"A leader inspires people to change rather than forcing them to change."
What can you do as a sales professional to be sure you will succeed consistently over time? There is a principle to start with that we will examine in this chapter.
Sales leaders rely on individual qualities of success to lead their organizations in developing innovative customer solutions. The model described here has three parts, each part of sales leadership success building on the earlier one. Sales is a matter of serving customers. Leadership is a matter of serving colleagues (employees or other team members). Success is a matter of being of service to our families, our communities, and ourselves. To stand out in sales, you need skills, knowledge, and talent. But you also must be able to influence the customer, your organization, and the people who support you. That requires leadership. To be a great leader, you need to build on a solid base of individual success. The top row in figure 5 shows each part of the performance process. The bottom row shows the people who benefit.
Sales leaders engage people to go in new directions at levels beyond what they thought possible, and do it with consistent performance. Sales leaders become exceptional by continually striving to learn and develop, to break through their own limits. Leaders encourage change. They are the catalysts for inspiring other people to rise above their limits, to rise to meet a challenge and do more than they thought possible. The first step to breaking through limits is to see a vision of what is possible, believe it can be achieved, and then believe in the people who must make it a reality. Sales leaders envision such breakthroughs for their customers. They get their organizations as excited as they are about the possibilities of delivering innovative solutions that address customer problems. They line up support to implement the solution and work to prevent or correct any implementation problems that occur. This is how sales leaders are able to deliver high-value, innovative customer solutions.
To be a great leader, you have to build on individual qualities of success. Let's test this principle. To be a person with individual qualities of success, you have to possess strength of character - integrity (doing what you say), identity (knowing your strengths), and values that allow you to model the behaviors of success you expect from others. You have to overcome potential or real weaknesses that can detour your success. For example, think of someone who has a strong product or technical background but who is not comfortable in managing relationships. That may be a limitation depending on how often the person must be involved with others. While everyone doesn't need to possess every possible quality, people often stand out because they excel in one or two character traits that others come to know and trust them for.
Strong leaders have a solid understanding of themselves. They have a firm grip on such areas as self-awareness, self-discipline, self-confidence, self-development, and self-control. To lead others to greatness, start with a foundation of personal success.
A leader is someone who inspires others to action rather than forcing them into it. People who rely on position, threats, or manipulation may get what they want in the short term, but they will burn too many bridges to be around for the long term. Outstanding salespeople develop relationships with customers. The exceptional sales leader is often called upon to influence his or her organization to go beyond established routines and accepted practices, products, or services to meet customer needs. Exceptional sales leaders are able to get internal staff (marketing, IT, accounting, design, support, and so on) to provide outstanding service to their customers because they provide outstanding service to their internal staff. They treat them with respect, don't ask them to do anything they wouldn't do themselves, and recognize their expertise. When problems arise, the inside staff will go the extra mile for the sales leader who goes the extra mile for them and recognizes their efforts.
An outstanding salesperson helps customers take advantage of opportunities in a win-win-win approach (a win for the customer, a win for the salesperson, a win for the salesperson's company). Exceptional sales leaders do not accept the status quo without question, but look at things the way they are and question why they shouldn't or couldn't be better. To be able to sell effectively, you must be able to influence the customer and others. Some salespeople are more interested in what they have to sell than what the customer wants to buy. It's not easy putting your interests aside in favor of the customer's, especially when you're excited about what you offer or focused on how much money the sale is worth.
The limits to our success lie within us. Because they do, we can conquer those limits by understanding what they are and compensating for them. A leader builds on a base of individual strengths. A leader inspires others to action, getting them to make decisions or resolve problems when necessary. Exceptional sales leaders draw on sales skills and leadership abilities to deliver innovative solutions to customers and their organizations.
The sales leader's challenge is
To take the initiative
To not accept the status quo when the present way of serving customers is less than it could be
To inspire others to follow his or her vision for achieving what seems to be impossible
To maintain confidence and control in the face of crisis and uncertainty
To provide communication, compassion, and direction when needed
" You can never accept the status quo."
- Jeffrey R. Immelt, chairman and CEO, General Electric
Sales leaders look at the status quo and question why things are the way they are. They search for ways to tackle what others might consider tolerable or acceptable. They find innovative solutions.
