(This article originally appeared as a guest blog on Frontline Selling’s blog in March 2017 here
It also appeared on LinkedIn here and has been the subject of at least two podcasts).
Think back to your last sales meeting. What did you discuss?
Chances are you talked about your sales forecasts, your performance to date, some deals you wanted to close, perhaps some sales strategy. You might have talked about some of your customers and the problems they are facing or the things they are complaining about.
Maybe you had a whinge about marketing and the quality of your leads, or you celebrated closing a big deal, or you discussed how to meet your targets. You might have discussed prospecting, what your competitors were doing or how to overcome price or other objections.
Perhaps you identified a problem that needed action – maybe the quintessential sales problems – “we aren’t selling enough” or “we need more leads”.
What about your last executive committee meeting?
At executive level you might discuss corporate strategy, financial forecasts, minimising risk, the regulatory, political and industry situation, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and a whole lot more.
I don’t know what you discussed at those meetings. But I have a pretty good idea what you didn’t discuss.
You didn’t have an agenda item on “What vendors can we buy stuff from?”
And neither did your prospects in their meetings.
The terrifying truth
The fact is, your prospects – and by prospects I mean those people and companies who are in your territory and where you aren’t actively involved with them – aren’t judging you on the quality of your web site, or the content of your white papers and case studies, or your social media strategy, or your content marketing.
The terrifying truth is:
“Your prospects aren’t thinking about you at all!”
For all they care, you may as well not exist. They’re far too busy thinking about themselves.
They have their own problems, their own customers, their own issues, their own suppliers, their superiors, subordinates, colleagues, products and services. When they aren’t thinking about them, they have their friends, family, hobbies, sports, books and movies to think about.
Why should they care about you?
They may or may not know you exist. If you work for a small organisation without a massive marketing budget they quite likely have never heard of you – and even if they have they almost certainly don’t care.
If you work for a large multinational like Oracle, IBM or SAP (for example) they will certainly have heard of you – and equally certainly have preconceived ideas about you that are probably out of date and almost certainly incomplete.
Take Oracle as an example. They have been buying other companies like a drunken prospector in the last chance saloon. They have an impressive range of solutions in a great number of diverse areas.
But how many people still think they make databases? Quite a few I suspect.
What’s even worse
Back in the 1980s I attended what was probably the best sales training course I’ve ever been on (and I’ve been on at least 30, probably more). It was a two day long role play, where I and my colleagues played the part of prospects (the CEO, CFO, Head of Marketing, etc.) who were looking at buying some expensive software.
The biggest lesson I learned, which has stayed with me ever since, is that even when a company is thinking of spending an awful lot of money with you they still only spend a tiny fraction of their time thinking about you.
So the terrible truth is that even active sales opportunities don’t think of you that much (and often get it wrong) – and the rest never even give you a moment’s thought (or if they do it’s ephemeral).
The truth can set you free
Once you realise that your prospects couldn’t give a monkey’s butt about you, you’re on the road to redemption.
The key is to understand that while your prospects don’t care about you they might care very much about what you can do for them.
There are three critical things you need to get a prospect to engage with you:
- A way to get message to the right person
- Knowing who the right person is
- A message that hits home
You also need to know who your competition is.
The right person
The right person depends on what you sell. In this instance I’m assuming you sell products and services that are high enough in value to require senior executive sign-off. Which means senior executives need to believe there’s something of value in it for them.
The top senior executive is the CEO (or equivalent) and – assuming you have something to sell that gives the CEO a result that’s valuable in his or her eyes – that’s the best place to start. Why?
- Because if you can demonstrate value in the CEO’s eyes you’re half way there
- Because it’s easy to find out who the CEO is – not so much for the assistant infrastructure manager.
- Because the CEO almost always has an Executive Assistant – and the CEO’s EA is your best friend.
- Because, if you follow a structured sales prospecting process and have an effective message, you can reframe the question from “Can I get a meeting?” which is a yes/no question, to “Who is the best person to meet with” which is a whole new kettle of shrimp.
