Who has the most power, the buyer or the seller?

I joined Procter & Gamble because they had the reputation for being a great training ground – they were known as ‘The University of Marketing’. After a week’s one-to-one induction on understanding the company, product knowledge, customer types, business systems and most importantly selling processes and techniques (the steps of the call and the consultative sales process) I was then accompanied on my first visit to a variety of customers. I found the sales proces quite uncomfortable at first as it felt forced and overly mechanistic especially as I had recently lived in North Devon where bartering and exchanging mutal favours with people was how things worked down there.

After 6 months of selling on my own with some coaching from my manager I was invited to attend the sales training course at a hotel near the head office (then in Newcastle). The course brought together a group of very motivated and competitive sales people who had recently joined the company and mostly from University. It was quite a pressurised environment where you were being monitored by trainers, a senior manager and filmed on videos to then watch yourself and be critiqued by everyone else!

The key take-out that I took away from that experience, apart from a number of life long friends, was a question asked of us by a grizzled sales trainer at dinner the last night ‘ Who has the most power, the buyer or the seller?’ Although at the time we thought he was a bit past his sell-by date and eccentric he was right to challenge us in our automatic thoughts that the buyer typically has more power and encouraged us to think that the seller also has power when they offer something that is unique, scarce or with a more trusted and reliable service than the alternatives.

I have gone on to use this question frequently in my work with clients to help them focus on their areas of strength, their uniqueness and to build the value of their business products and services in the eyes and experience of their customers (buyers). So thanks very much Hedley Grey for asking that question all those years ago and I recommend that you use it to help build the value of your business.

Be more dog!

Picture1
As a long term cat owner I heard about the ‘Be more dog’ ad campaign from O2 from a friend and wondered why over 1 million people had viewed it on YouTube. Apart from the fact that the video is funny showing a cat acting like a dog the message from O2 launching its 4G service this summer is about encouraging Britain to embrace the new, have a go with the unknown and dabble in innovation.

I’m a fan of new technology and also very interested in why people (including me) find change so challenging. I first got involved in this area through Joel Barkers ‘Business of paradigms’ and have worked with several thousand people in workshops asking them to picture the future and then plan to make it happen. As well as seeking to change ourselves we work with businesses in many markets who seek to change consumer behaviour but face resistance from people reluctant to leave the safety of what they already know and do. Having just enjoyed reading Charles Duhiggs book ‘The power of habit’ which helps to understand why we do what we do and how our habits can be changed. There are many examples of innovation happening around us such as 3d printers (now on sale for £700), smart phones, blogging (!) and soon driverless cars…. so go on ‘Be more dog’ and embrace new technology before it overtakes you!

P.S This is a photo of our (sadly recently departed) cat Ali who wasn’t too keen on dogs but she happily had a microchip under her skin in case she got lost, so she was a bit more dog too!

Technology, is it managing you?

busy man at desk

Isn’t technology great when it works well? I know what you’re probably thinking when you hear the words technology and works well in the same sentence – “poor response from I.T ‘help’ desk, tons of emails and spam, internet connection issues, non-stop mobile calls and voicemails, trivial updates on Facebook etc. etc. etc.”

The impact from technology can be very frustrating and we can sometimes feel ourselves at its mercy but it doesn’t have to be that way as there is always something we can do to minimise the negative impact on our lives, i.e. we can turn off the sound when new emails arrive (you’re not Pavlov’s dog), unsubscribe from unwanted email lists and Facebook updates, turn off our phones when we’re in meetings or during down time and we can find the most helpful I.T person and be nice to them!

There are also many useful tools that we can use to help us communicate with colleagues and customers, for example, I’m writing this blog using some software from wordpress and this blog is really like a mini-website which is very simple and flexible for me to update and it only costs £60 per year! This is a personal example but in my work as a consultant, especially over the past 2-3 years, I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in helping clients with many projects that involve using new technology such as creating a new portal for pet owners, building a business marketing hub for a supplier to communicate with its thousands of business customers, using online survey tools for collecting information on business practices and customer satisfaction as well as blending an online training software tool with face-to-face workshops.

So what’s the bottom line I hear you ask, well it probably depends on how you feel about technology, are you more of a technophobe or more of a technophile? If you are in the extreme positions of either avoiding technology at one end of the scale and being ‘online’ 24/7 at the other end then you will experience the costs of being there (head in the sand versus head in a spin). I suspect that the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle and I suggest that we need to keep checking to make sure that technology is working for us rather than we are working for it!

Your Work and Life is More than a Juggling Act!

juggler

The last few weeks have been frenetic at work so I had to sacrifice several weekends on the altar of work as it had a clear priority over play. I am also aware that my Blog has suffered even more than my weekends as I neglected to add a new post during this extremely busy time!

