Selling someone else’s products

Have you ever thought about selling someone else’s products? When you sell someone else’s products,  parts of that vendor’s business obviously become a part of yours: their products and services. However, the reality is a good bit more complicated.

Be sure what business you’re in

When you consider selling someone else’s products, it’s critical to assess whether the product is germane to what you do.

For example, it isn’t hard to find stores selling fidget spinners. They’re an impulse buy that could add a small bump to daily sales, so grocery stores, convenience stores and the like could justify selling them back when they were hot.

However, it makes little sense to see these gadgets advertised on outdoor signage at pawn shops and musical instrument stores – which I’ve seen lately. The logic behind advertising out-of-context impulse items on a specialty retail store’s limited outdoor signage escapes me – particularly on high traffic streets.

Will it confuse their market? Will they lose their focus by selling a few $2.99 items? Doubtful. While they’re trying something to increase revenue, the emphasis on an out-of-context, low-priced impulse buy product is the reason I bring it up. It makes no sense for a specialty retailer.

When you start selling someone else’s product, there are questions you don’t want your clients and prospects asking. They include “Have their lost their focus?” and “What business is my vendor really in?”  These questions can make your clientele wonder if another vendor would serve them better.

Should you sell out of market?

I had this “Is it in context?” discussion with some software business owners this week.

One of the owners (not the tool vendor) is asking the group to sell the development tools they use to their customers & other markets. Ordinarily, this would be a head scratcher, since most software development tools generate their own momentum, and/or are marketed and sold with a reasonable amount of expertise. That isn’t the case with this tool vendor.

However, the discussion really isn’t about that tool vendor, even though they’re at the center of the discussion being had by these business owners. The important thing for you is the “Should we sell this product?” analysis.

Start the conversation by bluntly asking yourself if makes sense for your business to sell this product.

Adjacent space or different planet?

If your company sells to businesses that develop software internally or for sale to others, then you might consider selling a vendor’s software development tools to your customers. It might make sense if you sell into enterprise IT.

However, if you sell software to family-owned, local businesses like auto parts stores and bakeries, it makes no sense at all. You’re going to appear to be from another planet going to these customers to sell software development tools.

If you try to sell these tools in an unfamiliar market, then you’re starting fresh in a market your team probably isn’t used to selling and marketing into. The chance of losing focus is significant unless you’re leading your current market by a sizable margin and have plenty of extra resources.

Ideally, a new product line feels congruent to your team, clients and prospects. Even when it’s a good match, the work’s barely started as selling and supporting a ready-to-sell product requires a pile of prep work.

Your sales team needs training to sell the product and know how/when to integrate it into multi-product solutions. You need to include the product in your marketing and training mix. Your support team needs training to provide the level of support that your customers expect. Your infrastructure team needs to incorporate it into your CRM, accounting, website, and service management systems. Your deployment team may need training as well.

What if the new product’s vendor has problems?

Reputation damage is one of the biggest risks when selling someone else’s products, particularly if you have to depend on the other company to service and interact with your customers.

Does the product vendor provide support as good as yours? Do they communicate in a timely & appropriate manner? Do they service things promptly? Are they a good citizen in the developer community? These things are important in the software tools market. In your market, they may not matter.

The actions of the product’s creator reflect on you, since YOU sold the product to YOUR client. Carefully consider the risk/reward. Your entire clientele will be watching.

The premium price lesson taught by craft beer

The craft beer explosion in the US over the last 5 to 10 years is a great lesson in premium price / premium product / premium services and customer ascension.

So what is the big lesson to learn from craft beer? Is it that you could make beer that only a certain percentage of the market will drink? Is it that you can put anything from talcum powder to motor oil in your wort as an ingredient and someone out there will want to drink it? Is it that you can charge for one pint what previously would have been a tolerable price for a six-pack?

But I don’t WANT an $80 diaper!

Those answers are all accurate at some level.

However, the biggest lesson is that in any market (including yours), there is a percentage of the market that’s willing to pay a premium price for a premium product. Products and services have had “Good, Better, Best” for years. Despite that, there are still many businesses out there that only offer a single product line with very little variation or options, premium services, or the opportunity to “ascend” to the next tier of product buyer.

