What follows is an article I wrote for a local business publication. Most or all of this also applies to you as a job seeker.
If you build it will they come?
Overcoming the “Field of Dreams” approach
Unfortunately the business world is littered with the remnants of many promising companies that failed to recognize the significance of persistant sales. Despite great products, a small company must persist through the sales process if they are to have any hope of surviving. Far too many entrepreneurs assume that if they built it, customers will come. Most smaller companies aren’t adequately funded and run their bank accounts dry before any significant business comes their way.
Small business owners and executives are usually too busy developing their product or service to give enough attention to reaching decision makers who might buy their wares. They think that simply being visible is going to generate business. This motivates them to develop a web page, create some handout materials and spread the word among people they know. When they realize that no one is seeking them out, the decision is made to increase visibility by going where the key decisions makers are looking for information. They start giving presentations at seminars, writing contributed articles for trade publications, joining trade groups and going to trade shows.
People do not naturally assimilate general information and turn it into an understanding as to how it will benefit them. Customers must be guided to this understanding and then encouraged to make a buying decision. It seems counter intuitive, but intelligent business people can not seem to “connect the dots.” This is why the savvy entrepreneur needs to perfect a pitch that includes features, advantages and benefits. In other words, draw the picture for the customer and explain how their solution will help them turn a profit. After initial failure to attract adequate attention, these small companies will“idiot proof” their message so it can not be missed.
In the instance where decision makers are reached and interest generated, there is often too little follow up. Business owners wait for the person to contact them. After all, the busy executive said they would follow up and no one wants to appear to be “pushy.” After waiting a long time, the small company will finally contact the prospective customer. If they can not get through after several tries, most will give up. They assume that the prospect has simply lost interest or was never really interested in the first place.
In reality, closing the deal can be a lengthy process. Even with a truly interested customer, the road to success can be a long one. I’ve developed a list of five common set-backs in the sales process of start-ups and small companies:
“What we got here is a failure to communicate.”
Product developers are excited about their new product or service and assume that the benefits of it are clearly visible. All too often, developers expect that people will imediately see the significance of their product. In reality, customers may need more time just to understand the offering. For this reason, the company message must be clear enough so that the prospect is not required to talk themselves into liking the product. The sales pitch must explain how the product or service will save precious resources; generally time or money.
Assuming that they like you….they really like you…
It is easy to misunderstand the prospect’s level of interest. Being simply “interested” may mean that they are only entertained by the demonstration, concept or presentation. The company representative needs to learn to qualify the interest to prevent wasted effort. Some deals are never going to move forward because the prospect can not see a specific benefit derived from the offering.
One is better than two.
Particularly in partnerships, there is a failure to make “following up” one person’s job. Both the seller and the prospect will return to the office after a trade show or seminar and get back into their routine. Unless “closing the deal” is part of someone’s routine, chances are, nothing new will happen. One person must be assigned responsibility to follow up with the prospect until the deal either closes or falls through and that person must be held accountable regularly. It can not be a team effort or no one will be required to face the team on a weekly basis and explain why they did not follow through.
“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
Of course, a major failure is the lack of “persistent sales.” Rarely will the sales person get through the first time. They will have to repeatedly follow up. There is a sticking point which needs to be overcome before the two parties develop a smooth working relationship which generates income. Multiple meetings may be required and additional people may need to be brought into the process. Most or all of these people will need to be satisfied before the deal can be closed. You have to persist beyond this “sticking point” until the deal has enough momentum to close.
“All that is gold does not glitter.”
And finally, there is a temptation to chase the next hot prospect. It is so easy to lose confidence that the deal is ever going to close. When that next great prospect emerges, it is so hard to not chase them. To continue calling a prospect and never getting through or to continue having conference calls were everyone seems to be finding reasons to not close the deal; it just seems like wasted effort. When another promising opportunity emerges, it feels so logical to put all effort into making that new deal happen, only to end up, a few weeks later, at the same point in the sales process.
We have all seen ballgames where a new game plan is required to turn things around. A shuffling of the line-up, so to speak, can re-set the game and cause a team to reemerge with momentum in their favor. Here are a list of game changing solutions that can also give businesses the winning edge
Clarify your sales presentation.
Make sure the benefits of your product or service are crystal clear to the decision maker who is often multi-tasking and isn’t fully attentive. I have noticed that a major benefit of going to a trade show is not so much the ability to excite a handful of prospects. After all, trade shows with booths, shipping, handouts and travel are expensive. Your return on investment can be pretty slim. The real benefit is the opportunity to test market a sales message to a small sample of a target audience. About halfway through any show, sales people become much more effective in selling since they have successfully honed their message with real prospects.
Separate the wheat from the chaff.
I have seen really good sales people turn skeptics into customers. However, it takes extra work and the initial order is usually pretty small. With less effort and better results, they can close the sale with a customer who is truly interested. Hiring a good sales person is not always an option for a small company. The sales role is going to fall on someone. I’d suggest applying Pareto’s Principle (the 80/20 rule) so attention is given to the “vital few” and not to the “trivial many.” So many prospects (80%) are going to consume too much effort for too little result (20%). A small business can not afford to spend scarce resources without stellar results. By sorting out which prospects are serious, wasted effort is avoided. One suggestion I would offer is to simply try to close the deal as quickly as makes sense. Those uncomfortable with the sales process are generally reluctant to quickly close a deal by simply asking for the sale. Promptly asking for the business at the appropriate time will shorten the sales cycle and quickly weed out uninterested prospects.
Put someone on the hook
This should be pretty obvious. There is little discomfort in shared blame. Make the responsibility for following up and closing the deal, one person’s job and make them report to the group regularly. Having someone on the hook to drive the deal can be uncomfortable but it makes all the difference. Be ready to ask (and have answers for) the tough questions like, “Why have you not reached them?,” or, “What methods should we be using to reach them?” Noone wants to be the bad guy, but when it comes to survival of the company, everyone will need to toughen up or face the consequences.
Make a plan to stick with it
We have all heard, “Plan your work and work your plan.” The same goes with making a plan for following up with a great prospect. Make a plan on how and even how often you will follow up with a prospect. Decide early on what methods and collateral you will use to gain their attention and build a relationship along the way. Then devise a tracking system and stick with it. Little which is worthwhile happens without a plan. When it comes to your livelihood, planning to succeed should be paramount.
Know When to say “When”
There will be a time when it must be accepted that the deal is never going to “make.” The interest may be there but the funding may be lacking. Or, the prospect may simply be too busy or lack the authority. However, it may be that there is serious intent to buy but the process is lengthy and an occasional reminder will keep things moving forward. Therefore, it is best to plan for a gradual reduction in frequency. Rather than pelting the prospect every day for two weeks then walking away, it is better to contact them two or three times a week for a couple of weeks, then reduce contact to once a week. Eventually, you will be following up once a month until it is determined that the deal is dead. You need to know when to say “when” but don’t say “when” too soon.
I suggest that those in need of sales efficiency get a mentor or form an accountability group with other like minded professionals. Chosen partners can help you hold yourself accountable to persist until a deal is closed. And on the flip side, they should be able to help you point out that your field of dreams may never materialize and it is time to move on.
Good Luck and Godspeed.
Business Development Director