How to Be Long Winded

March 31st, 2015

contentIf you finally get the chance to make that critical presentation to a room full of high level decision makers, you want to make sure you make the most of it. You have a captive audience, you are the center of attention, and you get a platform to sell your product or service to people who really matter. It’s a rare opportunity, so why not make it last as long as possible? After all, the executives who come to listen to you are bored with the drudgery of their tasks, and are eager to bask as long as possible in your brilliance.

Here are seven guaranteed ways to ensure that you captivate their full attention for as long as possible:

Give an infomercial: Make sure you tell them about every cool feature of your product.

Tell your “corporate story”: You are justly proud of your company and they should know why.

Fall in love with your slides: Someone, maybe corporate marketing or you, put a lot of work into them, and besides the animations are awesome!

Show them in painstaking detail how you reached your conclusions: If they don’t know how difficult it was, they won’t appreciate it.

Tell long stories: Stories are good in a presentation, so long stories are even better, right?

Think out loud: It’s important that they know without a doubt how smart you are.

Don’t practice or prepare: Why detract from the spontaneity that makes you such an interesting person to listen to?

As I said, strategic sales presentations are rare and valuable opportunities, and if you follow these tips, you can’t help but make them even more rare and valuable.

Make Your Value Proposition Unique

March 23rd, 2015

Vintage inscription made by old typewriterI remember an old spoof from the cartoons: the character is listening to the radio and an ad comes on.

Announcer: “I’m talking to YOU!”

Character: “Me?”

Announcer: “Yes, YOU, Elmer Snodgrass of 123 Elm Street; I’m talking to YOU!”

When I was a kid, I thought it was pretty cool that the radio could speak directly to each person in that way. I’ve become more sophisticated since then, but I still have the perhaps naïve impression that salespeople can strive for the same effect.

Have you ever received a Valentine’s Day card that addressed, “To whom it may concern?” Maybe not in so many words, but I’m sure you’ve received cards that were so impersonal that they were totally meaningless—they may even defeat the purpose.

The same thought applies to value propositions that salespeople tell their prospects; they’re usually so generic that all the meaning and interest has been leached out of them. They come across as a required formality, filled with platitudes and one-size-fits-all generalities.

I recently received an email in which the first line was: “I visited your website and found that your business complements our services.” Makes you want to drop everything and call them right away, doesn’t it? That’s a line that could have been—and probably was—sent to about a thousand other recipients. We get so many of these that it seems like nothing will get through to someone when you do have something useful for them to hear.

The only way you can make your value proposition sound like you wrote specifically for the person hearing it—is to write it specifically for the person hearing it. Write it in such a way that the person has no doubt at all that you have spent time thinking about them and their needs and have a plausible idea that can improve their lives in some way.

People do care about things that apply directly to them. Think of the cocktail party effect: you’re at a party in a crowded room with many conversations going on at once, but if someone mentions your name across the room, you pick up on it instantly.

To make it apply directly to the recipient, you have to speak to their unique business and to them personally.

Frame it in terms of their unique business

What’s unique about a business? It’s not selling more or spending less—everyone wants to do that, so if that’s all you talk about, how can you be special? What is unique about a business is how they plan to get there—their business strategies and initiatives, the unique challenges they face, are specific to them.

To find something unique, visit their website and find out what they do, and read their annual report if they have one; find out what they care about; glean some of the language they like to use. Even better, if you can find something their CEO or other high-ranking executive said—in a speech or an article—that applies to what you sell—use that. Best of all is to use an analogy that compares what you do for them to what they do for their customers.

If you want to earn the right to a hearing, you have to show knowledge: To put a different twist on an old saying, “They don’t care how much you care until they know how much you know.”

Make it personal

While knowing a lot about their company is a great start, you can get even more specific by relating it to them personally, because even in B2B sales, all decisions are ultimately personal. Most complex sales are going to involve several different people, and each has a different view of the need or the stake in the outcome. So, if you can relate your value proposition to something you can do for them in their specific position, you’re more likely to pique someone’s interest.

Probably the most effective is to show you know something about them personally, and the best way to do this is by using a referral; show you’re part of the club by having a little inside knowledge. Next best is to use something from your research, maybe something that they said or wrote, or the way they describe themselves on their LinkedIn profile.

Is it difficult to make your value proposition sound unique? Not really, but it does take work on your part, and that’s good. Special would not be special if anyone could do it.

I’d like to close with a sales lesson from Leo Tolstoy, who said,

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

To show value, you have to find someone who is unhappy, or who can be made unhappy when they find out what’s possible. That’s why you need to make your value proposition sound different: every customer is unhappy in their own way. If you can show that you understand that, maybe even can name it in your value proposition, you will add unique value.

More importantly, Elmer Snodgrass of 123 Elm Street will hear you loud and clear!

Note: A version of this post ran in Kelly Riggs’ Business LockerRoom blog on March 5.

