Writing on the Wall

Perhaps the most common theme in this site is to pay attention. In NLP, we speak of “sensory acuity”, maintaining a sharp awareness of our surroundings, scanning for opportunities, threats, any relevant details. It also refers to perceiving as accurately as possible those details. Though bias is inevitable, we strive to capture details with as little prejudice as possible.

Years ago, I was in a customer’s conference room, and as I waited alone for my customer’s team to arrive, I was surprised to find the whiteboard filled with plans, proposed budget amounts, time frames, and other details relevant to my visit. I’ll intentionally keep the purpose of my visit generic so more among you can relate to the situation. What’s important is that I had enough information before me to adjust my pitch as I desired. I may have been there to discuss widget A, of which I presumed the customer needed 1,000 units.

Too bad they weren’t interested (or so they had said) in widget B which was twice as expensive (good for me), but also four times as efficient as widget A (good for them). The problem was that no one would tell me how much budget they had for widgets that quarter, so I had to go on what little information they would provide overtly. By reading the board’s contents, I saw that actually they had plenty of budget to afford 1,000 units of widget B! As mentioned above, they would only really need 250 units due to the increased efficiency. Even considering that widget B was twice as expensive, which meant they could afford 500, twice as many as I thought they needed. It’s important not to oversell in the sense of delivering more than the customer needs or wants. Customers are as smart as we, they will figure it out and lose their trust in you as their “trusted advisor”–a loss that no amount of commission is worth. However it’s different if you advise them to over-purchase, as in stocking spare units for when primary units fail, to provide an immediate replacement, without the lag until warranty replacement can be completed. If the customer understands they are purchasing spares, they are in on the decision, and will not blame you (or lose their trust in you) when they look at all the unused widgets in their store rooms.

Greeting the customer when their team arrived, I began with their needs and why those needs mattered. (Sometimes we have a need, but the reason isn’t defined or perhaps agreed-upon between the affected departments–so the “why” is sometimes all-important.) It turns out that they had a massive need for a widget of some kind–either A or B would do–and they knew they needed “at least” 250 at this site…and another 250 at another site. Another among their team reigned that first fellow in, saying, “we’re not here to discuss the future site, that’s a quarter away.”

I now had a vast amount of information, plenty with which to help them achieve their goals, while simultaneously increasing my sales. I had a particular reason to promote widget B, incidentally, as there was an added incentive to sell these over other widgets in our product line. This is common in Sales, and this quarter, if I could sell 250 units of widget B, it actually benefited me more than selling 1,000 units of widget A.

What we worked out was purchasing 500 units of widget B, half delivered within thirty days, the other half the first day of the following quarter. Billing was also staggered to accommodate the customer’s quarterly budget allocations. However since the sale itself occurred this quarter, I got credit for, and the incentive for, the entire lot this quarter.

I would call that a win-win, as the customer was certainly pleased, and I certainly appreciated earning the added incentive. The customer had enough money to buy spares and in this case, they didn’t have one-for-one replacements (i.e. 500 for each site), though they chose to purchase a few. With some of the additional budget, however, they purchased services from us. Further, their whiteboard revealed a project about which I’d known nothing about previously. We had a conversation and they were surprised to learn that we offered that product as well, call it “widget X”. Since they had money left over, they bought several of those widgets as well.

It was still a win-win: my company sold twice as many units of widget B as I’d expected to, plus we created a deal for multiple units of widget X, truly a bonus. There is also something my company achieved in that meeting that is often overlooked: we claimed more of that “spend”, the budget, than we had expected. Meaning that amount was no longer available for a competitor to claim. We in essence “blocked” the competitor. From the customer’s perspective, they dealt with one vendor instead of two, a stated goal of theirs, for both widget B and X. Further, they got ahead of schedule for their alternate site: they hadn’t planned to acquire widget B for that site until the following quarter. Now they could cross this project off the list and begin planning the others.

All of this was possible because I looked for clues in the environment, indications of what they were working on, planning both now and in the future, and scanned for opportunities for win-wins. It really is important, by the way, to resist the temptation to sacrifice all for the quarter. I’ve known sales teams who would, let’s say, stretch the truth, in order to close a deal that was either premature or not in the customer’s best interests. As mentioned above, customers look for a “trusted advisor” among their vendors. To achieve that coveted status, you must level with them. You cannot be dishonest or deceptive with them–they will figure it out, and once that happens, your hard-earned status (or progress toward earning that status) of “trusted advisor” is gone.

I’ve learned first-hand the value of that status. I’ve had customers invite–no, that’s not strong enough a word–demand–that my company represent itself in bids against much larger and better-known firms. I had very self-assured salespeople from household-name companies scoff at this, demanding to know why some little company they’d never even heard of should be in the same room as them. A customer actually said, “Because Chris is our trusted advisor. We need to know what he recommends.” (I wasn’t present for that discussion, but both that competitor who asked the question, and members of the customer’s team who had been present, told me about it.)

Nothing moved forward until my company also had a bid in place, much to the irritation of our much bigger competitors. To be honest, we didn’t wind up winning the whole project–our “widgets” frankly weren’t as full-featured as those of our competitors and would not have served the customer best. We admitted as such (retaining that “trusted advisor” status). Though the customer was so pleased with us that they awarded us the entire services requirement, which is generally more profitable than the product sales. It certainly was in our case, and we were thrilled to get it.

Two interesting things came out of that project, besides this article: we added new products to our repertoire, ensuring that we would next time have the same product offering, and not miss out on that portion of the project, and I was headhunted aggressively (albeit unsuccessfully) by two of the competitors, including the one awarded the products portion of the deal.

Which brings us back to the initial point. Customers will share some of their information with you, consciously. You can gain this intelligence by simply sitting and chatting with them about their projects, their needs, their concerns. But there is almost always a wealth of other information available for the perceptive individual. It may be the body language of your customer as you discuss upcoming projects, slips of their tongue–mentioning an upcoming opportunity long before they are ready to announce it, or their leaving the plan, budget, or just the brainstorming that will lead to a plan, on the whiteboard. If you look for opportunity, you will find it. Though it’s vital that, unless you don’t care about a long-term relationship with the customer, you utilize this new information ethically, using it to craft win-wins, never exploiting your customer with the intel. Because all the advance information in the world won’t help you if the customer just doesn’t like or trust you. And as in my case, if the customer does like and trust you, they will look for ways to bring you the needed information. Be ready. Keep those senses sharp, and live up to the responsibilities of being a trusted advisor.

Oh, and–make sure you close the deal.

Copyright © 2016 Chris Gingolph

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