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Re-engineering your sales force

Re-engineering your sales force

You're great at selling to technology-savvy prospects. But economic and market trends indicate that there's a much larger pool of conservative and sceptical IT buyers ready to be tapped. Are your salespeople ready? George Colombo offers a few hints on how you can take advantage of an opportunity that's waiting around the corner.

As businesses increasingly rely on IT solutions to be competitive, your services as an integrator or reseller are in high demand. In fact, chances are good that things in your sales department are sailing along pretty smoothly right now.

Make no mistake, however. Remember that Ford grew rich on the success of its Model T and then, failing to recognise changing customer values, its dominant standing eventually toppled. You face a similar challenge. Like the automobile market of the 1920s, today's market for IT products and services is rapidly expanding.

Resellers increasingly have the opportunity to sell solutions to a new breed of customer that is only now entering the market - a customer they've typically had little experience with. We'll call these new IT buyers mainstream customers.

Mainstream customers may be loosely identified by late-adopter vertical markets, such as low income or even non-profit sectors, but they're more accurately defined by their attitudes. Mainstreamers do not readily appreciate automation. They're conservative and skeptical about techno-logy they don't understand, and they aren't inclined to spend much time broadening their technological horizons.

The good news: these customers dramatically outnumber the early-adopter types, so they represent a tremendous revenue base. They're in the middle of the bell curve. They've been waiting for a time when getting involved with technology seems less risky, more conventional. For an increasing number of these customers, that time is now.

Resellers have historically pursued the IT-buyer types identified as "innovators" and/or "early adopters" - and for good reason. These customers buy IT products when profit margins are highest and the need for support is strongest.

Innovators and early adopters are technologically savvy, with an inherent appreciation for the competitive advantages that IT can create. They're at the left-hand base of a bell curve that traces the cycle of adoption that every new technology experiences over its lifetime. These buyers are crucial because they prime the pump for the larger market that follows.

But it's important to understand that while leading-edge customers may represent your largest high-margin opportunity, they are a comparatively tiny sales opportunity. The revenue sweet spot is in the centre of the technology adoption bell curve, where mainstream customers reside.

Speak your customers' language. Your sales organisation is probably well practiced at selling to innovators and early adopters. But mainstreamers are a different story. The sales approaches that work for others cannot adequately address the needs of mainstream customers.

Mainstreamers don't understand IT jargon, and they have little patience for it. They are not enamoured with technical specifications. They focus on solving business problems and remaining competitive. Sales pitches centred on "feeds and speeds" will leave mainstream customers cold.

As a reseller you can, of course, continue to pursue early-adopter customers by offering a steady stream of leading-edge technology. But why cut yourself off from a huge opportunity - the emerging market of mainstream customers.

Changing your target audience doesn't mean huge changes for your technical staff, but it may require your sales force to learn a new way of selling. As usual, this new approach rests on a few principles that, however simple, will take time and effort to master.

When selling to mainstream customers, it's extremely important for salespeople to purge their vocabulary of the jargon and acronyms that are so pervasive in this business. They need to develop a sales presentation that your aunt in Wagga can understand. In fact, it might be a good idea to fly her in to hear some of your salespeople's presentations.

If customers don't understand what your salespeople are talking about, they aren't going to ask for clarification. After all, they don't want to feel stupid. They're just going to nod politely, then call your competitor. The ability to communicate technological concepts in plain English doesn't come naturally. It takes practice.

Always ask the million dollar question. You want your salespeople to learn as much as possible about your customers' background and level of sophistication, and you want them to do so quickly and unobtrusively. So make sure every single sales call includes this question: "What are you using now that this system/product/software is going to be replacing?"

They'll uncover lots of information they need to know about the business issues underlying the sale. More important, though, they will be able to pick up important cues about the degree to which your customer is comfortable with technology.

Tell the whole story, and get it right. There are countless nuances of technology-based products that you, as an expert, take for granted. Your mainstream customers, on the other hand, might very well be surprised to find out that the electronic-commerce solution you're proposing costs rather more than a simple Web-page design.

When selling to mainstream customers, your salespeople should take nothing for granted. Every element of the solution needs to be diagrammed and explained. Just like everyone else, mainstream customers hate surprises.

Create a hands-on experience. The easiest way to blow a sales opportunity with a mainstream customer is to lose their attention during a product demonstration. While your salesperson's hands are deftly manipulating the keyboard and mouse, your customer's eyes are glazing over because they don't understand what they're seeing. Unless the customer is extremely motivated, they won't be engaged in the process. A better approach is to have your salespeople "choreograph" their demonstrations.

