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How Small Businesses Sell to Big Ones

It's often said that selling to a company is different than selling to a consumer. But early in my career, I learned otherwise.
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I learned this lesson back when I was a young salesperson working for a tech company. At the time, I had lots of experience selling our products to consumers and small-business owners. But this was my first time working on a big deal with a Fortune 500 company. After spending several months navigating the company’s bureaucracy, I finally was able to land meetings with some members of the IT team. But negotiations dragged on and eventually, I was stuck. Calls stopped being returned, meetings were postponed, and deadlines passed by.

After one particularly frustrating meeting, I boarded a flight back to my home in Boston wondering what I could possibly do to re-ignite this deal. I pulled a few magazines from my bag and began flipping through the latest issue of Wired, which had published a fascinating interview with the big company’s chief customer officer (I’ll call her Susan G.)

Our technology had little to do with customer service, and likely of little interest to a customer-service exec. But as I read the interview, I loved what she had to say. In fact, he comments suggested that there may be some indirect benefit that would support her mission. When I got off the plane, I rushed to a pay phone (obviously, it’s been a long time since I was a “young salesman”) and called her office. Her executive assistant answered.

Me: “Yes. I don’t know Susan personally, but I just read her interview in Wired magazine. I literally left your corporate offices four hours ago, and I am standing here at a pay phone at the Boston airport. What she said about the importance of customer service inspired me to call her the moment I landed. Your IT team is currently evaluating our software. I want to ask Ms. G whom I can contact on your team so that I can explain exactly how our product would impact customer service.” 

EA: “Let me take your name and number.”

I returned back to my office 30 minutes later figuring that was that. Instead, I was shocked to discover the following voicemail:

“Hi Jeff, this is Susan G. Thank you for calling. Please invite Robert B. to your discussions.”

To this day, I don't think that it was our technology, value, or potential ROI that sparked the executive’s quick response. I think she simply sense my urgency and was mirroring it back to me. The image of me on a payphone in a noisy airport was too compelling to ignore.

As it happened, Robert B. was higher in the organization than any of IT contacts with whom I’d been dealing.  And even though he only attended one meeting, his presence re-awakened this deal.  The feeling became that if Robert and Susan were involved, then this must be important.

This episode confirmed something that I had long sense about sales. Selling ultimately has one mission--to inspire urgency where none exists. So when you’re meeting with potential clients, demonstrate the behavior you wish to inspire. If you want them to be excited about you, then you have to be excited about them.

Three months later, I had another opportunity to call Susan’s office: To thank her for becoming a customer. A dozen years later, I was thrilled to see that my old company still listed them as a flagship customer.

IMAGE: Perou/Gallery Stock
Last updated: Sep 20, 2013

M. JEFFREY HOFFMAN | Columnist | President, M.J. Hoffman & Associates

M. Jeffrey Hoffman is founder and president of M.J. Hoffman & Associates, a Boston-based sales training and consulting firm. For more from Hoffman, go to www.mjhoffman.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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