Make your customer service reps your sales team, give information away for free, and other counterintuitive sales advice.
In today's online marketplace, building a traditional sales force or conducting expensive sales training programs should not be the first action items on your business development plan. What should be on your list instead?
Here's another in my series where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. (There's a list of some previous installments at the end of this article.)
You know my first response: Without sales I don't have a business.
Sure. That's why entrepreneurs tend to say, "Should we hire a salesperson? Does our sales team need training?"
The thing is, old school selling is dead: Cold call, high pressure, get-the-appointment-at-all-costs selling doesn't work anymore.
Hopefully you've already embraced that premise and you've tried to move to a more relationship-based sales process. Maybe you've even graduated to understanding that nobody actually wants to talk to a salesperson and you've adjusted the role a bit.
But maybe you're still struggling, or your growth is so slow you can barely afford to pay for your new relationship-type anti-salesperson.
If that is the case then it sounds like I'm stuck.
Here's the problem: Your anti-salesperson is trying to fit his old sales process into his new relationship development efforts--and they just don't fit because most people, most sales training programs, and most small businesses miss the bigger picture.
It's not just about sales; sales can't carry the weight alone. Sales (and I know a lot of sales directors will argue this point) is one aspect and one type of marketing.
But it's even more than the marketing piece that's missing: It's operations, product development, fulfillment, customer service, and even business strategy.
Without a broader business perspective and a broader marketing culture and effort, sales will always fail. Sales will always fall back into an old school selling mindset, and if you continue with that outdated idea of "sales" you won't succeed--just like the last salesperson who annoyed you.
So what do I do instead?
Stop selling and start learning how to attract sales.
The big difference for sales, of course, is the way we buy things today. Online isn't a separate entity; it's how we live our lives. So if you plan to be in business in the next five years you must merge your offline world into an online presence. The buying process starts much earlier (most often it starts online) and decision-making is nearly complete before we ever contact the provider concerning the goods or services we buy.
So where do I start?
There are a few key things you should do to start a long-term plan of attracting sales. The process starts with adjusting your sales process from offline to online, which you should begin as early as possible. You can accomplish this with your website, your blog, and your social media networks. Those digital assets are your funnel and need to be developed and managed with specific "attraction" goals in mind:
Website: Your website is your best "closer" when it serves as a digital, solution-oriented salesperson that guides each visitor to the exact information they want--fast. Use prioritized calls-to-action (CTAs), prioritized audience segments, strategic conversion strategies, and intelligent user experience (UX) navigation.
Instead of asking, "What should we put on our website?" ask, "What experience would best suit the visitor in each given situation? How can we quickly and efficiently provide the answers they're looking for as if they are having the most satisfying first sales meeting of their lives... and will get exactly what they want?"
Blog: Your blog is your "interest generation" material, your "visibility," your "industry expertise," your new "advertising."
Except in very specific circumstances, if you're using an expensive printed brochure you're wasting your money. (How many brochures have you actually read in the last 10 years?)
Your blog must (over time) cover every question, concern, new idea, peripheral interest, like-minded interest, what happens three to six to nine months before the customer has even considered the need, etc. The goal is to cover every aspect of what your prospective buyer may be thinking, feeling, and asking about your product or service.
Once you start regularly and consistently posting quality information, market your blog by developing blogging relationships and connecting with people who have an interest in your work. Guest blog, post your blogs on social bookmarking (or microblogging) sites like Tumblr (by the way, Facebook is technically also a social bookmarking site), and try to be as visible as possible in the online world.
Social Networks: Your social networks are your new "listening" mechanism and your new "inside sales" team.
Listen carefully to what your buyer really wants, what your buyer really thinks, and how your buyer wants to be perceived by their online community. Then strategically and proactively engage in those conversations. Be careful though, and read between the lines of perception; people don't always do what they say they would or want what they say they want (especially online.)
Put quality people in place to tend this effort and apply the 4Cs of proactive social selling skills: Comment, Compliment, Connect, and Care. (By the way, "selling" is not part of the 4Cs, so this softer, social selling will look a lot different than traditional selling!)
Your social team will help personally guide prospective buyers into your online sales process through caring--and many times, bring it offline sooner rather than later. When potential customers know there's a real person behind an online presence it's easier for them to take the next step and engage in real life.
That sounds great... but what do I do with my sales team?
Modernize and reconstruct your sales team as a customer service team (and vice versa).
Today your customer service team is your sales team: That's a mindset business owners must weave into their company cultures. Your sales team doesn't sit behind a desk and wait for people to call with problems; your sales team must become a part of the operational team: the front lines, the management team, the new "information team."
Sales can no longer hand things off with little accountability or authority to contribute to the customer experience, before and after the sale.
Since marketing is all about information, give me some specifics on providing the right kind of information for the right audiences.
Start with a basic premise: Your goal is to provide free information--as much as possible! Key points:
Information is your new "pitch." The key is to enlighten and educate. Your buyers want reliable information so they can make informed decisions. So give it to them. Stop worrying about proprietary information and what your competitors may or may not learn about your products or services or strategies.
Holding back information in today's online marketplace is the kiss of death: It's old school, seems sneaky, and can even feel untrustworthy.
If you can provide an objective review (like Progressive or iHost) of all the customer choices for your product/service and the differences between them (yes, you can and often should name your competition in your own marketing materials), you can be seen as a leader in your industry--and you will have made it much easier for your buyers to do the research they were going to do anyway.
This is where you stop competing on price and start to use your true customer-valued differentiators. It's also where you start to attract new quality business (the kind you actually want) and build your market share.
Target the right audience and position each message per segment. Online you have more direct opportunities to reach a very targeted audience. Many times they're already grouped by choice based on behavior, likes, needs, roles, etc.
This can be your broader "solution selling" technique (and not just a one-person-at-a-time gig.) You can really start to learn more about your ideal customers and their behavior over time through segmentation (if you're measuring the results, of course).
Make sure you develop a unique value proposition for each segment. For example, a pizza shop may offer vegan, gluten-free pizza choices as well as traditional meat-lovers pizzas. The value proposition for the health-conscious audience should look very different than the value proposition for the traditional pizza connoisseur.
The closer your message "matches" buyers' needs, the more likely they will be attracted to your company.
Never forget your core strength. An attorney never closes with three different arguments; she goes for the kill with her strongest argument. She chooses the argument that will win.
Small businesses need to do the same thing. Lead with your core strength. Think about a Mac: Early in the product life cycle Apple marketed the Mac as a high quality product for people who identified themselves as creative. They showed little interest in developing products for the typical business executive. So why does every high-level executive own or want to own a Mac or an iPad or an iPhone? Apple stuck to the core strengths of the Mac, perfected it for its core audience, and started to attract the rest of the world because of that niche--not because it went after the business market.
When you say you do 10 things really well, people don't believe you. You lose credibility and trust (even if you can actually do all those things well.)
When a small business positions itself as doing one thing incredibly well, it gets instant credibility and naturally captures peripheral opportunities without even trying. ("Hey, since you did such an excellent job with [your core offering], can you also do this for us?")
When you excel at one core strength, customers will ask you to do other things for them--you won't even have to ask.
Check out other articles in this series:
Read more recent articles by Jeff Haden: