I get calls from potential salespeople about every week. These range from training vendors, consultants, online content repositories, to learning management systems (LMS) to name a few.
Some of these are cold calls, while others are follow-ups. It seems each time I get contacted I am surprised by the strategy used. In response to this, I decided to express some constructive ways that potential vendors can improve their game.
Many vendors bend the truth in order to get a sale, “Gasp!” I’ve been privy to enough conversations to know that this happens way too often. Therefore, many of us are already very sceptical on a sales person’s capacity to deliver what they say. So how can you assure me that you can deliver and that you’re willing to “make it right” regardless of any unforeseen bumps in the road. If things get off-track how will you react? Show me. If I’m not confident in your ability to deliver, then the chances of partnering are diminished.
Develop an equal partnership
If you want to garner business it’ll come the old fashioned way – through a personal relationship. So while you might be able to deliver incredible results, don’t start there. In the words of Stephen R Covey, “Seek first to understand.” It surprises me how many vendors share successes with other companies in order to impress me. It doesn’t. If we get serious about your value proposition, then I will be interested in hearing more about how you’ve worked with other companies and want to speak to references. While all organisations have similarities, they all possess unique cultures and decision-patterns that must be considered.
You may also want to reconsider the whitepapers. They’ve become too trendy and over-used. I actually write whitepapers. Like statistics, white papers can be slanted to say just about anything to help your case. I’m a pretty smart guy; I’m in school and have spent a great deal of time in the literature on a lot of organisational issues, not to mention other educational and professional experiences. It’s better to assume that the potential client is an expert. Not all white papers are bad, and of course I certainly don’t know everything. However, I’m not in the dark and I’m not seeking a company to come in and save me. If this were the case, I’d probably be unemployed. I feel that talent management professionals do a great job and would only align with companies that view us as expert partners and can work with us on tailoring programs to up our game. What if you could take my success and build on it... ? What would that look like?
Communicate unique value
Recently, I had a company e-mail me their unsolicited research agenda. While the fact they have a research agenda might be impressive, it would go much further in developing a sale if I had actually asked for it. So instead, focus on developing a relationship with me so that you know what successes and failures we’ve had and how your research agenda, your webinar, etc. might fit in. Create demand. Get me to ask for it. If your company can meet a need we have, then great. Keep in mind that there are a lot of companies out there doing talent management. How are you different than those companies and what are you doing that we can’t deliver in-house for half the cost?
Make it truly personal
The attempts at being “personal” aren’t working. This is the same e-mail, white paper, webinar that you’re pitching to all potential clients. Putting my name in the subject line or in the first sentence doesn’t make it personal. In fact, it’s comical. I understand the need to mass communicate but I’ve written mail-merge e-mails before that actually sound like I’m genuinely checking in. I rarely look at fancy html e-mails from potential vendors and I get even more annoyed when I get added to a distribution list without someone asking me first. So instead, get creative and send a real personal e-mail from time-to-time. I hate phone calls personally, but some clients may actually prefer them. In the first encounter, it should be clear about the potential clients’ preferred method of contact. Either way, make it personal and relevant. For example, health care is a tough industry to understand since it’s always evolving and budgets are always tight. Saying things like “healthcare space” doesn’t really qualify. So knowing where my specific needs are can only be achieved through personal relationship building and not through mass communication or boilerplate services. What would a real partnership look like to you?
Carefully craft a follow-up strategy
I often tell potential vendors that “we’re not actively seeking partnerships at this time” or that we’re currently “identifying gaps.” While this is true, it’s also my way of saying that I’m not interested or at least not interested right now. Take note of this. It doesn’t mean you can’t follow up, just do it when we’re ready. So by listening you can actually tailor your strategy to me and spend your valuable time reaching out to those who are more ready to move forward with sales talks. I’ve actually had to contact companies and ask them to stop harassing me. They didn’t want to take no for an answer. This doesn’t happen often but the follow-up strategy is critical. It’s branding; if I identify a gap in our talent management needs then the first company that I should think of is yours.
Not because of your flashy html e-mails, the hot off-the-press whitepaper, or the fancy webinar! It should be because you understand the industry and, more importantly, my particular situation. I also realise that the various communication channels are used in tandem but these too will fail without it being truly personal.
Win over the influencer first
You need to win over the influencer before getting to the decision maker. It seems sometimes, potential vendors go right for the jugular – the ultimate decision maker. Yet, rarely does this person make time for companies’ sales pitches and they only do so if an influencer in the decision sells them on it first. For example, my boss: the VP of HR wouldn’t listen to a L&D company unless I had not only vetted the company first but also felt reasonably comfortable that it was worthwhile to investigate further. So first win over the influencer. Don’t forget that an influencer can also be the executive assistant. They are just as much part of the team and getting in good graces with them will always go a long way. It’s interesting that sales folks don’t want to deal with assistants when they are the ultimate Gatekeeper and can make or break your sale. One thing that I find truly incomprehensible is to treat an assistant with disrespect. There’s really no need for this, so be nice.
Of course, many salespeople nail this relationship every day and these should be commended. I have to give you credit too as I know there is a lot of strategy behind each and every tactic. Some of these tactics are actually quite sophisticated. I really like Marc Wayshak’s recent Fast Company article, 5 Questions All Marketers Need to Ask Themselves, he asked some very simple yet thoughtful questions, the answers to which can really help marketers find ways to best spend their energy. Instead of reading this with your customer in mind though, read with a potential client in mind. Develop a unique strategy that is specific to them.
At any rate, a good starting place might be to foster trust, develop an equal partnership, create a pull strategy by making me interested in your company first, and make it really personal and assure me that this is a very personal partnership where the needs of my company come first and your need to make a sale this quarter comes second. Doing all of these sales strategies takes a long time and is very much an art. If any one of these is wrong, you jeopardise all of your efforts. Again, my message is about sharing an insider’s view on how we might work together better. I want to work with companies that are trustworthy, know the industry and are willing to partner on outcomes, that offer unique value than what I can offer internally and treat me like an expert, all without complicated strings.
About the author: Matthew Painter is the director of leadership development at Berkshire Health Systems and one of Workforce Magazine’s Game Changer award recipients for 2013. He has spent over ten years in the higher education industry teaching business leadership and is currently pursuing a PhD in organisational psychology from Northcentral University.