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Diagnostic Positioning—Creating the Engagement Strategy

When the external and internal profiles we develop confirm our view of a prospective customer as a Principal customer, it is time to create an engagement strategy for our initial contact. There are two elements in an engagement strategy: One is unchanging and comprises the framework on which we will always structure our encounters with customers; the second is ever-changing and is the identification of the best entry point into the customer's organization.

Key Thought In the Eyes of Customers, Salespeople Are Guilty until Proven Innocent

This may sound harsh, but it is nonetheless a reality that sales professionals must be prepared to face. The most effective way to break through a customer's preconceived notions about salespeople is to do something actors call "playing against type." When we act in unfamiliar ways, customers are jarred into seeing beyond the stereotypical character they have come to expect.

Breaking Type

There are several ways that successful salespeople play against type. We've already introduced the first in Chapter 3going for the no—the idea that as salespeople, we should always and actively be looking for reasons to end engagements with individuals we can't help. When we are willing to break off or suspend an engagement with a customer who is not experiencing a problem that our offering can solve, we play against the stereotype that says salespeople never take no for an answer.

An extension of the concept of going for the no and another way we can play against type is to always be leaving. How do most salespeople appear to the customer, relative to "staying" or "leaving?" That's right—they look like furniture—they're not likely to leave, like a pesky little pit bull clamped on your ankle. The more you try to shake it off, the tighter those little jaws clamp down. To be rid of the stereotypical salesperson, customers expect to have to hang up the phone mid-sentence or call in security. Salespeople who are unwilling to end engagements leave their customers feeling pressured and tense. But when we indicate our willingness to step back, customers feel free to communicate openly and without fear that the information they share will be used against them.

We can communicate these attitudes from the very beginning of our contact with customers. For example, on our first phone call with a potential customer, we can introduce ourselves and then, as a prelude to the subject of the call, say, "I'm not sure if it is appropriate that we should be talking. . ." That simple phrase relaxes the customer and indicates that the salesperson is not about to force his or her way forward. It tells the customer that the salesperson is willing to be somewhere else if that is more appropriate. It clearly sets the stage for a professional encounter.

One last way we can play against type is by being prepared not to be prepared. The stereotypical salesperson feels pressured to always have an answer. Part of the reason lies in human nature itself; no one likes to admit that they don't know the answer to a question. The other part is that a conventional salesperson sees a customer's question as a golden opportunity to start presenting. Principal salespeople, however, break type. They are completely prepared, therefore they can afford to be relaxed and casual. They don't need to force an answer before they fully understand the customer's situation and, as important, they understand that even when they do have an answer, if the customer is not prepared to hear it or won't fully understand it, it might not be the right time to offer it.

For instance, customers often ask salespeople, "What makes your product better than your competitor's?" The natural response is to launch into a dissertation about the unique benefits of your offering, and when you do, you are fulfilling the image of the conventional salesperson. The counterintuitive response is to step back from the challenge and say, "I'm not sure that it is. Our competitor makes a fine product and at this point, I don't understand enough about your situation to recommend which product may be a better fit for your application. Let me ask you this . . ." and then goes on to ask the next diagnostic question. The salesperson who responds in this manner opens the door to a more in-depth discussion and greater involvement. The key to the engagement strategy is the diagnostic positioning—we are positioned to Diagnose, not present.

Identifying the Optimum Point of Entry

The final element of the precontact phase of Discover is the identification of the best point of entry into the customer's organization. In conventional sales, the point of entry is usually fixed by the job title of the contact and frequently targets "the buyer." Sellers of training programs call on training managers and human resources executives, sellers of software call on information technology managers, sellers of manufacturing equipment call on plant managers, and so on. All are in search of the sole decision maker, a mythical character who, for all practical purposes, does not exist in the enterprise sale.

The problem with this fixation on job titles is twofold. First, every salesperson in your industry is calling on the same person inside the customer's organization, so that person has had significant practice at putting up barriers and restricting access. Even when contact is made, salespeople's ability to establish themselves as unique is severely impacted. Because of the frequency with which the "usual suspects" must deal with salespeople, they are usually immune to even the best moves. Second, the usual suspects are often not the best initial contact. It isn't unusual to find a major disconnect between the individuals who are experiencing the impact of the problem and those who are tasked to buy the solution. Typically, we find that it is middle managers who are busy avoiding buying decisions while unidentified individuals at the executive and operational levels of the organization are experiencing the consequences of the problem and the impact of the absence of the salesperson's solutions.

Successful sales professionals, on the other hand, tend to enter customer organizations through less obvious and more productive avenues of access. They identify the best entry points by determining who in the customer's organization is experiencing the impact of the absence of what they can provide. That, most likely, is an individual whose ability to accomplish personal and professional goals is being restricted by the problem or lack of solution. For instance, one of our clients provides automated manufacturing systems that place components on printed circuit boards. Manufacturing or production engineers typically purchase these machines and the manufacturing lines they are in; therefore, every salesperson initiates contact there. As we worked with this client to develop an optimal entry strategy, it was determined that the early warning indicator is their prospective customer's losing bids or turning down bids because of lack of ability to place certain size components. The victim in this example, or the person most acutely aware if this is occurring, is the salesperson who is turning away the business. A call to a customer's salesperson was very simple. The equipment salesperson explained the nature of the call, "I'm trying to determine if your organization is experiencing this issue, and if so, would it make any sense to discuss it further with your management?" The diagnostic questions determined that this company was in fact turning away business, which quickly led to a calculation of the financial impact; a suggestion was made to talk with the regional manager. (Is this an isolated case, or is it happening to other salespeople in other territories?) It was determined that the salesforce had been forced to turn down $8 million of new business because current equipment could not handle a certain component that our client's equipment was capable of placing on circuit boards. With the cost of the problem in hand, the regional sales executive brought the salesperson to the vice president of sales, who took him to the vice president of operations, who in turn called in the manufacturing engineers and told them to make the sale happen.

Key Thought The Victim Is Much More Receptive and Communicative Than the Perpetrator

The individuals in the business who are adversely affected by a business problem or inefficiency are much more receptive to discussing it, and the impact, than the individuals who may be the cause of the problem.

In this example, a manufacturing engineer, who is more isolated from the company's customers, sees little value in the new capability of the salesperson's equipment, but the sales executive knows that customers would buy if they could build the boards with the special component. Likewise, a processing plant manager who already has a set amount of downtime built into this year's budget may have little interest in spending unbudgeted funds for automated control equipment that promises to reduce the downtime next year. Executives at the corporate level, who would see the increased production capacity in future years drop straight to the organization's bottom line, would be operating from a completely different perspective. Again, the optimum entry point may likely be the nontraditional choice.

Key Thought Who Gets the Call in the Middle of the Night?

Enterprise salespeople seek to enter the organization through the door of the person who is experiencing the symptoms of the problem in a way that would be most likely to drive a decision to change. When they identify the person "who gets the call in the middle of the night," they've found the person who cares most about the problems their offerings address.

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