In times of change, people need to do things differently to accommodate or take advantage of those changes. When necessary, leaders initiate change to create better solutions. They may effect change within their organizations even if it doesn't seem apparent to everyone that those changes are necessary: if they think it makes sense to change the business model or the way they are organized to serve customers, they will. If they have an exciting vision for serving customers in innovative ways, they will champion those changes for the customers. Getting people aligned around those changes is a leadership role.
Leaders not only take advantage of change, they encourage it. They look for the opportunities it creates and encourage others to do likewise.
If we were to think about the rate of change - how much more quickly things change today as opposed to yesterday - and plot change over time on a graph, it might look something like figure 7. Change is accelerating, and it will continue to do so. It is driven by science and technology and by information that is ever more widely and quickly available. It is driven by human curiosity and inventiveness.
When individuals or organizations are young, they tend to accept new technology easily. For example, children quickly adapt to video games and computers. But once individuals or organizations become comfortable with that technology and get older, they often don't readily accept new technology. Knowing this tendency and being able to not get caught in that limited way of thinking is a competitive advantage.
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.
Denial: Why is this happening (to me)?
Resistance: Whom can I blame?
Acceptance: How can I make the best of this?
Transition: What can I do to adapt?
Performance: Where can I make a difference?
Use the following questions to think about your customers and their businesses.
How have your customers changed?
In what ways are your customers' needs changing?
How have their customers changed?
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
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.
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.
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
There are three roles of a sales leader in creating a climate for change:
Challenge the status quo.
Create and communicate an exciting vision.
Support, encourage, and recognize those pursuing that vision.
Getting what you need for your customers may mean initiating change at your own company. That will mean that you will have to make a case for why your proposal is essential to keeping your customer's business, and perhaps the business of other customers.
You may need to demonstrate how your customer's business is unique, how it has changed, or how the current solution doesn't fit the present needs of the customer or is more costly or slower than what your competition offers. Your business case will need to describe projected revenues under several scenarios. You may want to seek input from your design or engineering people as you get further along to demonstrate feasibility and costs and to garner their support for your proposal. You will probably have to sell your proposal more convincingly up your own line and across to other departments than you will to your customer. Your customer will probably quickly see the advantages of what you offer. You may find that your company is protecting its vested interests. Some companies are receptive to new ideas, but others prefer the status quo. In the latter, you will need to do more to help your idea prevail. You can make a good case if you offer convincing data and win the support of one person at a time. Find an influential person you think would be receptive to your idea. Once you win him or her over, you will find less resistance when you go to the next person and say that so-and-so is on board.
Some battles you will win, and some you won't. The key is to make sure you do a thorough analysis and then build support. Knowing when to forge ahead is a matter of experience, balancing the likelihood of selling your idea in your organization and the potential payoff with the time you'll need to invest.
Sales leaders look for opportunities to do things differently when they see a potential benefit for the customer. They can play within the rules to accomplish what they see as necessary. One of the salespeople I know came in to take over an existing customer account. The customer had $50,000 worth of unused products that he wanted to return. The vendor didn't normally make refunds, but the salesperson looked at the situation creatively and came up with a solution that was agreeable to both the customer and the company. Rather than just going back to the customer and telling the customer what couldn't be done, he looked for a way to keep the customer's future business and maintain support within the company. This wasn't a big challenge to the status quo, but these types of initiatives can spell the difference between keeping and losing the customer. Lose a customer here and a customer there and it adds up. Even one is one too many if there is a way to reasonably accommodate the customer's concerns.
Quality is delivering what was promised to the customer. Most companies strive to deliver a quality product or service. Not all succeed. While it is not the salesperson's job to deliver the product, sales leaders leave nothing to chance. They may not oversee every step of the delivery process, but they are not going to be surprised by a call from an upset customer complaining about a late or wrong shipment. They want assurance that the product or service is delivered on time and as promised. They stake their credibility on it. They will get to the right people if there is a problem and convince them that it is in everyone's best interest for them to quickly rectify the problem. They won't fix it themselves except in rare cases, but they will make sure it is fixed. Especially for new accounts or new orders, they will keep oversight of the customer's order throughout the process, or have someone they trust do it, and head off a problem before it occurs. Again, while this is not written into their job, they know that customer goodwill, referrals, and future sales are going to depend on everything going without a hitch.
It's not enough just to have a great vision. That idea has to be communicated to people in a way that they can understand and internalize so they can act on it. It is a matter of building a base of support for implementing the vision. Communication needs to take place in a variety of ways and forums to reinforce the message. Once may not be enough.