These opportunities are not limited to automobiles, cigars, locally brewed beers, or any other thing. You can buy cheap toilet paper and you can buy fancy toilet paper. Speaking of, there are companies making a living selling diapers that cost $80 each.

While I don’t want to buy an $80 diaper, it’s clear that some portion of the diaper buying public does. That’s the trap that you can’t let yourself get caught in. It doesn’t matter that you and I aren’t interested in an $80 diaper. All that matters is that enough people are buying them. The same goes for a bottle of craft beer that might cost $12, $29, or much more. The challenge is finding a product that fits a market.

Premium price changes everything

In whatever you sell, there is almost certainly a premium price product or service opportunity – or both. You’ll never know where the price ceiling sits until you test it. We’ve all been offered an up-sell (want fries with that?), but this is different. Successful efforts typically result in a new tier of products and/or services. Sometimes, it reveals a completely different type of customer. It also allows ascension for some of the customers you have now.

Testing new product / service / price tiers could result in a new way of doing business for a subset of the people you serve. It may also reveal that there are additional price / product / service tiers between your existing regular and premium-priced options.

A successful “bar” that closes at 8:00 pm?

Montana micro-breweries are a fascinating example of finding an undiscovered tier in a market. They operate under a number of restrictions that impede their growth, including (recently raised) limits on the number of barrels they can brew each year.

Two additional restrictions that would ordinarily seem fatal to a traditional drinking establishment have instead created a new market tier.

First, Montana breweries with a taproom / tasting room may only serve 48 ounces (three pints) per patron per day. This might seem like a rather punitive restriction, but it doesn’t work out that way. First, most craft beers have a higher alcohol content than “regular” beer. As a result, three pints per visit is usually enough. Ever seen a bouncer in a brewery’s taproom? I haven’t. You’re more likely to see families and friends meeting together with their kids. Yes, in a taproom.

Second, Montana brewery tasting rooms cannot serve beer after 8:00 pm – at least not without getting a more costly / complex alcoholic beverage license. The traditional thought process would presume the 8:00 pm close dooms the tasting rooms. Instead, they’ve become gathering places after work, or before/after shopping and/or recreation. You’ll often see groups in a tasting room that you’d rarely see at a bar.

Without the typical late night hours of a bar, employees get home early enough to do some homework, put their kids to bed, or get a decent night’s sleep before their “real job”  (or college).  Likewise, these businesses avoid the occasional negative late night bar behavior that some places have to contend with.

While these limitations are restrictive, they’ve created a consumption tier that all but eliminates the negative behaviors sometimes associated with traditional bars.

The question is – what could be the premium-priced craft beer in your business?

Is it better to keep a customer or replace them?

“$29 per month… NEW CUSTOMERS ONLY!” Most of us have seen something like this and thought less than pleasant things about a vendor who hangs these new customer offers out in public where existing customers can see them. That bargain basement deal that’s not available to existing customers doesn’t make you feel good about your decade-long relationship with that business. The loyal customers who have stuck through good times and bad with that vendor – including their mistakes (which we all make).

The thought?

“Where’s my screaming deal?”

It isn’t that these deals are inherently bad. The mistake is putting them out there in front of everyone – including your current customers. If you can find a way to avoid showing the “loss leader for new customers only” offer to existing customers – avoid it. In some media, you can’t avoid it – so don’t use that kind of offer there. It ticks off your loyal customers. Every. Single. Time. Your customer service team gets to take flak about this each time you run these promotions.

Meanwhile, a lack of communication to existing customers plants the thought in customers’ minds that their vendors take them for granted. We know you’re thinking of us when you outsource customer service to Jupiter to save $1.29 per hour, or when you discuss how to shrink receivables. What sort of effort do you invest to retain existing customers?

If you have convinced your customers that you aren’t thinking about them & that you’re more concerned about getting new customers – why should they feel differently about you? You’re advertising for new clients everywhere. While those ads are out there chasing down more new customers to fill the leaky customer bucket, are your long-time loyal customers (and the rest of your customers) being ignored?

