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The Process of Change

There is a predictable pattern to the process of change, as shown below. The key is to not get endlessly stuck fighting what you or others see as an undesirable change but to instead work through it to see how you can turn it to your advantage.

Use the following questions to think about your customers and their businesses.

For example, how have things such as technology, information processing, communications, cultural diversity, pricing, cost, pressures, security, workforce education, competition, globalization, the economy, and the Internet affected your customers? Think of how they have affected you or your company.

To what extent does the customer perceive these changes? How well has this person's company taken advantage of those changes? What does he or she think will happen in the next year? What impact might it have on the company? In what ways has the customer responded to these changes? In what other ways can he or she respond? Is something preventing a response?

" We try to anticipate the next change, because change is the medium of opportunity."

—James C. Morgan, chairman and CEO, Applied Materials

If You're Not Part of the Solution, You're Part of the Problem

Sales leaders are part of the solution because they strive to understand the customer's business. Sales leaders become experts in their industry, their company, and their products or services. They are experts at solving problems and identifying opportunities, continually developing and using these skills. They choose to develop their expertise in depth so that customers can count on them to offer innovative solutions.

Initiate, Influence, Inspire

Sales leaders make their presence known by initiating, influencing, and inspiring. Initiating discussions with customers, they get things started rather than waiting to be told what to do. They influence not only people in the customer's organization but people in their own organization. They influence others by how they communicate their ideas for the customer. They work to create understanding, enthusiasm, and support in their organization. They respect others' concerns and respond to them. They inspire others when the going gets rough by reminding people about the original objectives and the results they will bring to the customers, and by being in the trenches when needed.

In a highly competitive environment, you want to always be the person your customers think about first when they think about calling in someone to help them. Keeping "front of mind" involves initiating, influencing, and inspiring:

  • Initiate. Challenge the status quo—look for opportunities to grow your business by helping your customers grow theirs. Understand the customer's business challenges and strategies. Be alert to changes in sales (slight falloffs that could be precursors to bigger losses). Monitor customer costs. (If you don't proactively look for ways to reduce them, someone else will.)

  • Influence. Demonstrate how you are committed to your customers and influence them to be as committed to you. Demonstrate how you provide them with unique products, service, support, or pricing. (Do you sell to everyone, or are you selective? What would your customers lose if they were no longer your customers? What do your customers see as the benefits of working with you?)

  • Inspire. Leaders inspire people to do things. Tell a story about how your company stood by a customer in tough times; how you went the extra mile when a customer needed service; how you went way beyond a customer's expectations. Give people a solid reason to be emotionally comfortable with and committed to relying on you.

Every Change Presents an Opportunity

You have to find opportunity in change. And if the change appears at first to be negatively affecting you, finding that opportunity will present a bigger challenge. The reason is your frame of mind. If you perceive the change as a threat, you are going to be looking for ways to defend yourself against that threat rather than finding ways to take advantage of it. Or you may downgrade the threat, thinking it will affect others but not you. History is replete with examples of this, but the most recent example is the Internet.

When the Internet first appeared, more established companies weren't certain what it was or how to take advantage of it. Some of them dismissed it as a nonevent. New companies that were started because of the Internet found ways to take advantage of it, such as using it as a distribution channel for merchandise (Amazon, eBay), not just for information. Once the more established companies saw the advantages of the Internet for selling, cost reduction, or customer contact, they brought enormous resources to the table. While many of the original dot-com companies were founded on good concepts, they weren't run well as businesses and ran out of funds when reality set in. Those with good business models that took advantage of the Internet and had good leadership survived.

If you put time and energy into defending against something, it's not at all likely that you will see how to turn the threat to your advantage. If you dismiss it and it turns out to be a viable threat to your business, you will then have to play catchup. A better course of action is to have a separate group develop a plan to build a business opportunity around change.

Clayton Christensen, in his book The Innovator's Dilemma, describes a principle of successful technology transition: it's difficult for successful companies to exploit major changes in technology (and keep growing). Companies that have been successful with one technology find it difficult to take advantage of what Christensen calls disruptive technology, technology that takes a leap forward, because at first their customers don't need it and the companies don't see the same profit potential in it as they have with their existing products. New companies, not bound by the existing paradigms, capitalize on the disruptive technology. They go after the customers the existing company won't pursue, but after these other companies improve the technology and it becomes more cost effective to mainstream customers, they are able to move up to capture customers who initially rejected the technology. (These are customers of the larger, more successful companies, whose existence is threatened by the new technology and the companies that are exploiting it.)

Salespeople and their organizations run into the same issues when confronted with something new. How they respond determines their future.

" It may look like we are going around in circles, but we are climbing a spiral staircase."

—Niklas Savander, vice president, Nokia

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