Regardless of whether you are working on a short-term sale or a long-term, bigger sale, you need to ensure that people who work on the proposal are able to contribute according to their unique talents. This means that you must create the kind of environment where people are willing to go beyond the day-to-day ways of doing things so that your team can make a difference for the customer.
How do you create a growth environment? Here are three ways.
Do what you can to ensure that you take advantage of the skills and motivation that people bring to the table. What skills or attitudes do you need on your sales team for it to be successful? What unique skills can each team member contribute? Ask.
Make sure that people communicate effectively, whether that is through face-to-face meetings or through video or audio conferences, with email, instant messaging, briefings, or memos.
When you win a new account, make a big or unusual sale, or lose a sale, debrief the event. What helped? What didn't? Capture the relevant points so that people won't make the same mistake again.
NNR Aircargo Service (USA) Inc. is an international air cargo shipper. NNR won an account with a large medical equipment manufacturer with worldwide distribution and has provided service to that manufacturer for a number of years. The customer told NNR he liked their service because they are "proactive, finding ways to remove the roadblocks to inefficiencies that other shippers may accept as the way of doing business." I asked Andy Hadley, global accounts manager, how his company knows enough not to accept the status quo. He said: "We sit down and listen to customer requirements. At first, most of the time, you hear, ‘Everything is fine.' But then we ask, ‘Is there something that your current supplier isn't doing that you expect?' In this case, the customer said, ‘Our present supplier won't deviate out of their norm; there is no flexibility.' We saw that as an opportunity, and we told them we could do it the way they wanted. This particular company sets the bar high for us, in terms of what they expect, but we like that because we're able to jump over it. We've got a good process in place now, but we always have to be willing to step back and change it. We have to remain flexible."
Flexibility in meeting customer needs was the key to success in this case. It is a competitive advantage that NNR Aircargo relies on. That flexibility relies on an attitude of being open to doing things differently than the "normal" way. Too many suppliers get caught up in doing things their way and aren't open to customizing their service to the customer. Larger companies especially can find it difficult to do things differently from the norm because they often focus on standardizing service and being efficient. That stance gives more flexible companies an opening into the account.
Salespeople can fall into the same trap when they have a predetermined agenda for what they want to sell the customer. When the customer responds with a different need, they argue for their solution instead of trying to understand what the customer really wants. It's an easy trap to fall into. But if you're going to be successful, you have to be able to put aside your attachment to a certain solution and find another one that still works for the customer. Listening and empathy are key to being able to do that.
Leaders are always watching for changes and opportunities that their customers can take advantage of. They do this by interacting with customers; listening to feedback from the people closest to the customers, the sales and service people; working with the engineers and research people; and looking at trends in business. The leaders may not always be the first ones to identify the opportunity, but if they aren't they will encourage others to do so and then listen to their ideas.
Sales leaders know from years of experience and understanding what works and what doesn't. They know never to wait to be told something that they should already know. Companies don't thrive by simply meeting their customers' needs in the current marketplace. That quickly becomes a competitive disadvantage. Getting out ahead of the market - knowing what customers need before they do - is a strategy that leaders use. That strategy drives decisions that affect everything the customer does, including growth, personnel, and products. Understanding what customers need before they do requires having a strong presence and understanding of their business while being able to step back and look objectively at their situation. Your objectivity, coupled with your expertise, will allow you to see things that people who are close to the problem and who don't possess your expertise won't see.
" We're not interested in just planting our flag in every country to say we're global. If you stay at that first level of functionality - you make washers, people have dirty clothes everywhere - you can go anywhere in the world. But the second questions is ‘How can we go in and make money?'"
- Lloyd Ward, chairman and CEO of Maytag Corporation
What are the two most important qualities that followers want from leaders? James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner conducted a study and published their findings in their book The Leadership Challenge. The two qualities that followers most wanted from leaders were honesty and competency. Note that both of these qualities relate to trust. In effect, people want to be led by someone they can trust, someone they know will do the best thing and not lead them down a path that goes nowhere. Customers want the same thing. They want to trust their salesperson to handle their relationship with honesty and competency. They want a leader.
The next time you are faced with a situation where people aren't convinced you can accomplish something, rather than arguing, sulking, or retreating, prove them wrong. Tap into the enormous reserve of knowledge and strength that lies within you, develop a plan, and then move ahead smartly with a focused determination to accomplish your goal, always maintaining a positive attitude.