All the single ladies

Look at it this way: If you’re someone’s steady “significant other” and they are constantly out chasing down new “others”, most of you wouldn’t take that so well.

Why should your customers feel any different when they aren’t being wooed, cared for, thanked, communicated with, or given any special attention? They only seem to get attention when they call to report (or complain) about a service, delivery, or product failure. Once the initial sale is concluded, is the only time you connect with your clients when they contact you, or something has broken or otherwise gone wrong?

“That’s what everyone else does.”

You might be thinking “That’s what everyone else does. Why should I behave differently?

You are, or have been, a customer of car dealers, cable companies, dry cleaners, restaurants, various repair shops, handyman services, plumbers, sewage tank pumpers, electricians, hair salons, clothing stores, hardware stores, quick lube shops, etc. Almost all of them are advertising for new customers this week. How many of them are ALSO communicating with you to keep you, to bring you back, to make you feel good about being a customer, and/or encourage you to refer them to someone you respect and/or care about?

Very few.

They’ll likely continue appearing to take you for granted for weeks, months, or years – all while chasing new customers, all while grumbling about churn as they slowly lose customers to someone else’s $29 new customer offer. Don’t be that business.

Doing only one of these (looking for new, caring for existing) is not sustainable. Yes, I know it’s more work to do both. Most places need to get new customers, but most of those same places spend a lot more money & effort to get a new customer than they do to keep and care for an existing customer. Doing both means making an effort to protect the asset you paid for – yes, customers are an asset. Perhaps not in accounting terms, but in the real world where customers don’t grow on trees, we’d all rather have more long-time customers and others begging to do business with us.

Don’t spend $12 to get a customer this month, only to ignore them hereafter and hope they stick around, and then go spend $12 to get another one. That assumes you know how much it costs to get a customer (and it’s always more than you think).

Recycling customers is expensive.

Take better care of your existing clientele. Well cared for clients tend to buy more, buy more often, & for a longer period of time. They refer their friends & colleagues because they finally found someone who gets it. Be that someone.

Photo by martin.mutch

Training: One cure for sales problems

When having a conversation about sales problems, I might remind you about the folly of only taking cash (depending on the type of business). I might also remind you to eliminate the tedious & annoying out of your buying process. There are cases where that’s useful, but mostly – it isn’t. But not today. Today, I’d like to remind you of the value of training your sales team.

You’ve got questions

Heard of Quora.com? Quora is a website where you can ask questions. Many times, you’d never have access to those who answer: world-class subject matter experts. If you asked an airplane question, you might hear from an engineer who helped design it & three commercial pilots who fly it.

Why Quora? Because I found a Quora question pertinent to this discussion: “What can businesses learn from the military?” It reminds me of the not well informed “Why don’t non-profits run like a business?” question, but this is a much better question.

A Marine named Jon Davis who deployed to Iraq & Afghanistan answered: “Training”.  His answer breaks down like this: 1) A detailed process to track progress. 2) Regular job specific training. 3) An annual schedule to ensure standards are met. 4) Find & reward teachers. 5) Ignore the “training them to leave” myth. 6) Discipline.

If those six items are checkboxes – can you check any of them?

I’ve recently met several folks who work in the car business. The one I wrote about last week is the only one I’ve encountered recently who knew the product well. I don’t mean he could wake him in the middle of the night & tell me (blindfolded) how to change a timing belt. I mean he didn’t have to run to the showroom to find out the horsepower for a vehicle whose manufacturer makes cars with only two engine choices across the entire product line. Yes, it happened.

This isn’t a sales team failure. It’s a management failure. Are you preparing your salespeople to succeed? Product knowledge isn’t what sells cars. Rapport is. Guiding me to a “special value” (car that’s been on the lot too long) because it pays more than a mini (minimum commission) doesn’t build rapport.

A question about the value of rapport: What’s worth more to you, getting that “special value” off the lot, or creating a relationship that provokes me to return every x years to buy only from you for the rest of my vehicle buying days, while also encouraging my friends to do so? You decide.

