Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

You’re starting your new company based on extensive knowledge and experience that you have accumulated in your field. Or, if you’re not an expert yet, you will be soon as your overwhelming desire to make your company successful courses through your veins. Your know-how and energy are why you’ll soon turn prospects into customers. Except that the trees keep getting in the way.

You used to sit back and observe other business ventures from a safe distance and think, “I could do it better.” Since you’re not at a safe distance any longer, it will be hard sometimes to tell if you’re actually doing something better, or if you’ve gone completely off course. Starting now, seek periodic advice from others with similar expertise. You need someone who will listen to you and help you see the things you can’t.

My background is marketing, but the most difficult company to market is the one I’m a part of. I don’t always have an objective viewpoint on how to promote my own stuff. It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day aspects of the company rather than looking at the big picture. We have bills to pay, so we spend a lot of energy ensuring that we can pay today’s bills, rather than the ones that will come due in five years. To compensate, I occasionally touch base with other marketing people whom I’ve known for many years. We meet over lunch so that we can each talk about our respective companies. We share that month’s challenges. I tell her the ones I face with mine. Often, I can offer some perspective that helps her deal with a particular obstacle. She may offer a suggestion that seems obvious to her, but is foreign to me because my mind is cluttered with small details she doesn’t have to deal with. Conversely, I sometimes get the chance to offer her suggestions that should seem obvious to her, but aren’t for the same reason.

I don’t expect to have a “Eureka” experience at these lunches, though that could happen. What often occurs, though, is that I get to hear someone I respect tell me something that I tell myself. But when I hear it from her, it sounds smarter than when I think of it. It validates my suspicions about things I, or the company, could be doing better, or a course of action we may have considered, but had never followed through on. That’s usually the greatest benefit: I know what I should be doing, but I wait until someone tells me firmly to get on the stick.

Even though you feel that you’re on your own now, you have such colleagues, too (unless you burned all your bridges when you decided to start your own business). You and your colleagues can still lean on each other a little. They can offer prescient insight into matters concerning your success that you can’t see just because you’re too close to the problem. If you’re having trouble dredging up serious prospects, for example, an associate from outside your company may offer some helpful tips. He probably knows some prospects, too.

"No" is not an ugly word

Get used to being turned down. Unless your business is selling $20 bills for only $15.99, prospects will say “No” to what you are selling more often than they will say, “Give me two of those.” Hearing "no" is not the end of the world.

When you’ve made it through the initial meeting, the demonstration, the proposal, the countless questions, and then the prospect still turns you down, the most important thing you can do is to learn why. This may not be as easy as it sounds. You have essentially extended a marriage proposal that has been met with "NO WAY". Most prospects would prefer that you go away rather than have them explain the reasons why they don't want to do business with you. It's not unusual for some former prospects to ignore your phone calls and emails.

If you do get the opportunity to ask your prospect why she said no to the incredible value of your product/service, however, be gracious. Ask her thoughts in the most non-threatening, low-key way possible. Here’s an example:

“I appreciate that you took the time to consider us, and I hope we can do business in the future. You can’t win them all, but we sure like to try. I would value your insight on how we can improve our patent-pending fiberglass-lined elbow warmer. Can you tell me what the deciding factor was in choosing to go another direction? What could we do better the next time around? Your opinion really means a lot to me.”

It is hard for any human being to resist offering her opinion, particularly if she doesn’t think you’ll take it personally. A lot of prospects will feel they owe you an answer in exchange for the time you spent meeting with them. The information the former prospect provides you, if honest, is gold. In fact, the occasional honest feedback from one or two lost prospects is almost as valuable as a paying customer, minus the whole revenue issue. In fact, it could help you turn the next prospect into a paying customer.

You may never get better information on how to improve your stuff than from someone who turns you down. It doesn’t mean you must immediately change the color of your fantastic widget from blue to chartreuse just because the prospect said so. Some prospects simply aren't a good fit. At least you will learn a little about how the prospect thinks and how she compares you to your competition. Then you can draw on that insight when applicable for future prospects.

Appreciate that kind of intelligence when you receive it. Then get back up, dust yourself off, and move on. Don't ponder endlessly what you could have done differently to win the business. It is possible you could not have done anything to sway the prospect’s decision in your favor, not lowering your price, not adding a few more bells and whistles, not changing your hair color, not upgrading your toupee or anything else. File the prospect feedback in your brain, and then focus on turning the next prospect into a customer. Otherwise, you will be wasting your time, and your bank account will not be getting any bigger.