" Probably the biggest thing Lou Gerstner did for our company was get us focused on our customers. He started by building a mind-set that says everything we do helps our customers compete more effectively and win in their marketplace. That's the foundation."
- Ned Lautenbach, senior vice president of sales and distribution, IBM
Let's look at the difference between managing and leading. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably - such as when people refer to someone in a management position as a leader - but there are important distinctions.
The difference between managing and leading is the difference between doing things right versus doing the right things. Doing things right means being efficient. Doing the right things means being effective. Sales leaders are efficient when they get quotes and other work done quickly. They are effective when they are calling on the right companies and the right people.
Sales leaders really need a combination of both attributes. You need to do the right things right. You need a combination of effectiveness and efficiency. In either case, if you are ineffective or inefficient, you can be out of business.
Account managers tend to an account. Account leaders create business. They line up support behind their proposals. They create support and commitment. They create excitement.
Leadership requires aligning and enabling people. The objective is to create options for effectively handling unpredictable situations. Leadership is focused on developing capabilities to address multiple scenarios and to have the right individuals embrace the challenges of identifying and executing those scenarios.
The differences in results between managing and leading are like the differences between night and day. And, just like night and day, we need both. We need leadership in times of change. The more change there is, the more leadership we need. The more change that has to take place, the more we need leaders. Yet we also need to be able to manage our resources wisely.
The key for any leader is to be adaptable enough to recognize when he or she needs to use a different style and to work comfortably in that style. The people who have the most difficulty are the ones who get locked into a style that is not the best one for the situation they face or the people they are working with. The people who are the most successful are those with the self-confidence and skills to adapt to new market requirements and who can inspire others to follow them.
Some people confuse leadership and loyalty, thinking that if you follow their directions you have leadership ability. It doesn't take a lot of thinking, decision making, or initiative to follow directions - it takes loyalty. Managers usually value loyalty, even above competency. It's not surprising when you think about it. If you gave someone instructions to do something and he or she didn't do it quite right, you would give the person credit for at least following your directions. But if you instructed someone to do something and that person not only intentionally didn't do what you asked but also didn't tell you about not doing it, your reaction would be different. You would be mystified, annoyed, or worse. But that reaction is provoked by an offense to your sense that the person should be loyal to you, not by your estimation of the person's leadership skills.
In a military operation, people need to follow directions or there will be confusion and loss. But even in the military, a commander must be able not only to follow orders but to communicate, initiate, and inspire the troops to do their best when it's most difficult to do so.
Sometimes, people choose not to follow a particular directive but still get the results the director wanted. In that case, their indiscretion will likely be overlooked. In fact, it may be seen as "being resourceful." This trait may be valued because the person is still supporting the company in accomplishing an objective, even though he or she may not have done it in a conventional way. You could say the person was demonstrating an aspect of leadership. People will say about these situations "It is easier to beg forgiveness than it is to ask permission." That's true as long as you get the results.
Some bosses don't even go this far in granting people the autonomy to figure out how to do their jobs. They micromanage. They take away the person's ability to lead, to make independent decisions. The boss suffers and so does the organization, because micromanaging results in suboptimal solutions. As a sales leader, you need to encourage your support team to use their creative talents to get the job done and to let you know if they have a better way of doing it. You may still want them to do it, if it is within your authority, and as the salesperson that is your prerogative. You will expect them to carry out the decision knowing that they had a chance to influence the decision.
To inspire and create the will to succeed and persevere, in yourself and others, find a greater good. Look for something that goes beyond the immediate or the ordinary, something that will matter, that will leave a legacy. Focus your attention on benefiting others. The motivation to succeed can be multiplied many times by the belief in something bigger than any individual.
Jean is a successful sales engineer with an eighteen-year track record with a leading medical device company. She sells to physicians. When she was first appointed to her position, she realized a change was needed.
She said, "We needed to educate our customers, the doctors, about the benefits of our technology. We had great relationships with them, but they weren't able to take advantage of all we had to offer because they didn't realize our products could do things that other treatments, such as medication, couldn't." Jean saw that being great friends with the doctors wasn't enough. This observation, along with her decision to do things differently, epitomizes sales leadership. A problem became an opportunity for her and her company to create a win-win-win scenario: doctors could better serve their patients; Jean's company could expand their business; and Jean could do more of what she had been put in the job to do - solve problems for her customers. The effect of this was that the doctors could use more advanced methods to help their patients enjoy and extend their lives. She could sell more, serve her customers, and support the goals of her company, all within the context of a greater good. Look for the greater good in what you do. It will give you the ability to influence others to get done what needs to be done without having to direct them to do it.