Sometimes product knowledge is critical: “Can you help me find a good red wine?” The salesperson who knows less about your product than most prospects will struggle – & reflect poorly on your business. You need someone who understands the problems your prospects want to solve & how your solutions address them.

Don’t have a sales team? Still affects you.

One of the best parts of the answer Jon gives relates to on-boarding. He describes how the military trains recruits and leads them. He then compares that to the training that most businesses provide: haphazardly, if at all, and with little ongoing mentoring –  which unfortunately matches my observations over time.

You probably hire experienced people so they’ll step in & become effective quickly. Do they do it the way you want it done? Did they learn a completely different way of doing what you do? What if you don’t want them to do it that way? How will they learn your proprietary way of doing things?

Don’t assume an experienced new hire has mastered the systems, machinery, methods, and processes your business uses to succeed. Learn from their experience, but train / mentor them.

No matter what, the last thing you ought to be doing is turning them loose on your customers, prospects, products, and services and simply assuming that everything’s going to work out. Maybe it will. They might survive, or get by, or be good enough. Did you exert all that effort to find just the right person only to toss them to the lions with the expectation that they’d get by?

How much does it cost each time you have to replace a poorly trained salesperson who failed? How much does it cost to keep someone who isn’t as effective as they could be because they had to learn your ways by the seat of their pants?

Photo by formatc1

Accepting change: How can you help?

New technology is full of emotional change. Everyone finds their own pace when it comes to accepting the changes that come when adopting new technology. With brand new technology, the differences in adoption rates widen even more. Some folks won’t touch new technology. Other people prefer to wait a little while and let someone else take the punches that “first implementers” must often withstand. There are those who consider how the new tech can help them, and if it can, they’ll dive in wholeheartedly. Finally, some chase the Bright Shiny Object (BSO) – no, not the eclipse. The BSO distracts them just like a randomly reflected spear of piercing sunlight off a car windshield grabs your attention while driving.

This isn’t limited to technology

Segmenting the speed of accepting change isn’t new. A series of books by Geoffrey Moore, starting with “Crossing the Chasm“, examined this in detail. However, the phenomena isn’t limited to technology. Anything in our lives that introduces change tends to fit into these segments of how much (and how early) we’re willing to dive in. We’re creatures of habit, even in how we change. Our hesitancy or comfort to try new things impacts every purchase – including the uptake of anything new or different. Some of us love change. Some hate it. Most are somewhere in the middle. Many occupying the “fat part of the (Bell) curve” need a reason to change. Maybe not a big reason, but a reason all the same.

Ever tried to get a young child to try a new food? If so, you probably didn’t give them an adult-sized serving the first time you had them try it. As with the kid and that broccoli they (at first?) loved to hate, it’s often best to ease people into a new thing. Sometimes, you have to offer them something they crave (like ice cream for dessert) if they’re brave enough to choke down their broccoli.

It’s no different with adults. Try to convince a pickup driver to change from Ford to Chevy or Dodge. Ask a golfer to change clubs. Ask a frequent flier to change airlines. In each case, you’ll probably face substantial resistance.

How is that different from you wanting them to switch to your restaurant, hardware store, dinner menu, or IT company from the one they’re comfortable with?

IT ISN’T.

Risk reversal reduces friction

If you need someone to make a change in order for your venture (or career) to succeed – you need to figure out where the friction comes from. Whether you’re trying to work with the pickup driver, golfer, or frequent flier, what creates the resistance that keeps them from considering a change? Risk is a common source.

When we wanted people to change to our software years ago, almost everyone had a 30 day money-back guarantee. A few had a 60 day one. We changed ours from 30 to a full year. The difference in refunds is trivial between 30, 60 and 365 days. The perception of who takes the risk, however, changes completely.

I was on several car lots over the weekend. Of maybe eight different dealers, I met one salesperson who was hustling. He clearly understood that the goal was to get a new customer, not simply to sell a car. Almost anyone can sell a car (or whatever you and I sell), a real salesperson is looking to create customers for life.

