Selling technology is not easy, particularly in this Web2.0-fuelled, open-source aware, web-enabled environment. There is always a competitive product, and sometimes the competition might be available for free.
Sales calls are a wonderful bevy of pleasantries and good intentions. Sales, though, are not won or lost in the sales call itself. No, they are won or lost in the between-times where ‘thinking’ happens in the heads of clients and commercial games develop.
Why is this?
Firstly, clients become indecisive and ambivalent. It’s extremely rare for your product or solution to be unique. When there are competitive products and solutions, indecision becomes a real issue. There is often not much in the difference, except the price on the table. All sorts of strategies are used by clients to make decisions, and on rare occasions they are rational. Most of the time, it’s on price. This creates commercial gamesmanship and you will find yourself used as leverage with other vendors. Rats! Well it happens, and you must be honest with yourself, you do it too.
Also, solutions to business problems become less urgent – very rarely more urgent. The nature of business and people is that workarounds are found so what seems like a done deal can become a more difficult sell if the sale isn’t closed in time. What happens is that the pain becomes more tolerable and then some other more painful issue arises for the client.
The other fact is that the envisaged solution in the minds of the client elaborates over time as they learn about their problem space and furthermore learn about your solution space. What tends to happen in these circumstances is more and more questions appear from the client and they become more about comparisons with competitive solutions. This can be really annoying as you’re essentially helping them learn and, often, painting yourself out of the picture.
What else happens is a withdrawal from well-intended clients who lose confidence in selling the deal internally. I know you know this, but maybe you don’t know that a common problem in clients is that they lack the persuasive skills with their colleagues to gain support and building the case – it often doesn’t even go as far as their manager or CFO. They receive your proposal, which should seal the deal, but their personal relationships with peers can lack credibility to get the rubber stamp.
The worst of it is when you spend ages on the sale and hand over the final proposal which offers a solution which can replace your product with a competitors! Basically you’ve sunk your organization’s experience and knowledge into something that can be used as leverage against you.
What to do!?
I write about these issues, and their solutions, because I have been on both sides of the selling process many times over 15 years, and have employed the tactics of a vendor and client.
Offer low-cost pilots, and a rebate- one of the best ways of getting a product in and embedded is to whet the appetite of your client’s technical staff, and this is most effective when done by a pilot.A pilot can be used creatively to drive awareness of your solution inside the organization and it gives you leverage to access people within your client’s organization that you wouldn’t have in the sales call, ie. end-users and other influencers. By offering it low-cost, it is low-risk for your client. By offering a rebate, then the cost can be offset from other revenue you secure. The most important point is to see a pilot as a means to get yourself deeper in the client.
Constantly remind the client about their pain- to maintain the urgency, you really need to be replaying to your client about why they engaged you in the first place. This can be done in two complimentary ways. 1) Go back to the business problem and project the future scale of the pain if nothing changes, and 2) Remind your client contacts of their personal stake in this problem and that they face reputational risk. This might sound underhand, and if you overstretch it, it is.
Don’t lose control of the selling process- your leverage ends when you hand over the proposal. Your proposal document should be incomplete but live until you’ve secured the sale; it’s ultimate purpose must be to end the process. Never leave the proposal in the hands of your clients – you’re giving away your IPR if you do, and you’re relinquishing control of the process. Either use printed copies that you take back, or use a laptop. If you’re still a way off closing the sale, don’t consider talking through your proposal using online presentation tools like WebEx. If you’re pushed to hand over a copy, then this is a warning that your client’s doors are to be left open for competition, or self-build. Your proposal is your IPR – don’t forget that.
Continuously test the client’s commitment – if you don’t have commitment, then chances are you’re wasting your time. It’s really important to keep asking questions, and it may seem counter-intuitive, but don’t give up until you hear a No (until the sale closes of course). No is a boundary you can work with. ‘Maybe’ leaves you dead in the water, as you’ve got nothing to work with and the client’s commitment is doubtful. An effective way of testing commitment is, once you’ve gained confidence that the solution does meet the client’s objectives, is to begin to point out the challenges and downside of your product. This has a slight risk but this is outweighed by the resulting behavior; a committed client will begin to work out how they will overcome the negatives and problem-solve with you. An uncommitted client will be turned off easily. I don’t think you can do this too much as long as it is done with tact and diplomacy. A committed client won’t mind your interest and continued engagement as the questioning will go both ways. If you do get pushback then I think you should think again about committing your precious time to the deal yourself.
Get out of the sale – if your client’s interest wanes then I think you have to cut your losses and run. Wasting time with this client means less with other potential clients. Too many IT salespeople flog dead horses, and lose credibility in the process. Your fear should be lost opportunities, not losing this client! At the moment you decide to walk away, it is the ultimate test of your client’s commitment to the sale. Of course, it’s prudent to leave a door open for yourself, but not for your competition, so remember don’t give up your IPR.