Leaders create change to better serve their customers. They create change internally to get people to do what needs to be done to bring innovative solutions to customers. They communicate, influence, and convince people to adjust to and accommodate changing customer requirements. They are pragmatists. They don't try to change things for change's sake. They have an end result in mind: delivering solid solutions to customers.
Sales leaders are not simply the top producers. They are professionals who change how they work to fit the changing needs of their customers and who bring about the changes needed internally to meet or exceed those customer requirements. Sales leaders are able to consistently deliver over a period of many years by continually adapting to changing customer requirements. They may or may not always be the top producers, but usually they are.
While marketing and sales may have customers as their reason for being, they can find themselves working at cross purposes. When that begins to happen, sales leaders recognize it and use their ability to influence internally just as they would to influence customers. They recognize that they and marketing must work together closely if their company is to be successful. They strive to overcome their differences by finding their common interests. They work to achieve a delicate balance between the needs of their customers and the needs of the company. They navigate through these requirements with firmness and tact.
Instituting change inside any organization can be an enormous challenge, one that can take much longer than expected or be ultimately unsuccessful. How can you, as a sales professional, get people inside your company to be open to a new idea or a different approach? One excellent way is to enlist them in the effort. This is similar to what you do in asking customers questions to uncover their business needs - you enlist them in identifying the problem and possible solutions. They are then more willing to make a decision because they were instrumental in coming up with the solution. You, as an expert, guided them toward it.
Business 2.0's January 2002 issue provided an account of the turnaround that took place at Nissan Motors. In the fiscal year ending in March 2001, Nissan posted their first annual profit in four years and the biggest ever in their sixty-eight-year history. Three years earlier, Renault had bought a stake in the faltering company and brought in Carlos Ghosn to turn things around.
Nissan had their traditional ways of working. Ghosn needed to win the commitment of Nissan's people to dramatic changes. He got them involved by setting up nine cross-functional teams. (Members were selected on the basis of their commitment to change.) These teams ultimately produced two thousand proposals that cut debt and costs. Nissan also introduced new car designs that sold well.
The changes saved the company, and did it quickly. Ghosn said, "One of the greatest successes in business is to do what people say you cannot do."
Sales leaders, both within their company and even within a customer's organization, must fight lethargy, complacency, and inertia to bring about change.
Why is it that people don't switch to another company when they are dissatisfied with their present vendor? Why is it that people continue doing the same thing long after it has outlived its usefulness? The short answer is inertia. People will stay with a vendor because they see it as being too inconvenient, too costly, or too time consuming to switch, as long as the problem with the vendor doesn't exceed a certain threshold: that is, the point at which the pain of staying with the vendor is greater than the pain of switching. People will continue doing the same thing, going along the same path, until it becomes more painful to continue doing what they've been doing than to change.
Inertia is a term borrowed from physics - it means that a body at rest tends to stay at rest and a body in motion tends to stay in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. People will endure minor or even major problems with a vendor they have been with for some time. The vendor will have built up a reserve of goodwill, so when there is a problem the customer perceives it as an anomaly and expects that it won't happen again. Of course, if a problem recurs, the reserve of goodwill can quickly evaporate. If the vendor corrects the problem the customer may stay with the vendor, but the damage may not be easily repaired.
Inertia works in favor of the present vendor. If you are the present vendor, you have a chance to correct the problem and keep the customer. If you are a new vendor trying to get an entry to a new customer, inertia works against you. But time may be on your side. If you keep in touch with the prospective customer, you may just get the chance to start providing some products or services as the customer tests your capabilities. If the old vendor really has major problems, you may be asked to take over completely and immediately. In either case, the way to make your opportunity is to be persistent, present, and in front of the customer's mind. Out of sight, out of mind, out of business.
Make inertia work for you. Make sure you don't give your customers a reason to be unhappy. Always be looking for ways to improve their level of satisfaction. Don't settle for the status quo. Be a leader and find ways to break through the limits of service that constrain other companies. If your customers love the service you provide, it would take a major change in personnel to unseat you as a preferred vendor.