Anyhow, this guy offered to send a car home with me for a few days to make sure it fits. Sure, I know how this works. It’s like a test drive on steroids. If they get you to test drive it, they know how much more likely it is that you’ll buy (trust me, there’s lots of data). “Take the car for a few days and see how it fits” is the next step up from a test drive. Even so, it’s a proven risk reversal strategy. We know we’re likely to miss something on a test drive. When our neighbors see the car, when we see that it fits in the garage, & when the rest of the family reacts – it’ll be tougher to return it.

Your challenge: Determine what’s necessary to reduce resistance to the point that your prospects will consider making a change. What risk(s) must you take off the table? “Change” in this case means make a sale and get a new client.

Photo credit: Frank Winkler

Where is the friction in your business?

What do you repeatedly force your clients to do that they simply shouldn’t have to do? Put another way, how does your business frustrate your clients? When dealing with your business, what drives them crazy?

What’s friction?

Can’t open the package without a Jedi sword? Can’t read your boarding pass printed in that microscopic font? Have to do this and this and this and that to buy or pickup a purchase, only to have to start over again? Can’t find out when something will be delivered? Have an appointment window that stretches from sunrise to sundown? Press one because your call is important to us and will be answered by the next available agent?

Yes, those kinds of things. They aren’t the sole domain of the cable company or that big company that’s easy to despise. Small businesses do these things as well, so we have to be vigilant and chase these things out of the building.

Sometimes these things are simple and inexpensive to fix, yet failing to address them creates a point of aggravation between you and your customers. These points of aggravation are often the tiniest of things. Like a grain of sand in your shoe, they could be the start of something much worse if allowed to fester.

Should it fester, you may lose a customer. Losing even one customer to one of these little things will transform that friction-creating “little thing” from inexpensive to very expensive. Remember, losing a customer usually isn’t losing a single sale – it’s losing all future sales from that customer. Friction is expensive.

How do I find these aggravating things?

Ask.

But what to ask? No matter who you’re talking to, poke around in their experiences with you regarding installation, deployment, service, customization, billing, paperwork, repairs, upgrades, financing, returns, shipping, etc. Ask questions about these things using different terms. Repeat yourself until you get the details you need. Using different terms in your questions will provoke different reactions and prod different memories from your customers.

Ask your best customers.

They’re the ones you’d hate to lose. The ones you know by name when they walk in the door. The ones whose names are familiar to your bookkeeper – and not because they don’t pay their bills. They’ll tell you different things than your newest customers, but that’s OK. There isn’t one frustration that fits everyone. Your business has many components. If you sell a number of products and services, you’ll need to ask the best customers of each. You’ll likely get different answers for each product and service.

Ask your newest customers.

Because everything is new, they’re quite likely to be more sensitive to oddities and more observant about every little thing your company does. Listen carefully to these folks. They may mention things that you’re vested in. You might get defensive. Fight that urge. There may be a perfectly valid reason for doing whatever it is. Brainstorm with the customer how you could accomplish this result in some other way.

Ask lost customers.

Did you lose a customer to another vendor? Give them a call, or see if they’ll set a time to visit in person. Make sure they understand that you aren’t there to sell them, but instead, you want to know what went wrong. What could you have done better? How did you frustrate or annoy them? This lost customer probably isn’t alone. Follow up with them once you’ve addressed the things they mentioned. A handwritten card thanking them and briefly describing what you’ve done to correct these things will both thank them and tempt them.

Preventing the growth of friction

Bear in mind that these things aren’t often created intentionally. Most of the time, “they just happen” and we miss them long enough that they become systemic. Once they become systemic, they seem normal and we have to battle a little harder to identify and evict them from how we do things.

Create a culture of ownership for finding and fixing these things. When your team has the permission to fix these things on the spot and bring the situation to your next process improvement discussion (ie: lunch), fixes don’t have to wait. Set boundaries as needed, but be careful to encourage improvement without waiting for seven signatures and a wax seal.

Photo by theilr

They don’t want to work & they don’t care like I do

Human resources. Human capital. Two terms that I really don’t care much for (especially the latter one), yet they attempt to describe what is usually the most important part of your business: employees.

You might think your customers / clients are the most important part of your business, but without good employees who want to take care of your clients, one of two things happens: Either you won’t have any clients or you’ll be doing all the work yourself – which sounds more like a job than it does a business. Two complaints I hear most often: “They don’t want to work” and “They don’t care like I do“.

