Corporate Visions recently hosted a webinar on how to gain access to business executives. Their findings were based on a series of realistic simulations intended to identify which messages senior business executives were most likely to respond to (there’s a link to their conclusions at the bottom of this article).
Their research compared the impact of a range of different messaging approaches, including product value, ROI, provocative insight and competitive benchmark-led models in an environment where the vendor was vaguely familiar but not particularly well-known to the prospective customer executive.
I’ll leave you to review the detailed conclusions, but for me the most profound take-away was the idea that when considering whether to invest their time busy executives need to believe that, by taking the proposed call or meeting, they will learn something they don’t already know...
This is hardly a surprising conclusion. But it’s a message that still seems to be lost, ignored or paid lip-service to at all levels of many organisations’ attempts to interact with their potential customers.
Why most “thought leadership” fails to lead
For years, marketers have sought to establish “thought leadership”. But if you accept that a practical working definition of thought leadership is something that actually leads the reader’s thinking in a new direction, most fail miserably.
By this definition, most so-called “thought leadership” is nothing of the sort. At worst (and most commonly) it consists of a mildly warmed-over rehashing of ideas that were already in the public domain and which of themselves contribute nothing new.
Or (and these things are not mutually exclusive) the so-called “thought leadership” is no more than a poorly disguised attempt to put an insubstantial wrapper around a company or product pitch.
These sorry, misguided, often bland and usually wasteful initiatives do nothing to reshape their audience’s thoughts or attitudes, or to challenge existing perceptions. Most critically of all, they fail to tell the audience anything they did not already know.
Making the customer smarter
And this, surely, must be the acid test of any successful attempt to interact and engage with a new potential prospect. Our best chance of earning the right to continue the dialogue lies in ensuring that we leave our audience feeling smarter and better informed (or maybe just a little more curious) than they were before.
Simply telling them something they already know without actually adding to or constructively challenging that knowledge gives them the perfect excuse for not choosing to engage in any further dialogue.
And if we then compound the crime by descending into a tedious company or product pitch without having first established the context for why what we do is of any importance whatsoever to them, our marketing massages and attempts at sales conversations fully deserve the rejection they are highly likely to suffer.
They don’t care about your company or products
It’s no wonder that every serious researcher into the subject has concluded that sales people and organisations are naturally far more comfortable talking about their company or products than business issues, whereas the business executives they are hoping to sell to are consistently far more interested in hearing new, unexpected and relevant business insights than they are in sitting through your credentials presentation or a generic product demonstration.
It takes a certain level of confidence to break away from our own comfort zone when creating our marketing messages or constructing our sales conversations, or to consciously decide to become less bland and more Marmite[*]. But if we lack the necessary courage, we can only have ourselves to blame if we fail to fully engage our prospects.
I urge you to step back and view your current marketing messages through the eyes of the key decision makers in your prospective customers. Do they communicate ideas that are genuinely fresh, new and unexpected? Do they cause your audience to pause and reflect? Do they give your prospects the feeling that if they choose to engage, they will emerge smarter as a result of their interaction?
Apply a similar set of tests to the conversations your business development representatives and salespeople are having with their prospective customers. Have you given them the confidence and business acumen to have genuinely thought-provoking, insight-generating conversations with their prospects? Are they able to convince their prospects that they will continue to learn something valuable if they agree to continue the conversation?
Would every one of your prospective customers look back on those conversations and conclude that they had learned something new and useful? If the answer isn’t a resounding yes (and it rarely is), then surely you need to find ways of more effectively equipping your salespeople to have genuinely value-creating conversations.
A question of confidence
Of course, you have to start by communicating a clear, genuinely thought-provoking and preferably unique point-of-view in your marketing messages, buying enablement materials and sales tools. But that’s not enough. You need to give your salespeople the ability and confidence to engage their prospects with business insights.
Fortunately, help is often close at hand. In my experience, your top performing salespeople (as well as the founders of the business) are likely to have already started to master some of the essential elements. They are usually more inclined to have business issue-led conversations. They will tend to more fully diagnose the prospect’s situation before proposing a solution. They have the ability and the confidence to resist the “itch to pitch” - at least until they judge the time to be right.
A value-creating playbook
These winning habits can form the foundation for a value-creating playbook, which needs at minimum to include:
- Business insights that, once shared, will establish your salesperson’s credibility, make the prospect curious and cause them to want to learn more
- Customer anecdotes that enable the listener to see themselves and their organisation reflected in the experiences of others
- Implication-orientated questions that help their prospect to think about their situation from a previously unconsidered perspective
- Credible responses to common questions and concerns that are likely to be raised by prospects that are seriously reflecting on your messages
Assuming that your potential customer is otherwise well-qualified, surely one of the most valuable outcomes from any sales conversation is for your prospect to emerge having learned something useful and having committed to take a meaningful next step that advance both their buying journey and your sales process. What your salespeople chose to say and do has a profound influence on their chances of success.
Have I told you anything you didn’t already know?
Are you 100% confident in your salespeople’s ability to have value-creating conversations that advance the prospect’s buying journey? If you see any opportunity for improvement, we should talk.
Here’s that link to the Corporate Visions webinar.
[*] For those unfamiliar with the “Marmite effect”: it’s a yeast-extract based spread that has a polarising effect - people either love it or hate it. Just like some of the most effective messaging, if someone’s never going to buy from us, it’s best to recognise that sooner rather than later...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a member of the Sales Enablement Society, a founding contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation, a member of the Sales Experts Channel and the driving force behind Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading UK-based B2B value-selling experts.
Following a successful corporate career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and market leaders, Bob now works as a strategic advisor, mentor, trainer and coach to ambitious B2B sales organisations - equipping them to create, confirm and communicate their unique business value in complex sales situations.