There are many books and courses on time management but one of the most useful tools that I have come across is the Stephen Covey matrix of viewing tasks as either Important/Not Important and Urgent/Not Urgent. This simple and visual depiction of your work tasks enables you to prioritise and plan what is Important and Urgent that needs to be done now and what is Important and Not Urgent (for example, personal or product development) which you must invest time in for the future.

However, the Covey tool on its own will not magically put you in control of your life or your work and at times you may feel that managers or even customers and not you decide on your schedule and workload, which can under extreme pressure lead to personal frustration, exhaustion and demotivation.

In my experience this is where you need to tap into your own personal matrix of what is important to you in your life, which will be more than just your work, to also include your social, physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Give yourself time to reflect on what your special gifts and strengths are and how best you can use these to help yourself and at the same time others, to achieve goals at work and outside of work. By knowing the answers to these questions you can then follow your personal path and when things get tough you can review your situation and either say to yourself that you have chosen to do this because it’s important to you or that you have the option to make changes if you find that you are not doing what’s important to you.

I was happy to be busy at work but my Blog is also important enough for me to put time into it and the next one will be higher up my to do list!

Focused passion and commitment, the key ingredients

Rugby boys

I felt really lucky last week to be invited to the Wales v England rugby match as the decider for the six nations championship by a friend who had a won the VIP tickets in a competition. It was a great occasion, the stadium was very impressive, plenty of food and drink on tap in a box that had it’s own bar, a tv to watch the other games and an amazing view of the pitch from inside and outside on the balcony.

So what else do you need as an England rugby fan? Well, for anyone who didn’t see what was billed as the game of the championship, you need to bring total commitment and passion as well as all the normal skills that you must have to play rugby – which Wales did with the backing of a very partisan crowd (and nation!) but which England seemed to have left behind when crossing the river severn. I went from feeling that I had won the lottery to knowing that we had lost a major sporting event and with the worst result against Wales in the history of the competition.

What has this got to do with a blog about business I can imagine you asking. It made me realise that we can’t assume that experience, skills and clever strategies will be enough when the going gets tough. In business as in sport we need to draw on the key ingredients of each individual’s passion and commitment within the team which must then be focused together on how to ‘play the game’ in the right way. Adding passion and commitment in our approach to work will help us to feel more connected to what we do and more confident that the results will be achieved in the right way for the right reason. However, as with defeat on the sport’s field it is important to accept the setbacks in the business world and to always look for the lessons from that experience to help you improve the next time you enter the arena.

Problems don’t have to be bad news

The natural reaction to a problem is to wish it hadn’t happened and to feel frustration, especially when you are the one that has caused it!

There is a potential upside to causing a problem if the aftermath is handled in the right way as this can help you get even closer to your customer and it can help you move the business forward together. Admittedly it can be difficult at the moment you realise that you’ve made a mistake to think positively but if you can swiftly move towards acknowledging your own responsibility for the problem, apologising to your customers and then seeking to make amends then you could on the right track to make significant changes to how you do business.

If for example you are not a naturally good planner and you tend to deliver your product or service ‘just in time’ but you make a mistake and miss an important deadline what can you do? Following the suggested route above you quickly accept your personal and business responsibility, apologise immediately to the customer, look for ways to help them now and review your systems to identify how this mistake can never be repeated again. This approach won’t guarantee that your customer won’t walk away from your business but it may give you a second chance which most reasonable customers would consider. Most importantly for the long term health of your business if you manage to change your planning and delivery systems to be more effective then you will have a more viable and secure business with customers who have confidence and trust in your service. When you can take the learning from problems everyone’s a winner!

You need to let go for a real Partnership

Stick men partnership - we're in this together

The great benefit of bringing two parties together to work to achieve a common goal is that they will each bring their own different perspectives, experiences and techniques as well as any products and services. When these different and initially separate ‘approaches’ are effectively blended into a new way of achieving the objective this can be an exciting and fulfilling way to solve the defined challenge or problem.

This all sounds like common sense but in practice partnerships can often run into difficulties especially if one of the parties is unwilling or unable to let go of their way of working. It’s a natural human condition to ‘be in control’ as it helps us to feel more secure but this inflexibility will be a problem if you want to work in a partnership with a customer or supplier to find new solutions. There are several ways to avoid this problem and the first is to clearly define the common goal and how the partners will work together (specific roles, timescales etc.). In addition I would suggest that there needs to be an agreement about the way of working together which ideally would include a culture of openness, a willingness to challenge and be challenged and regular communications between the parties (face-to-face, phone etc.).