They don’t want to work

If you have people working for you who don’t want to work, it’s not their fault. It is your company’s fault because the company hired them.

They may be lazy. You may be exactly right about why they are lazy, but it doesn’t matter. The fact that they are lazy and the reason(s) for that laziness are irrelevant. It’s relevant that the company hired them before figuring out they were lazy. Your job as the hiring manager is to find a way to figure out who is lazy (etc) and be sure not to hire them.

Repeatedly complaining (for example) that “all millennials are lazy and don’t want to work” is not only incorrect, but a waste of time. If the millennials your company hired don’t want to work, blame the broken process used to hire them. If three of every 100 applicants show the right stuff, then make sure your process finds the three.

Hiring people is easier if you put a process in place that makes it all but impossible for someone to join your team when they have the attributes of someone who can’t be successful at your place. This process doesn’t come in a box from Amazon. You can’t simply open the box and plug it in. It requires ongoing attention. It’s work. It takes time. It isn’t easy. The process needs to involve the people a prospective employee will work with, and those they will work for.

There are people who shouldn’t work at your place with your people. Your job is to eliminate them before you hire them. To eliminate each attribute that you don’t want working at your business, you add steps to the process that identify those attributes. “Drama queen” is a one of the attributes I eliminate, noting that these folks are both male and female.

Do you want to hire passive aggressive jerks who will tick off your customers? If not, your hiring process needs a way to filter out those people. Sometimes, it isn’t easy, but if you wanted “easy”, you shouldn’t have started / bought a business.

Attributes like lazy, passive aggressive, or any other that cause you to wish you’d never hired someone are no different than “must be able to lift 70 pounds”. They are a minimum qualification for employment. It isn’t the job prospect’s responsibility to apply only for jobs that they are ideal for. That might be nice, but isn’t realistic. It’s your job to sort them.

They don’t care like I do

Of course they don’t. Remember, they aren’t owners, so it will be rare that they will care like you do. They don’t have as much at risk as the owner and they sure don’t have as much potential upside as the owner.

Expecting someone to act like an owner at $10 an hour is silly. Training them to think like an owner and then giving them more responsibility (and more cash) when they act that way is a whole different thing. Some will still work hard, but won’t think like an owner. Some will work hard and think like an owner once they are trained and learn that there are things to be gained by doing so.

A rare few will act like an owner, at least to the extent they can. “These people” will start caring when they figure out that you do. That starts at the hiring time. If you find a way to stop adding lazy, crazy, and dazed to their department, they will notice. If you ask them for referrals, they won’t suggest you hire their dodgy, lazy friends. It simply makes more work for them. Instead, you’ll get the friends they trust to do their part.

Photo by jonny goldstein

Listen to clients. They say the darndest things.

I love polarized lenses. Sunlight reflected off snow or water is brutal on my eyes. Polarized prescription shades make it all better. They aren’t inexpensive, yet the payoff in improved vision and eye strain is huge. These special lenses help me see things in a way I can’t otherwise experience. Taken further, consider the special lenses available for folks with color blindness. Many YouTube videos show a thrilled & tearful reaction to wearing these lenses for the first time.

You need special business lenses for the same reason.

A special lens filters out glare, distractions and visual “noise” while making it easier to see what’s not normally apparent. This is why  I repeatedly suggest the use of dashboards. Trends and intermediate figures stick out on a dashboard. They don’t typically become apparent (or appear at all) on an income statement – or they’re buried in other numbers.

One of the best lenses for viewing your business is the lens your clients see through. You might see things that you might not normally value – at least not how your client values them.

New clients vs. long-term clients

One area where it’s easy to miss this data is in the difference between your newest clients and the ones you’ve had forever. I visited a long-term client a while back. When I asked “Where do you the value in what we do for you?”, they mostly talked about how (and why) the relationship started. Eventually, the discussion turned to the feeling that they felt protected and that we had their best interests at heart, even after all these years.