- Because if the CEO (or his EA) refers you downwards, you’ll still end up a lot higher than if you start in the middle. The CEO probably doesn’t even know the people in the middle and if he/she believes you’re worth an audience they will refer you to someone they trust and work with – someone senior.
Incidentally, you may wonder about item 3 – why is the GATEKEEPER (scary music) your best friend? There are many reasons I won’t go into here but the most obvious is that he/she is a human being who will give you a lot more information and feedback than a voice mail system.
OK, so we know what prospects care about – themselves, their company, their career, their customers, etc..
What does the CEO care about, both generically and specifically?
Generically, the CEO has responsibility for profitability (and therefore revenue and expenses), risk minimisation, overall efficiency, adhering to regulations, overall operations, customer satisfaction and keeping the board and shareholders informed and happy.
If you can help with any one of those, that’s a good place to start – but that’s what everyone else says, so you need to be a bit more specific.
What CEOs care about specifically depends on many factors, so you need to do research to uncover this.
This is much easier now than it used to be – you can look at the company web site, the Annual Report, the CEO’s letter, any public statements, what the stock exchange reports say, news coverage, LinkedIn profiles and so on. You can also talk to people who work at the company.
Once you know what an individual CEO cares about (or a group of CEOs in the same industry) you can craft a message that:
- Tells them enough to make them curious and want to talk to
- Doesn’t tell them any more than that
- Tells them WHAT you can do for them
- Doesn’t tell them HOW you do it.
It’s best to give an example here. If you sell a solution that uses Artificial Intelligence and Big Data to personalise communication and offers for customers the message could be:
“I’d like to discuss how we helped <insert impressive reference here, ideally a similar company> to increase revenue by $100 million through personalising the customer experience.”
That would work reasonably well, particularly if the recipient is focused on personalisation and customer experience (which you’d discover through your research).
But if you tell them too much and say, for example “We use Artificial Intelligence and Big Data to help you….” then they are likely to say “we already do that” or “speak to IT” because you’ve just given them the perfect excuse to say “no thanks”.
So make your message specific, use their language and jargon, not yours; talk about them, not you, tell them what you do for them but not how you do it and tell them what you want – a meeting.
The communication channel
Once you have a message, how do you get them to pay attention to it? I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here but there are several communication options:
- A referral
- The phone
- A personal letter
- Voice mail
- The Executive Assistant
- Rocking up on their doorstep
Which of these is the best? It depends on the person and you don’t know which works best for them – so use whatever is appropriate in combination.
If you can get a referral from someone who is prepared to introduce you directly, by email or other means, that’s fabulous.
If not, you might send a LinkedIn message, follow up by phone, send an email with more detail (about what you do for them, not how your solution works) and follow up by phone. Or you might use FRONTLINE Selling’s brilliant and very effective sales prospecting methodology.
The bottom line is, you want to make sure that you get the right message to the right person at the right time.
Who is your biggest competitor?
When you’re trying to get an initial meeting, you’re competing for the CEO’s attention (or any other executive you’re trying to meet) and your competition is anyone else who wants their attention.
This includes the board, their customers, their peers in other companies, their direct reports, their suppliers, their employees, the tax department, their friends, their families, their dog and anyone who wants to sell them something.
That’s a big list and a lot of those, if not most, are much higher in the pecking order than you are.
Your prospects aren’t thinking of you. They don’t know who you are and they don’t care. And you’re battling to get their attention in competition with a lot of other people, most of whom have an advantage over you.
But with the right message, the right understanding and the right strategy, you can cut through the noise and gain their attention as the first, critical step in winning new customers.
Once you understand the scale of the task, you’re on the path to success – but you need to do what all your competitors aren’t doing: using creative sales prospecting and marketing tactics to get in front of the right people.
(PS If anyone is even vaguely interested, the monkey in the picture sits on Hartlepool Marina and commemorates the famous Hartlepool monkey.)