time with you - a payback for his investment of time.
Now, of course you have your agenda, and you have your objectives for the sales call. You know what value you want to gain from the meeting with your customer. But what about your customer? What is he going to gain from investing that precious 30 - 45 minutes with you?
In today's time-compressed and overwhelming world, your sales call must bring the customer some value. Here's a way to visualize this emerging new rule. Suppose you were to make a routine sales call on a regular customer. At the end of the call you said, "OK, John, that will be $150.00." In other words, you charge him for the value he received by talking with you. Would he pay your bill? Would he have derived enough value from the time he spent with you so that he would gladly pay you for it?
OK, the illustration may seem a bit over the edge. Most industries are not at the point, yet, where they will charge for sales calls. But in the information rich, too-many-things-to-do world in which you and your customers live, time is more precious than money.
When you ask for your customer's time, you are asking for something very limited and very precious. If you take 30 minutes of his day, he has invested 6.25% of his workday in you. He has a thousand other things he could have done in that time. What did he get for that investment with you?
The point is this: If you are going to be successful in the Information Age economy, you must focus on bringing something of value to your customers every time you ask them to invest their time in you. You must view every sales call through the perspective of the value you can bring to your customers. A sales call is no longer just about the objectives that you want to achieve, it is also about the objectives your customers wants to achieve. It's as if you present that $150.00 bill at the end of every sales call and expect to be paid.
So, how can you adjust to new situation? Here are some proven practices that will help you make the transition:
- Understand your customer's situation as thoroughly as possible before you take his time.
Your customer expects you to know something about his business, his customers, his processes and his problems before you visit. That means that you must spend more time before a sales call gathering information about that customer. Check to see if the customer has a website, and gather useful information from it. Call and ask the receptionist to send you a company brochure. Ask around your company to see what other colleagues might know about the account.
- Think through the sales call from the customer's perspective.
Put yourself in the shoes of that customer. What else does he/she have to do other than talk to you? What problems is he facing, what opportunities? How can you bring him or her something that will simplify his job, help him overcome his problems, or reduce the amount of time he spends on your project?
- Prepare something of potential value for every call.
This is a long-range strategy. As you consistently hold to this strategy, over time you'll build up a certain expectation in the customer's mind. Don't expect an immediate payback from this strategy, but, none the less, stick to it for the long haul.
Try to bring something to every sales call that your customer would think is valuable. This can, of course, be your latest and greatest product or service, providing that it really would help them. Or, it may be an idea that you have found for a change in their processes, or it may be a new way to implement something they have purchased from you in the past. Maybe it's a copy of an article that you thought might help them. It can even be a good question you share with them that gets them thinking about their business in a different way.
After a few such calls, your customer will come to respect you and look forward to your calls, knowing that you're not there just to work some agenda of yours, but rather he'll come to expect to gain something from your sales calls.
You'll find it easier to make appointments and get time with your customers when you've built in them the expectation that the time spent with you will be well worth the cost of it.
If you are guided by this principle of always bringing something of value, you'll recognize that there is another side to this coin. If you have nothing to leave the customer that will be of value to that customer, you probably shouldn't make the sales call. Don't take his time.
- Be a resource.
One of my clients suggested that sales people need to be the "customer's search engine." I couldn't agree more. Strive to be the customer's most trusted and most knowledgeable resource, the customer's source of information, not just about your product, but about the whole category of things that you sell, their applications, and their advantages and problems.
Share information that is bigger than just the product or service that you sell. If you do, then your customer will look forward to your visits and view them as valuable.
I realize that this is a change in thinking for a lot of sales reps. But it's a change that is coming, whether you want to make it or not. Your choice is to be a leader and thus gain a significant edge over your competition, or to wait until the market forces you to change. The choice is yours.