I felt like I wasn’t getting “the dirt”, so I asked what makes our stuff critical to them day-to-day. What affected them more than anything was being on time, every day. Not 15 minutes late. On-time meant six figures of difference in their daily cash flow.

While new clients may have bought your stuff because of the latest, greatest thing you’ve done, not everyone fits that mold. Long-term clients may not need the newest stuff you’ve done because whatever you do inherently has more impact on their business day-in and day-out.

The new stuff we’d done was designed to deal with issues that didn’t exist when we first started working together. Even so, those issues paled in comparison to the impact of not being on time. Anything that can affect a company’s cash flow by six figures each day is pretty important (British understatement). It might allow them to avoid hitting a line of credit that week, or even having to have that line of credit. It might be what allows them to take that “month off” each year that many lines of credit require.

Ask openly

When you listen to clients, you have to be careful what you ask, and how. I don’t know if I would have heard about the daily cash flow impact if I had asked about a particular feature, service or product.

Instead, I simply asked them to tell me how (and why) they felt they benefited from continuing to do business after all this time. You could drive an airport snowplow through the opening I provided. Not only did that allow them to tell me about something super critical, but to do so outside of the product / service context.

Cash flow has nothing to do with what’s sold to them, at least not directly (as I learned). What it clarified was that a slower than normal response from customer service could cost them $100K+ that day. To some clients, that hour isn’t important. Getting a quick response at a certain time of day was huge to these folks. Setting up with a special rapid response service would likely benefit them greatly multiple times per year.

Listen to clients without an agenda

While your clients may not have that kind of time-bound value tied to certain hours of the day, there are things to learn from asking open-ended questions that don’t necessarily point at product / service topics – and then listening intently to what they say.

When you listen to clients openly and without an agenda, the value of what you learn can be huge. Questions intent on confirming what we think we already know serve no one. Instead, ask better questions.

Photo by mattlucht

What about the prospect list that isn’t a list?

Last time, we talked about your prospect list (or lack thereof). What about the prospects that aren’t on a list: the folks who have decided to get their info about you via one or more social media platforms. You may feel that the list discussion doesn’t apply to you because your prospects get their product info without signing up for anything. They follow you on Twitter, Instagram and/or Snapchat, they’ve liked your business page on Facebook, or connected on LinkedIn. In most of those cases, you don’t have their contact info other than perhaps the ability to direct message them (don’t, except to reply to their questions).

Like your prospect list members, social media oriented prospects also fit the profile of “a friend who needs the information and advice they’d ask of the friend and expert (you) prior to making a decision about a possible purchase”.

Tracking is different

On a list, you can monitor responses and segment the list into sub-lists so that the people who are clearly showing more interest will be the ones who get the next piece of info you’d typically provide. On social media, there are tools that can make that easier, but you will often find yourself having multiple public-facing conversations at once. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to be prepared for it. Without being a robot, you need to have “canned” responses to the most frequently asked questions and comments about the products and services you sell. You’ll want to post this sequence of thoughts, advice and questions via your social channels.

You might be thinking that you don’t have a list of questions like that, but I suspect you do. It’s in your head, perhaps taken for granted because your responses are so ingrained in your mind that you can answer them as easy as you can turn a doorknob. It’s like muscle memory. We all have those questions that we can answer well, even if someone wakes us up at two am. I suggest transcribing those responses from your head onto paper or perhaps better, into a centrally available document that your team can use even if you and your expertise have gone fishing for the day.

As an example, what are the common sales objections that you have to address? Those things go on the list. Objections aren’t always reasons why people don’t want your stuff, they’re more likely to be an entry point into a discussion that addresses why your product or service fits their needs better than the other options they’re looking at – or why yours don’t.

On a social channel, you’ll attract prospects and buyers. Encourage the formative signs of a helpful community. Be the cheerleader, recruiter and mentor. Your presence when the community is small will be critical to its growth.

Think about the buying process

In order to prepare a series of postcards or emails for your list (or a series of social posts), you need to think deeply about the evaluation and purchase process. If you were to write a guide to buying whatever you sell, and that guide was the only resource you could provide to someone looking to buy – what would it say? What would it talk about first? What process of evaluation and selection would it take the prospective buyer through? What questions would it ask to help them choose the standard item in the warehouse vs. the special order or custom-built item? What installation and delivery questions should someone ask? How do your processes for delivery, installation and service after the sale vary? How do they compare to the “industry norm”?

