Today’s economy is certainly lousy, but you might as well get used to it. Some financial experts think the de-leveraging process we’re now going through might last for another decade or two, with interest rates near zero for years to come. Ugh.
Commerce will still take place, however, and the most competitively successful companies can still prosper. But getting a prospective business customer to say "yes" when his own economic world has deteriorated so much requires a deft and nuanced sales effort. So if you sell to business customers, here are seven suggestions for improving your competitive chances:
1. Don't go for everything at once. When trying to win over a potential new customer, settle for a phone call simply to make voice contact first, and then try to find a reason for a face-to-face meeting. Then another one. And another. A bad economy makes trust more important than ever, as I said a few months ago in a post about selling to consumers in a tough economy, and nothing will inspire trust faster than simple familiarity and friendship. You don’t have to land the account before working to increase the trust your prospect has in you.
2. Be prepared for long delays, punctuated by sudden activity. In case you haven’t noticed, the slack economy has led to hesitant and tentative business planning. No one is rushing to judgment any more. Companies are staying flexible and putting off spending to the very last minute. Even when they agree internally on the urgent need for a project or an initiative—something you could perhaps help them with—they won’t make a final decision until the very last minute, in order to conserve cash. It’s impossible to rush the process, and if you want to win the account you still have to be there when they’re ready. It will be a constant hurry-up-and-wait cycle, but sooner or later projects will happen, and spending will occur. So be there. Always.
3. Use social networking to find a friend—or a friend of a friend—who knows your prospect. Businesses are all different, with different operating styles, planning horizons, and cultures. And the executives and decision-makers within every business are unique human beings, with their own needs, preferences, and biases. The more insight you have about your prospect, the more likely it is you’ll be able to tailor your message appropriately. And having an introduction can’t hurt either, when you can get one. Obviously, your first step will be Googling all the names and searching the web. But a very important second step will be to find someone, somewhere, who actually knows someone useful at the prospect company. A Facebook study last May showed that active Facebook users are connected with other active users by just 3.74 degrees of separation, on average. That’s worldwide, from Boeing to Best Buy and China to Chicago. LinkedIn and other e-social networks probably have similar characteristics. So an executive somewhere on your team almost certainly has a friend who has a friend who knows an executive on your prospect’s team. Find that connection, and remember there may be several.
4. Make an offer your prospect can't refuse. In order to generate a phone call or a meeting, you have to offer the prospect something of value, in a way that he can’t turn down without seeming…rude. It could be the interesting results of a survey or some piece of research, or perhaps a competitive overview. Whatever you offer should be curiosity-arousing, and it should cost the prospect minimal time or effort. You should make it available on any schedule the prospect wants, and at whatever location the prospect prefers. It should be detailed enough to be interesting and useful to your prospect, but not so detailed as to enable the client to initiate completely without you. And it should be free. Keep asking yourself: If you were the prospect, why wouldn’t you want to see this information or learn this new thing, in order to do business more effectively? Then eliminate all those obstacles.
5. Never ever call to confirm a sales meeting, once it’s been set up. No matter how much planning you’ve done, if you call to confirm in advance there’s a very good chance the client will cancel or (more likely) put off the meeting. Better just to get there when and as you both agreed. Think about it: What’s the worst that could happen if the prospect forgets your meeting? It will give you a small debt to collect, another chip to use in your steady quest to earn this customer’s trust. Of course you understand, very sorry, maybe next time…
6. Always have a next step in mind that can be agreed to instantly. When and if you have the opportunity to get someone's attention in a phone conversation, be around the corner, down the street, or even downstairs in the same building, if possible (I’ve done this more than once). If you want a face-to-face meeting with a potential client, then try to figure out how to be at the right geographic location for it, right now, because while a prospect will often be reluctant to put a formal meeting on the schedule, if you can literally be there in 10 minutes, she might just agree to a quick meeting on impulse.
7. Once you win some business, be sure to follow up for more. One of the biggest mistakes almost every company makes when it goes to great lengths to bring in a new client—and believe me, we see this over and over—is not to expose the client to other divisions, services, or products within the company. So make sure your sales staff are incentivized to broaden your firm’s exposure to a brand-new client. You want them looking for other, often unrelated opportunities, and involving all the other "silos" at your company. Do this well, and pretty soon your business units won’t even consider themselves silos any more.
Winning business clients in an economy as challenging as this requires skill, patience, and a more deliberate sales effort. But even in the most terrible economy imaginable, some companies will be selling more successfully than others. That could be you.
[Image: Flickr user Hartwig HKD]