If you are trying to land a new account, become the outside force that overcomes inertia. Look for ways that you can do things for the customer that the present vendor can't or won't do. At the very least, speak with the customer to find out about the current situation. Let the customer know that you would like an opportunity to be tested so that you could be available if he or she needs a second vendor. Be alert to changes in the customer's situation. Stay in touch so that one day when you make the call the customer will say, "I'm glad you called."
Create momentum for an idea or a change. People want to be associated with an exciting endeavor. They will become a part of something that is moving ahead, so you want to create momentum around a concept or plan you envisioned. That is the best way to get people to support you.
Why would someone who is comfortable with the status quo be inclined to change? It doesn't happen. Lawrence Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell, used the metaphor of a burning oil platform to illustrate what has to happen to rouse people from a state of comfort. People won't jump from an oil platform, which is high above the sea, if everything is OK. They see the risk of jumping from the platform as unacceptable. But what if they see smoke or feel heat from a fire? Bossidy's contention is that it is the job of a leader to shake people from complacency.
Bossidy offered IBM as an illustration of this principle. IBM had gone through a time when its sales were stagnating and it still considered itself to be primarily a mainframe computer manufacturer. Mainframe sales were soft because of the increase in the use of alternatives such as distributed processing through PCs. If IBM's people felt comfortable designing and selling mainframes, what incentive would they have to break out of their historical area of strength? They didn't realize that the "platform" (in this case, mainframes) was burning.
When Lou Gerstner came in as the new CEO, he talked to customers and employees and began a change in direction that has radically altered IBM's business profile while also building on its strengths.
IBM has always been known for exceptional service. The company was known for bringing in teams of people to the customer's location when needed to quickly fix problems. That level of assurance was one of the primary reasons people bought from IBM. While IBM might not have been best known for having leading-edge equipment, they were known for having leading-edge service.
IBM has evolved into a company that derives a major part of its revenues from services rather than products. It has also made consulting a significant part of its business. IBM provides the services a company needs as a package, which again provides that level of assurance for customers to know that they can continue their businesses virtually without interruption.
The problem in some organizations is that people are comfortable with the way things are. People who have experienced a great deal of change don't mind a period of stability. If that stability lasts beyond the time when things need to start changing, that company will begin to see its competitive advantage erode.
Innovation is creativity channeled into productive use. Sales leaders look for opportunities to take a creative approach to problem solving and even finding problems. A study at Bell Laboratories on creativity sought to understand what led some people to be more creative than others.
What the study found as a common denominator was that creative people all thought they were creative. They approached problems in a creative manner and, as a result, were more likely to come up with creative solutions. They knew there could be multiple solutions to problems, so they looked for them. People who are creative are willing to tolerate, even encourage, the initial disorganization or confusion that creativity generates before it leads to concrete ideas.
Creative people use a variety of techniques to find creative solutions. The common factor, in many cases, is the ability to get engaged in an unrelated relaxing activity, letting the subconscious go to work to come up with solutions that the conscious mind could never imagine. Creative people tend to have an intense focus on their work, to get immersed in it, but they tackle diversions with just as much attention. Creative people also like to talk with other creative people and throw around ideas that lead to unexpected results.
I won't go so far as to claim that I'm a creative person, but I have my moments, and they tend to be when I'm relaxed and not actually thinking about a problem. It could be when I'm exercising, when I'm just awakening in the morning, or when I'm doing a completely unrelated activity. When you are facing what seems like an insurmountable problem and you have been working on it for some time, the best action might be to step away from it. That may seem counterintuitive, but it allows the subconscious to go to work.
MIT professor Eric Von Hippel suggests that companies work closely and continuously with their lead users in order to keep up with the changing needs of customers. Lead users are those who push the boundaries for solutions. Customers are often inventive with solutions, adapting what they use to better fit what they need. They may see needs that the supplier didn't when developing the product or service. Sales leaders can gain good insights by making their lead customers a priority when it comes to research and onsite presence.
But be careful when asking customers what they want. For example, when customers are asked what they would like, they say what they think they would like - but when they get it, it isn't what they want. What happened? The salesperson didn't probe and go beyond the initial request to find out what the real problems, desires, or needs were.
He might have looked at the symptom, but not the cause. He never identified the outcomes the individual wanted. He focused on processes and features, not benefits. He didn't observe how the customer actually used the product.
Creative people tend to draw on the right side of the brain for creative ideas and then use the left side of the brain to organize and implement. The right side works best when it is not working. You have probably gotten creative ideas and solutions when you weren't really thinking about them but instead were relaxed.