What happens after the sale?

After the sale, the buyer still has questions. The questions change to care and feeding, update, maintenance, cleaning, re-use, deployment, training, replacement, refills, etc. These same questions are ideal topics for both your prospect list and your social channels. Many times, they’ll help a prospect learn of an important facet of the purchase and ownership process that they hadn’t considered. This is an ideal use for video, even though all of the stages from prospect to seasoned user benefit from help that’s best suited to a specific media type. Video is great for how-to info, for example.

Whether the message gets to your prospects and clients via old school media, new school media, or both – the important thing is that it matters to them.

Photo by p_a_h

Leads : Like a friend who needs advice

Your list. Do you have one? List of what, you say? Fair question. Let’s step back a bit. I’m talking about leads, prospects… ie: interested parties.

Does every lead buy the first time they encounter your products and services? The late Chet Holmes always talked about three percent who are ready to buy “right now”. Your business might “meet” 100 people this month who haven’t encountered you before. Using Chet’s numbers, there’d be three who are ready to buy and 97 who aren’t. Yet.

Your prospects might be different than his were, but there’s a percentage that applies to your business and your prospects. You get to analyze your prospects and how long it takes them to work through the lead process and figure that out. There isn’t one number for you and every other business.

That said, if your numbers match Chet’s, then what are you doing with the other 97% of the people you meet? If they don’t match his, that’s OK. The same question remains… what are you doing with the rest of them?

If you know who they are and can reach out to them to educate them (ie: provide them with info to help them learn more about what they said they’re thinking about buying), then you have a list. If you can’t do that, then you don’t have a list.

“People hate being on a list”

You’ve probably heard that. Or said it. Or lived it. Actually, what people seem to hate is being on a bad list.

A bad list is one:

  • ..where everyone gets the same thing, every time they’re emailed, mailed and/or called – regardless of age, gender, income, marital status, history as a customer, or time as a prospect.
  • ..that gets emailed, mailed and/or called with hard sales pitches about things they haven’t shown an interest in. For example, if I stop in to look at a four wheel drive diesel pickup, I don’t expect you to bug me about the latest hybrid two-seater you received. The reverse is also true.
  • ..that’s all about them and rarely about you (the prospective buyer) & your needs. Generally speaking, we don’t care about your end of month sales quota, or your boat payment coming due.

Political campaigns are a good example of a bad list. You get…

  • Mailings whose message resonates only to already-decided voters. See above.
  • Mailings that are all about the candidate’s party and not one iota about the voter they are trying to convince.
  • Mailings that think they can get you to change your mind because someone is, or isn’t wearing a cowboy hat.

If you want an example of what it’s like to be on a bad list… register to vote. If your mailings treat prospects in a manner that’s even close to the way parties and PACs treat their mailing lists, it’s time to reboot.

A good list serves leads

“Lead” is a somewhat impersonal name for these folks – after all, they are real people who have shown an interest in what you do. Leads is just a word. Don’t let it distract you from the purpose of your list of them. Treating them as if they’re all the same is a bad idea.

Why didn’t the other 97% buy? Maybe they’re waiting to get paid. Maybe they need to complete a few other tasks before they can buy. Perhaps they’re starting to learn about something they know they need or want, but they’re far from ready to buy. Maybe they have to wait until their new budget year starts. They all have a reason (want or need) and each one has a timeline. Some are more urgent than others.

You probably know 100 (often taken for granted) things that’d help the 97 (or whatever) percentage of people who didn’t buy figure out what to buy and when. These are the people who, if treated intelligently and kindly, would benefit from being on a good list.

“What do I say to make my list good?”

Imagine that one of your friends decides they need to buy what you sell. What questions would you want them to have the answers to before they make a buying decision? How would you advise them as they navigate the learning & purchase process?

These are the things a good list says. A good list treats leads like a friend who needs advice.

Photo by ccampbell10