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Food for thought: five ways to dial up your sales approach


There was a time when the most effective business-to-business sales tools were the fork and knife. It almost seems quaint to recall those days when the power of the relationship – and a juicy steak – were all that was needed to land or renew an even juicier piece of business.

Today, the relationship has been relegated to appetizer status – giving way to a buffet of product details and benefits that can make the difference between sales satisfaction and heartburn.

I was thinking about this lately during a chat with a mid-cap CEO whose company enjoyed dependable, steady growth over the years. His “secret weapon” was a long-time sales leader who “knew everybody.” But then the sales leader retired and guess what? Business flattened. What happened? Their company depended too long on relationship selling alone.

How about your company? Now, don’t get me wrong. Relationships in B2B remain important. Knowing the right people still means a lot. But it’s not enough. Not anymore. There are market factors driving huge changes for B2B companies.

These include: 1) The rise, of course, of the internet and e ordering and e relationships for price quotes, collateral, deal sheets, etc.; 2) A generational change of the guard – the skilled relationship salespeople who could make anything happen are retiring; and 3) Changing expectations.

It cannot be understated how important data-driven insights are in the new paradigm – in fact, noted that the highest-performing sales teams base their selling proposition on data-driven insights. And 80 percent of B2B customers say they want their sales reps to be focused on how they will add value to their business – not whether they have a wine locker at the Capital Grille.

So, it’s clear that relationships alone aren’t good enough anymore – today’s sales pros have to be prepared to answer questions like: What have you done for me lately? What new ideas have you brought to me to grow my business? What cost advantages do you offer? How about improving my warehouse turns? Your competitors who are delivering those things are taking share from you. Maybe you’ve resorted to shaving your price a bit to hang on, so margins have dropped.

So, how can you flex your real muscle – your value to the client? Here are five ways to keep the relationship strengths you have, while fortifying the pitch to spotlight the advantages you offer over your competition:

1. Get a CRM system – and use it. The days of using a spreadsheet to track your sales activity are long over. Though, for small and mid-market enterprises, the cost for CRM entry might seem immense, you don’t necessarily have to spring for Salesforce to get your sales house in order.

For the small cap space, there are many agile competitors who are less complex, less expensive, and can get you two thirds of the way there. Beyond the glossy sales slicks and the fancy bells and whistles that CRM companies use to lure you, there’s a real opportunity to make customer data ownable by your company – available to you to analyze, mine, and help your customers to be more successful.

Without a CRM system, your company is really a collection of your sales team’s individual “books.” If a salesperson walks out the door, the book goes with them. That’s the way it used to be, but not anymore.

2. Get your marketing team to build a simple strategy – and work with the sales team to execute it. A simple go-to-market plan may be all you need to support your sales efforts. A solid marketing strategy will answer the following questions:

• Who are your selling targets?

• Which targets offer the most potential?

• Which targets don’t offer that potential and therefore should get less of my time? Many times in relationships, people focus on selling to longtime customers who are not growing, while forsaking new, yet potentially rewarding, customers.

• What is your point of difference versus the competition? You would be surprised how many companies send out the sales team without these simple insights, and then expect them to deliver growth.

3. Extend your relationship with your customers. With a relationship-only approach, in many cases, you are limited to the transaction on the table with your customers. That is a very tough place to be, because it can make you vulnerable to competitive forces.

Leverage No. 2 above, if you have a competitive strategy, and bring insights to the table that can help the client grow their business with more or different versions of your offering. In this way, you can stand out from the competition while achieving better growth – because you are offering value to the customer that your competition can’t.

With insights, you can engage higher levels at your customers because you are offering more than a buying/selling transaction. With higher levels there is often more sales potential – they have a broader product line, a larger budget, and are thinking about new product areas that you might be able to participate in.

4. Move cross-functionally within your customers. Think of what we at Chief Outsiders call “Big M” or “Big Marketing.” Big Marketing means the marketing and selling strategies are fully integrated into the overall strategies of the company, as a whole.

Here’s an example: A large food company was having difficulty making the move away from a transactional relationship, and toward becoming a strategic partner with a customer. After fruitless efforts to “meet” people from other departments, the agile sales team learned that the customer had a corporate imperative to develop more sophisticated talent management tools.

It turned out that this large food company was an expert in this area internally. They had a proven, sophisticated, and successful process to manage their talent development. So they offered to share this process with the customer – and suddenly they were at the table with a whole new set of people from other departments.

What does HR have to do with selling more product? In this case, everything – because it became the start of a much more strategic relationship.

5. Get into a “Top-to-Top” cadence. The best relationships have a cadence to them – for example, a quarterly meeting of cross-functional partners at multiple levels in the organization. These meetings aren’t just designed to offer face time with the client – they are business meetings with expected outcomes, and specific agendas. Each quarter, the status of each initiative is reviewed using an objective scorecard.

The scorecard is considered “balanced” because it tracks commitments, actions, and milestones for both the customer and the selling company.

So, if you are a mid-cap CEO, we’re not telling you to become robots and discard the personal relationships that have gotten your company where you are. Certainly, they probably took a long time to cultivate, like any good relationship. But don’t depend on them alone.

The world is changing fast, and pressing the flesh with your clients will no longer be enough. Take a closer look at your sales organization, and apply the five-point test outlined above. Get a CRM system and use it; and get your marketing team partnered at the hip with the sales team. Move UP, and CROSS FUNCTIONALLY, within your customer’s business operation; and get into a regular series of “top-to-top” meetings. The result will be an acceleration in your growth rate, as your customers look at you in a new light – as a strategic partner who brings ideas, added value and results to both of your businesses.

Gary Fassak is a partner and CMO at Chief Outsiders LLC. He can be reached at