Monday, March 24, 2008

Pay Attention; Look Ahead

All your prospect wants to know is, “What’s in it for me?”

His needs come before yours. If you can meet his requirements better than anyone else can, and he likes you, you both win.

You don’t have to have a bucket-load of customers to show that you understand the customer’s problem. In fact, the prospect may be more likely to think you care if your bucket is bone dry. You have to pay attention, listen, and do your homework before you say anything about how perfectly your service matches the prospect's needs.

It's possible, however, that your service doesn't match his needs. Let’s say your company develops a special type of X-ometer that will turn the X-ometer industry on its ear. You meet a prospect and develop a great rapport. You ask lots of good questions and begin to develop a true sense of the prospect’s challenges, which, come to find out, can't be fixed by even the best X-ometer. The prospect’s problem is Y. You don't know jack about Y.

You could still try to sell the prospect on the great advantages of X in hopes of prying a little revenue out of the deal. Or you could demonstrate your interest in helping him solve his problem, even if you’re not the one who can solve it.

That would mean no immediate sale for you, which is pretty painful in the early days of your business. But two things can happen:
1) You develop a reputation as a company that really knows how to listen and how to solve problems. Prospects like that. Some will become customers.
2) If you refer a prospect that needs Y to a company with expertise in Y problems, the Y people are more likely to return the favor.

Nobody can afford to wait around while prospects that might need something a year later develop fuzzy feelings for you. But you have to work on getting your next customer while you’re trying to get your first one.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Be a Know-it-all

We've all heard these claims in business:

“We’re number one.”

“We’re world-class.”

“We’re the experts.”

Any company that claims it's world class, isn't. If you want to convince someone that you’re the best, the worst thing you could do is to tell them so. Instead, help them discover it for themselves. That’s especially true if you’re trying to get your first customer. Who would believe you if you say you’re the best when you have no customers, yet? Even if you have a track record, people would be leery if you bragged about your greatness. Prospects want to choose a company that knows what it’s doing. But you won’t convince them by simply saying, “I know what I’m doing.”

There’s a better way.

Let’s say that after years of experimenting in her kitchen, Lucinda has developed a great-tasting salsa with a special main ingredient: lima beans. She immediately forms Sublima Lima Salsa, LLC. If Lucinda opened a small store on the busiest street in town, she might sell one or two jars of salsa a week. Her goal is to sign up wholesale customers. Not only does Lucinda have to overcome the stigma of people who associate lima beans with school cafeteria lunches, she’s never sold anything in her life. Therefore, she has to convince potential customers that lima beans really are a tasty salsa ingredient, and that she’s the expert on such things.

Lucinda sets to work by submitting an opinion piece to her local newspaper entitled Lima Beans, the Misunderstood Legume. Then she learns that the local community college is always looking for experts to teach non-credit continuing education classes. Lucinda proposes to teach a cooking class that shows students how to use ordinary vegetables for easy, unique entrees and side dishes. Her students quickly see that she knows what’s she's doing around a bean or two. On the last night of class, she gives each student a jar of her Sublima Lima salsa.

Lucinda is just getting started. She joins civic organizations and offers to speak at any opportunity about the positive health aspects of lima beans. And then she signs up for as many neighborhood and community festivals as possible where she hands out brochures on healthy eating, along with free samples of her salsa.

Eventually, Lucinda’s efforts begin to pay off. A retired teacher takes her cooking class at the college. The teacher happens to be the mother of the owner of a chain of gourmet grocery stores in town. He sees the jar of salsa in his mom’s kitchen one day and tries it. Impressed, the storeowner sees Lucinda’s contact information prominently displayed on the label, and he soon calls her to learn more about her company.

The administrator of a large nursing home facility hears Lucinda speak at a Rotary Club lunch. The administrator is always interested in new ways to provide healthy meals to her residents. After the speech, she corners Lucinda to learn more.

Lucinda begins to build her list of prospects—prospects that see her as an expert not just on lima bean salsa, but all things vegetable or legume-related. Who knows? Lucinda’s prospects may need a product other than salsa, or maybe something vegetable-based that does not include lima beans. However, they are confident that Lucinda is the expert on such matters because she’s demonstrated that fact in many settings, all without directly claiming that she is the best at what she does.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Align yourself with their customers

If you’re having a tough time reaching out to your prospects, reach out to their customers instead.

In the late 90s, I was the vice president of marketing for an Internet-based company called Construction Zone (CZ). CZ had an idea (not mine) that helped them get over the no-customer hurdle. The company developed a searchable database of formatted building product information. Rather, they wanted to develop a database.

The people who would use such a tool were all for it. They were architects, engineers and others who sought an easy way do so side-by-side comparisons of construction product information. They were also in favor of the online database because they wouldn’t have to pay for it. That would be up to building product manufacturers, whom CZ would have to convince to put their information online where their potential customers could compare it with the competition.

The general reaction from manufacturers to the idea was, “Why should we pay you when you don’t have any architects searching your database?” At the same time, architects and engineers said, “We would love to use your site, but not until you have the product information we want.” CZ needed to produce an egg at the same time it produced a chicken. Therefore, the company began to build credibility by holding listening sessions.

Each listening session consisted of potential users (architects, etc.) and potential customers (building product manufacturers). Architects from large firms were delighted to attend because it gave them a forum to express their vision of a perfect world for finding product information. Manufacturers (CZ’s prospects) eagerly attended because it meant they could be in the same room with their prospects—architects who held the key to millions of dollars in potential business.

CZ briefly outlined its idea for the database, and then sat back and listened as the architects raved about the benefits of such a tool. Rather than promise manufacturers that architects would use the tool if the manufacturers would only put their information there, CZ allowed the architects to say so themselves. It was as if CZ had teamed up with some of the most powerful decision makers in the architectural world.

Another key to the success of the listening sessions was for CZ to LISTEN. The company did not trot out its sales spiel during the sessions. Instead, CZ asked attendees, “What do you think of our idea? How would you make it better?”

The listening sessions helped CZ foster a bit of credibility before they had many customers. When manufacturers saw their potential customers getting excited about the database, they got excited, too. By realizing that CZ was taking their interests seriously, they were more inclined to try a new concept by a new company. Many of the manufacturing companies in those listening sessions eventually became CZ customers.

If the participants in listening sessions had seen the gatherings as a veiled attempt only to generate sales, the events would have been less productive, or even counterproductive. Commit to being as neutral as possible so that you can reap the invaluable information generated.