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A Changing Context

Meanwhile, our former Top Guns find themselves in a changing context. As the ranks of salespeople swell, the percentage of top performers declines. The company begins the task of creating and implementing policies, procedures, and structure.

As the landscape shifts to the mainstream market, new sales managers may start to find that they no longer have the same flexibility in pricing and terms that they enjoyed when they were enticing early customers to sign. The customer base is changing, too. As we’ve seen, early-market buying behavior is driven by a small number of participants, sometimes even by one primary supporter. A high percentage of early customers were small to mid-size companies.

Now, senior management is determined to pursue larger transactions at larger companies. These are very different beasts, with multiple layers of management, infrastructure, and so on. Mainstream-market buying involves a larger number of people, often through a committee structure, and often entails the need to gain consensus. (In some cases, a majority prevails, but in the worst case, decisions must be unanimous.) Even in a case where the committee concludes that an offering is viable, there may be a delay until other options are considered—for example, a request for proposal (RFP) that is distributed to multiple vendors. Mainstream-market buyers are pragmatists. They believe in due diligence. As a seller, you may even be punished for your uniqueness: Mainstream-market buyers sometimes defer a decision indefinitely because they are unable to evaluate alternatives.

Meanwhile, as the sales organization grows, the Marketing department expands (or is organized for the first time). Its objective is to shape the way prospects are approached by standardizing product presentations and brochures. There is an attempt to codify how offerings are sold. What began as handwritten notes on a cocktail napkin by the founder early in the company’s history is now a glossy six-color brochure, bursting with high-end graphics and ambiguous terms: leading edge, robust, synergistic, scalable, seamless, state of the art, and so on.

These marketing efforts are often flawed because they tend to be based on successes with early-market buyers who didn’t need to be sold. The deliverables to the field are product-intense, treating offerings as nouns rather than verbs. But the strengths embraced by the early market—and now highlighted in the newly created collateral materials—may be out of alignment with the concerns of pragmatic buyers. In fact, they may raise issues that will be barriers to getting buying decisions made.

In this changing context, the danger lies in not knowing when or how to change the selling approach. Leading with features was (sometimes) acceptable with the early-market buyers. But leading with features when approaching mainstream-market buyers is deadly poison. Telling them that this is the latest technology, and that they’ll be the first on their block to have it, is simply too scary for them.

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