To develop innovative customer solutions means getting as much information as possible to frame the problem and then thinking creatively about what can be done to solve it. Creativity is like working out. You need to stretch your creative mind and build your creativity for it to be developed. Here are five suggestions for approaching problem solving creatively.
Be curious. If something puzzles you or strikes you as unexpected, don't ignore it. Investigate it. What can you learn? What is unexplained? Why? Don't accept a quick, standard response to your query.
Challenge your beliefs. What do you believe to be true? How might the situation or problem or solution be different from what you believe? What do others believe about the situation? Why? Suppose the opposite were true? Just because a belief is common doesn't make it true.
Follow your instincts. If you feel something isn't right, it probably isn't. Look into it. Don't blindly follow the well-worn path without at least thinking about whether you want to. Be aware of boundaries and rules, but don't take them as the truth. Rules are for convenience; boundaries help control. Neither of those is helpful to creativity.
Consider all possibilities. Don't reject a creative solution (or let someone else do it) by saying, "That will never work." If you prematurely reject an idea because it seems unfeasible, you may be rejecting the best solution before you've even evaluated it. At an early stage, don't focus on "how." If a solution is compelling, people will figure out how to make it work.
Ask the right questions. When you encounter a roadblock, start asking, "Suppose . . . ?" Suppose we did this? Suppose we did that? You will encourage others to start thinking creatively along with you.
" Creativity in an organization starts where the action is - in the laboratory, in R and D sites, at a customer's place, in manufacturing."
- Samuel J. Palmisano, chairman and CEO, IBM
I call the use of creativity in a sales environment salesivity™. Salesivity gives you a powerful strategic advantage. It allows you to create solutions that uniquely position you with the customer and differentiate yourself from the competition.
Creative solutions lie beyond the boundaries. Standard approaches are, by definition, within the boundaries, so if you are faced with a unique customer problem and need to come up with a unique customer solution, you will need to go beyond the boundaries. There is an inherent risk in doing so; success is not guaranteed and there could be a monetary cost or a perceived loss of power. But there is also an inherent risk in not doing so. The risk in not addressing the customer's unique problem in an innovative way is that someone else will.
Boundaries exist to limit options. In most cases, there is a relevant reason for this. If businesses didn't have budgets, for example, people would spend too little or too much. You need to respect ethical and legal boundaries (and take care not to push them). But when it's time to come up with creative solutions to customer problems, ways to do things better, faster, or cheaper, boundaries are the wrong place to start. The right place to start is by looking at what's possible or desirable, not what's feasible or manageable.
As many times as I have asked people to do the "nine-dot exercise," most people who haven't seen it before aren't able to come up with a solution (there is more than one), and about half the people who've seen a solution can't recall what it is. (The goal of the nine-dot exercise is to connect all nine dots in a pattern of three rows of three dots with only four straight lines without lifting your pen or pencil from the paper once you begin.) That's understandable. The key isn't really remembering the solution; it's remembering the principle behind the solution, which is what is often referred to as "thinking outside the box."
I hesitate to use this term, because it has become almost counterproductive to do so, but this is where classic brainstorming rules apply. There are two parts to the creative approach: The first is to generate as many ideas as possible within your given time frame. (The key here is to think quantity, not quality.) The second is to prioritize the solutions identified in the first step. (Now you think quality.) The difficulty often is that it isn't easy to stick with the rules, and unless you are actually in a formal creative session, people will often knock down a creative idea as soon as it is proposed.
It is up to you, the sales leader, to have a creative mind-set and explain to people ahead of time what you are striving to do so that you can create the right expectations on their part and then have a more effective creative dialogue. So even if you are having what may amount to an informal discussion of a problem and possible solutions, take care not to eliminate potential solutions before they have been given a chance to prove themselves.
After analyzing more than thirty companies around the world, W. Chan Kim and Renee A. Mauborgne, in their paper "Value Innovation: The Strategic Logic of High Growth," found that the difference between the high-growth companies and their less successful competitors was in each group's assumptions about strategy. The less successful companies took a conventional approach: they sought to stay ahead of the competition. High-growth companies employed a strategy of offering unprecedented value. In essence, slower-growth companies compete with other companies. Higher-growth companies compete by challenging the status quo. The authors of the study suggest, "Most companies focus on matching and beating their rivals, and as a result their strategies tend to converge along the same basic dimensions of competition. As rivals try to outdo one another, they end up competing solely on the basis of incremental improvements in cost or quality or both." Value innovators question what an industry takes for granted.
