I often run across entrepreneurs who are having trouble with sales and thus are having difficulty reaching profitability. Their proposed solution usually involves hiring a better salesperson, one with more experience, who can close some business and train and manage others to do the same. But sometimes the solution is staring you in the face, and it may not be a sales deficiency, but rather, one in marketing.
Most think of Marketing as building the sales tools like advertising and product brochures, but these tools are trivial to create and are not the central and critical role of marketing. Marketing is responsible for the strategy and the composition of the message that defines the Value and the Risk that a customer will evaluate in order to make a purchase decision.
When I interview a new client, my early questions are for them to explain the value of their product, how it is differentiated from competitive products, and finally where they see the risk that a customer might evaluate before closing on a deal.
Many entrepreneurs see the process of sales as one in which they list the many features (or values) of their product to the customer. They feel that adding as many values as possible will impress the customer with the sheer mass of all that can be delivered and will tilt the decision in their favor. In a sales meeting, they are eager to get started with their PowerPoint presentation that extols the virtues of their product. This is a path to disaster.
First, we have to agree that the harder something is to sell, the higher the cost of sales will be. And, high customer acquisition cost can be the path to insolvency. The more information that we need to deliver to the customer to convince them to buy, then the more expensive our sales process will be. But, as one might expect, a really good salesperson, with great skills of persuasion can eventually convince a customer to close, even for a hard-to-sell product. That's why there are half hour infomercials. Hit a person in the head for 30 minutes with a two by four and they will buy just about anything. But a half hour of air time is expensive and so is the time of a "high powered" sales executive.
So, the role of marketing is to attempt to simplify the message and to make sure that the value that is offered is in complete resonance with the needs and expectations of the client. To do this, one must begin by asking the client what their own objectives are and what their perceived barriers to those objectives are. Only then can you properly frame your product within the context of their statement so that it helps the client achieve their objective while overcoming the perceived barrier.
An exercise that I commonly do with students and entrepreneurs is that they cannot use the word "and" in a sales presentation. They must choose a single, dominant value that matters to the client, that is differentiated from the competition, and they must stay on message with that single value. Then, they need to offer the client a clear and rational way to mitigate the client's perceived risk. And that risk is always that the value being offered is not real.
Here's a simple, but real, case example.
A young company has created a software (SAAS) suite of programs for schools, students and their families, much like blackboard (if you've used it at Babson or at your college) except even more comprehensive. They have targeted US grade schools. When I asked what the value of their product is, the CEO listed, endlessly, all of the features, which were quite exhaustive. Yet, he stated that he had difficulty getting any traction in the US market and his plan, at this point, was to recruit a senior, high-powered sales executive to manage the sales process.
I asked him what he thought were the primary objectives of the school principal who was the decision maker for this type of product. He wasn't quite sure. This is already a problem.
So, I proposed an alternative scenario, but not based on any facts, simply on conjecture, as an example of the thinking needed to help his sales dilemma. I said: "what if we were to assume that the principal's goals were to increase test performance of his students. (of course one needs to confirm this in real life). And what if we could state that the main value of our product was that it integrated parents into the students performance in a real-time daily way that was often lacking in the normal operation of the school. And, that this single feature of the software had a remarkable effect on aggregate test scores by increasing them over 10 percent for the schools that have integrated our product." I asked whether the CEO would see this as a more compelling sales pitch and I even suggested that if he was asked about the "other features" of his product, his answer should be that "they don't really matter, so let's not worry about them now," more effectively staying on message.
Next, I offered that the main risk for the principal is whether the promised result is, in fact, true, and the next challenge for the sales person (or really for the marketing person) is to create a path to reducing that perceived risk. One such path might be through a study done at several other schools that were give the software for free in exchange for tracking the required data to prove the efficacy of the product.
Thus, a new marketing strategy may really be the key to this company's success and not more powerful, and expensive sales processes?
Go make your fortune.