Keep the customer's hands on the keyboard and mouse while your salesperson guides them through a carefully planned series of tasks.

Sure, it takes longer and requires much more preparation, but nothing galvanises the attention of a mainstream customer like a do-it-yourself demo.

Mainstream customers, by definition, aren't pioneers. They are comfortable when they learn that other businesses like theirs have successfully implemented the type of solution you're proposing.

Check all of your existing customers for "referability," then make sure your salespeople are building references into each and every sales presentation. Don't worry that your competitors will find out who your customers are. If you're doing your job, it doesn't matter. (Besides, they probably know already.) Your salespeople will experience success in direct proportion to the number of references they can provide.

Sell complete solutions. While early-adopter customers love to custom-configure their solutions from an endless variety of options, mainstream customers are uncomfortable when confronted with a large number of confusing choices. They prefer to choose from a few simple options that include all the necessary elements of a complete solution.

For these customers, there's nothing more frustrating than finding that everything they needed to make their solution work wasn't included. And don't forget that, for most mainstream customers, a complete solution includes training.

One of the great failings of this industry is the degree to which customers are forgotten once they purchase their systems. That's a huge waste, particularly with mainstream customers.

Once your salespeople have done their job and landed the order, your business is poised to take advantage of a lifetime revenue stream of add-ons and upgrades. Make sure you have systems in place to stay in touch with your new mainstream customers.

Unlike your early-adopter customers, who are comfortable enough with technology to go out and shop for price, your mainstream customers are yours for life if you make the effort to maintain and cultivate the relationship.

Eschew obfuscation

Nothing kills a mainstream-customer sale faster than IT jargon. Speak plainly!

The first step towards communicating effectively with mainstream customers is to purge all of your customer communications - both written and spoken - of industry jargon. The challenge here lies in recognising the extent to which industry jargon has ingrained itself into your communications habits. After that, you must make a conscious effort to ensure that everyone in your organisation is communicating clearly, in plain English. Here are a few tips:

Plan and prepare. Explaining sophisticated technological concepts in plain English can be difficult under the best of circumstances and almost impossible without adequate preparation. Make a list of technologies that are integral to the products and services you sell. Then create a description of each that is technically correct and complete but is formulated in conversational English. Share that description with each of your salespeople.

Practice, practice, practice. Your sales meetings should include role-playing sessions where salespeople have an opportunity to practice jargon-free presentations. In the give-and-take atmosphere of a real-world presentation, it's too easy to revert back to ingrained habits without realising it. Only through practice will your salespeople learn the skill of jargon-free presentations.

Purge jargon from your sales literature. Often your company's literature (brochures, mailouts, etc) will reach a prospect before your salespeople do. If that's the case, make sure anything you send out communicates your message clearly and effectively. Sure, there's a place in your brochure for technical specifications - in their own section, at the end of the brochure.

Knowing your customer types

You'll identify and properly position mainstream customers better when you know the five types of IT buyers. As described by Geoffrey Moore in his book Crossing The Chasm, there are five types of IT buyers found along the Technology-Adoption Lifecycle:

Innovators. These customers pursue technology products aggressively and are often enamoured with technology for its own sake. They are the customers who are calling you about new products and technologies before they're even released. Perhaps the most important function of an innovator customer is to prove the efficacy of new technologies to subsequent adopters.

Early adopters. Like innovators, these customers prefer the cutting edge. Unlike innovators, they are not technologists per se but are businesspeople who are more adept than their colleagues at relating the potential benefits of a new technology to real-world business needs. When they find a strong match, early adopters are willing to go out on a limb with something new.

The early majority. These customers share some of the early adopters' appreciation for new technology, but their enthusiasm is tempered by a sense of practicality. They understand that even the most promising technology can prove to be a dead end, so they're more careful with purchasing decisions. Over time, this group accounts for a whole third of a given technology's market.

The late majority. Buyers in this category share all the concerns of the early majority but are even more conservative. They are risk-averse and inclined to wait until a technology has become an established standard before adopting it. (Hint: none of these customers bought Macs!) While these customers are slower to buy into a given technology than the early majority, they also comprise about a third of the overall market. The mainstream customers referred to in this article comprise the early and late majority.

Laggards. A segment of the market that's not only small - it's unprofitable. There is so much opportunity to be found among early and late majority customers that it's literally not worth pursuing laggards.


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