A committee from The Industrial Research Institute, Inc., summarized the concept this way: "Value innovation is customer driven and the goal is a product or service with radically superior value. The innovation may use new or existing technology, but the solution usually does not follow conventional practices.
"Value innovations redefine the problems to:
Discover hidden demand: expand the existing market
Create new demand: identify new markets"
Put another way, technology innovation may or may not lead to greater value. It depends on what customers want.
Sales leaders apply these concepts in a sales environment by questioning the norms, standards, and assumptions that their customers, industries, or companies take for granted. Sales leaders gather information about the customer's situation, then step back and creatively assess what the situation is in the context of the customer's business goals and strategies. When they do this successfully, they will be in a position to deliver unique solutions to their customers. They will enlist the backing of a team of designers, engineers, or others in their efforts to develop the solution. Sales leaders aren't bystanders.
A good way to understand the dimensions and differences of high- and low-value and innovative versus existing solutions is to place them in a grid I developed to help explain the concept. But let me begin by giving the definitions of high-value and innovative solutions.
High-value solutions are solutions that solve problems customers see as high priority, delivered how they want them. Innovative solutions are solutions that address or anticipate changing customer needs.
Thus, sales leaders, the consistent top producers, deliver high-value, innovative solutions, the combination shown in quadrant 1. Sales professionals deliver solutions built around high-value, existing products and services, shown in quadrant 2. Taking advantage of both existing and innovative solutions allows top producers to draw on the appropriate solution to meet a variety of customer needs and internal opportunities. Because innovative solutions require a larger investment of time and aren't always needed by the customer, using existing solutions for appropriate problems can be cost effective. But when existing solutions don't address the customer's changing needs or take advantage of new technologies to develop those needs, that's when sales leaders seek different or new applications.
Technologists provide innovative solutions to problems that customers see as low priority or deliver them in ways that are ineffective, as shown in quadrant 3. This is a solution looking for a problem.
Salespeople who work from existing solutions and just don't get to the right customer issues, if they make the sale at all, are going to provide low value from the customer's point of view. These salespeople, who are often new to the profession, are going to struggle to make higher-margin sales and develop repeat business (unless they start to deliver higher-value solutions). They are often going to have to compete on price and will spend a great deal of time trying to get a sale that ultimately won't lead to another sale. It will be difficult for them to remain in the business.
It is possible to go from quadrant 4 to 2 - that is, to go from being a salesperson to being a sales professional. Salespeople who avail themselves of training, develop industry and business knowledge, and use a consultative approach to uncover customer needs can become sales professionals. It is possible to go from quadrant 3 to quadrant 1 - from a technologist to a sales leader - but I suspect that the route is more likely to go from 3 to 2 and then to 1. This may be more likely if the individual understands what is missing and receives the support of his or her company to fill in the gaps. This is often the case in my sales workshops, when I have, for example, former engineers, designers, or IT people who sell. They have a strong technical background, and with the addition of the right selling skills they can become the sales professional, looking for customer problems first, not "data dumping" technical solutions on low-priority customer problems.
What are the distinctions between high and low value and between innovative and existing solutions?
Solves high-priority customer problems
Convenient and cost effective
Consistent and assured results
Solves low-priority customer problems
May be harder to use, requires extra time
May not perform quite as promised
Address changing industry and market conditions
Initiate a new perspective on old problems
Use a new framework or new approaches
Address current situation
Use traditional approaches
Use current framework
Innovation doesn't apply to technology alone. It can apply to the people side of the customer interaction. For example, you may want to look at the skills of people who work with your customer. Are their skills up to the level they need to be? Or does a lack of skills create errors or inconvenience for customers? Innovation can also apply to the customer process, which may or may not involve technology. If the customer, or people in the customer's organization, would find it beneficial to have a different arrangement for interfacing with your organization, accommodating that preference can lead to higher customer satisfaction.
Remember that innovative salespeople do the following consistently:
Ask "What if?"
Use creative thinking time
Don't first ask "How?" but "Why?"
Have a balance between results and process
Give credit to others when deserved
The more change there is, the more leadership is needed, and a sales leader helps his or her customers take advantage of change by creating a vision for a customer solution and then inspiring others to support that vision.