If these ground rules are established up front and both parties buy into the goal and benefits from it then they have a very good chance of making their collaboration a successful one. This will help us to avoid the negative outcomes from an ineffective partnership where the parties may create something that doesn’t work, where they fall out completely, or when one partner becomes dominant and just controls the situation to do it their way thus negating most of the value that could have been gained.

In short you have to let go of some control and the comforts of the way you normally work to gain the benefits of an effective partnership, so why not spend a few moments to reflect on your experience of collaborating with others and whether you could benefit from letting go of ‘being in control’?

Rebuilding relationships and business

cartoon of geek at desk

How can a company repair the relationship and business with an important business customer that it has let down due to problems such as product availability or falling product sales through lack of support? I suppose that some organisations may take the view that these things just happen and the customer will have to accept it but more enlightened, customer-focused managers seek to turn these situations around by understanding how they can repair the damage that has been caused to both the business and the relationship with these customers.

I am very lucky to have a number of clients who trust me to ‘help out’ in these types of situations and there is a simple approach that has proven very effective when the customer is open to at least look at the options. The first step is to understand in a meeting with the supplier’s management the overall key account strategy, current marketing initiatives and the ideal outcome. I then work with the key account manager responsible for the customer to get their ‘on the ground’ perspective of the key account, its business and people and then we decide as a small project team what type of intervention could best work to increase sales for the customer and supplier. The next step is for me to contact the customer, typically by phone to understand their views on the business and their needs and ideas for business development and we then plan an event which could be a combination of a workshop with a tailored supplier/retailer promotion or a practical action such as a review of the retailer’s merchandising etc. The event is then delivered by myself (and usually attended by the key account manager) where my role is the objective outsider who is facilitating and practically helping both parties to gain from the project.

After this initial step the key account manager can usually take back the reins and start to work on implementing the tangible plans and actions that have emerged from the event whilst I as part of the project team may be able to help spread the learnings from this work within the retailer’s business or around the supplier’s organisation.

Research has shown that if you can solve a customer’s problem for them they are often more satisfied than if the problem had never occured. It’s definitely worth looking therefore at business building initiatives that can both solve problems and renew damaged relationships.

Let’s focus on Growth

Sigmoid curve

I don’t know about you but I find all this talk of austerity quite depressing, especially during the Christmas season and when looking forward to next year. I’m not advocating getting into debt by ‘spending your way’ out of any stagnation in sales, what I am suggesting is that if things are not working as they should be we need to look for other ways of growing the business. This is where the Sigmoid curve diagram as shown above can help us to see change as a positive choice that can lead to a better future with renewed growth in sales. The simple premise is that if we continue to do the same things that were successful in the past but we are now entering a maturity phase, due to internal or external factors, then it’s time to think again before we hit the downward curve to decline.

A recent article in The Economist entitled ‘Gold hunting in a frugal age’ highlighted 4 potential options for businesses to prosper when their customers are feeling the pinch: firstly to look at emerging markets, secondly to adjust corporate policies to the situation of stagnant wages and growing inequality by targeting frugal products to low income markets, thirdly to provide poor people with innovative services, and lastly to harness the power of new technology. However, these 4 options may not to be the easiest route to find growth as there are likely to be unmet needs within your current customer base which could be a more profitable opportunity to consider before investing in a totally new strategy.

Whatever path you choose to help grow your sales and business our experience is that it’s best to maintain an attitude of looking for growth rather than opting for austerity and hoping that things will change. All the best for 2013!

It’s not the ‘close’ but the follow-up that counts

In most sales training courses the close or closing question that ‘asks for the order’ is viewed as the most critical component. It can’t be denied that actually asking a question or suggesting an action to buy a product or service can help a customer who is not sure what to do next. I believe that this ‘question or suggestion’ is an important step if it is done at the appropriate time (after finding out whether the customer actually needs the product or service!). However, traditional sales training often elevates the close to such an extent that the salesperson can become tense or even aggressive at this ‘make or break moment’ with the customer in order to gain the sale. We all know how it feels to be pushed too hard and we will often push back with a No! or reluctantly give in but vow never to return to the seller again.

We have re-examined the sales process from the customer’s perspective and in our workshops and coaching we take some of the focus and anxiety/aggression away from the ‘close’ and provide a bigger picture view of the buying and selling experience by adding in what happens after the sale. The follow-up part of the sales process does not usually figure in sales training as it could be viewed as part of customer service but I believe that this misses the point. Having contact with the customer after they have bought a product or service will help a salesperson to understand  what the customer has gained from their purchase, what works well and what can be improved. This follow-up step which comes after the close may be less interesting to those agressive salespeople, who are often described as ‘hunters’, but if they did take the time to follow-up on their sales they would actually find that the next sale to this or another customer would be so much easier, but then maybe they just like the game of pushing hard and winning!