Have You Read Your Customer’s Latest Annual Report?

March 19th, 2015
It's that time of year again.

It’s that time of year again.

For your top three customers, can you answer the following questions:

How did they perform financially last year, compared to their competitors and their own expectations?

What were the major drivers of the results they achieved?

What do they plan to do differently this year?

What is their vision statement?

What are their principal strategies and initiatives?

What challenges and opportunities do they face in the year ahead?

If you had no trouble answering these questions in detail, pat yourself on the back, but don’t get too complacent. These questions—and others—are the bare minimum you should know to qualify as a true consultative salesperson.

If you had trouble, don’t despair, because the answers are readily available to you.

This is my annual lecture to B2B salespeople: by this time of year, every one of your customers has published its annual report, or its fraternal twin, the 10-K form. There is quite simply no excuse for not getting your hands on a copy and reading it.

Actually, let me take back that last statement. There are good reasons not to read your customer’s annual report:

  • You’re content selling to lower levels
  • You already make enough money
  • You’re an order-taker, so it would be a waste of time

If none of these excuses apply to you, immediately leave this page, go to the investor relations section of your customer’s web site, and download their annual report. Then read the damn thing.

And if your top customers are privately-held and don’t publish an annual report, read the one for their top publicly-held competitor.

Kind Words and Guns

March 9th, 2015

nice guyThere was an interesting article in Bloomberg View last week about what makes Warren Buffet successful. Matt Levine cites two separate paragraphs in Buffett’s shareholder letter to make his point. In the first, Buffett cites Berkshire’s unique ability to make capital decisions free of status quo bias, and then to move funds without tax consequences. In the second, he paints an appealing picture of B-H as a wonderful home for a would-be seller of his business, who can sell them his business and then operate free of management meddling, protected from investment bankers under the benign Buffett-Munger umbrella.

Levine summarizes the idea nicely: “The trick is to be rigorous while seeming sentimental, to drive a hard bargain while looking like a teddy bear. Some of this is fake, just carefully engineered perception.”

Really? Carefully engineered perception? Warren Buffett!?! To paraphrase the classic line from Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that carefully engineered perception is going on here!”

It also reminds me of another classic line which is falsely credited to Al Capone: “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.”

It’s a wonderful way to encapsulate a key principle of practical eloquence. However, the quote works just as well if you change it slightly, so that it reads “with either one alone.” Kind words and guns are the velvet glove and iron fist of persuasive communication. Psychologists call them warmth and strength, but the idea is the same.

Let’s look at what happens when you rely on one or the other too heavily. If you have the big guns, why would you even bother with the kind words, won’t it just get in your way? In fact, it may seem hypocritical or unauthentic to try to disguise your power. When you have power, it’s in your best interests to hide it as much as possible behind a veneer of restraint, kindness and goodwill. Would-be monopolists know this well. They have to thread the needle between telling investors about their enormous competitive advantages while assuring government regulators that they are small, defenseless players in a cutthroat world.

One of the problems with relying on the gun alone is that what goes around sometimes actually does come around. Guns alone get you immediate acquiescence at the cost of simmering resentment—the nail that sticks out gets pounded first. I had a client in a commodity-driven business that would squeeze every penny of price out of its clients in years when supply was tight, and then bemoan the fickleness of its customers who bolted to the competition when things loosened up. I’m not saying that they should not have tried to maximize their profitability, but there are ways of positioning necessities with kind words that make them more palatable. It requires more work on your part, but it’s an important investment.

On the other hand, if you are a genuinely good person (which Buffett seems to be) and have others’ interests at heart, having a big gun behind you can make you that much more effective in getting them to agree to do what is good for them. Salespeople who rely solely on relationships with their buyers sometimes forget this, and can get into trouble when times get tough for their buyers and they’re left without the gun of superior value or barriers to entry to preserve the account.

The “gun” doesn’t have to be coercion—rewards and incentives also qualify. Yet even incentives can be wrapped in kind words to take advantage of intrinsic motivation. Incentives can work very well, but they only work as long as you have the ability to provide them. They also motivate people to do just what they need to do to earn them, but nothing more. On the other hand, people will often knock themselves out for reasons of their own, for deeply personal reasons. Leaders who rely only on the gun of incentives (and the threat of withholding them) can be exposed when things go off track.

Probably there is nothing new in this article for you, but if you are climbing the ladder in the corporate world, it may be a helpful reminder. We’ve all known, and research has confirmed, that people tend to shed the kind words as they rise through the ranks, like a balloonist dropping sandbags to aid their ascent. As you gain power, it gets tempting to rely on it more and more, like favoring your stronger hand.

That’s what is striking about Warren Buffett’s performance through the years. He’s managed to keep his benevolent image in today’s culture, despite being in the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1%, and that’s almost as impressive as his investment record. As a stockholder, I hope he keeps on succeeding with his “carefully engineered perception”!