Fletcher & Company – White Papers
A B2B client of mine that serves Fortune 500 companies recently asked me an intriguing question: “How do you sell professional services?” It was interesting because my client was already very successful, and I had never been asked the question so directly before. Like many good questions, I didn’t have a quick and easy response.
On the surface, my client’s question should have been straightforward for me to answer. It was a topic that I knew quite well through personal experience having worked for 25 years in professional services, high-tech, and software. However, as I sat down to prepare my answer to his question, I found myself wondering where I should start.
There is a lot of research and literature available for selling a product. This literature dates back nearly one-hundred years to Edward K. Strong’s 1925 book titled, The Psychology of Selling and Advertising. However, most of the literature on selling deals with consumer products. Comparatively, there is very little published research on selling B2B services or products. In my own research on the topic, I found a lot of valuable pieces to the puzzle, but my client and I didn’t find a comprehensive framework that we felt adequately told the whole story.
I believe that selling a service is very different in nature than selling a consumer product. In product sales, the sales process is often attribute driven. Product salespeople typically focus on features and specifications. Think about how trucks, computers, and houses are sold. Now think about the last time you selected a web-developer, financial advisor, or personal trainer. What sorts of criteria did you think about in your selection? Was it features or specs? Probably not. In selling a service, personal relationships, trust, and credibility play key roles. In the illustration below, I highlight the key differences between selling products and services.
It isn’t comprehensive enough to simply say, ‘build relationships, develop trust, and inspire credibility’. Herein began my month-long inquiry which led to what I call the 7 Elements – A Strategic Framework for Winning New Business in B2B. While the framework was developed with professional services in mind, I think it has applicability when thinking about all B2B sales.
This framework establishes key strategic pre-conditions in helping you think through your business development challenges. The framework is not tactical in the sense that it isn’t a ‘how to’ recipe. The tactics of business development will vary with each business and industry. However, the strategic pre-conditions that must be met are the same for every B2B business.
The framework also doesn’t replace having a solid marketing strategy. Rather, the two go hand in hand. A carefully crafted marketing strategy identifies: 1) what you do best, 2) who you serve, and 3) how you’re different. Working together, a solid marketing strategy along with the 7 Elements business development framework can help you succeed in growing your business.
The 7 Elements Framework begins with three key principles that I believe are core to business development in B2B companies:
Principle #1: People don’t like to be sold, but they like to buy if you can help solve their problems
Principle #2: People buy services from people they know, respect and trust, or based upon a recommendation from a trusted colleague
Principle #3: Selling a professional service is best understood from the customer’s point of view.
With these three principles in mind, here are the 7 Elements that my client and I developed over many cups of coffee based upon our experience in selling B2B products and services.
The 7 Elements
1. Build Awareness: I am familiar with your company
2. Develop Understanding: I understand what your company does, and how it is are unique
3. Create Interest: I sense that what your organization offers is credible, relevant and potentially of value to me
4. Inspire Belief: I believe that your unique offering is our optimal solution
5. Earn Trust: I trust that you are honest and dependable. I believe you have my best interests at heart, and I feel comfortable working with you
6. Determine Ability: I have the funds and organizational support needed to buy from you
7. Gauge Readiness: The timing is right and is now a priority for us to do business together
These 7 Elements represent the steps that a prospective client moves through in deciding to hire you and/or your company. Once you understand these elements from the customer’s point of view, it gives a strong sense of purpose to your advertising, marketing and business development efforts.
These steps often happen sequentially, but they don’t necessarily have to. A prospective customer can be aware of you and understand exactly what you do. They can believe in you and trust you. But, until there is a genuine need, organizational support, and funding, they aren’t interested or ready. Some services or B2B products are triggered by specific events that until they occur, you simply aren’t needed or vital to the client’s success.
In my experience, Elements 1 and 2 – awareness and understanding – are largely advertising and marketing related. Building awareness, and clearly articulating what you do best and how you’re different lend themselves well to your marketing toolbox – website, slide decks, videos, blogs, pr, networking events, etc.
Elements 3 and 4 – creating interest and belief – are divided between marketing and personal selling. It requires you to think carefully about the unique value you create. It requires a compelling solution to your prospective customer’s problems and needs. These two elements require careful thought about how you deliver value relative to your competitors and alternative solutions.
Element 5 – trust – is often the hardest and lengthiest milestone to achieve. While the first 4 elements can often be accomplished in a relatively short span of time, trust cannot be expedited. Trust requires the prospective client to a) believe you are honest, b) believe you are dependable, c) believe you have their best interests at heart, and d) feel comfortable working with you and your team. These human impressions take time to develop. Trust is often the most frustrating part of business development. Your prospective client has to arrive at your ‘trustworthiness’ on his or her own terms and timeline.
Elements 6 and 7 – ability and readiness – are largely out of your control. You have little influence over a prospective client’s funding situation and relative priorities. However, by being attuned to the importance of elements 6 and 7, you can understand where you are in the sales process and sensitive to the client’s organization environment. You can assist in the process by helping build an internal business case for your work and developing organizational support, but you can’t control when business crises shift funding priorities for your projects or the relative timing. An awareness of a client’s ability and readiness to hire you can bring patience and understanding to where you are in the business development process.
My client that originally got me thinking about ‘how to sell professional services’ has found a great deal of value in the 7 Elements framework. It has helped his team evaluate where each prospective customer is in the business development process.
If a sales effort gets bogged down, it has given my client’s team a common language to discuss and analyze the situation. Sometimes they need to back up and work on the client’s ‘understanding’ or ‘interest’. Other times its a ‘timing’ or ‘funding’ issue. Often times, it’s a ‘trust’ or ‘fit’ issue. And, as we have learned, trust cannot be expedited.
If you or your company are experiencing slow or declining sales, I believe the cause lies with one or more of the steps of the 7 Elements framework. The framework assists you in working through your unique business development challenges and growing your business. It goes hand-in-hand with a carefully crafted marketing strategy – where you define what you do best, who you serve, and how you are different. A smart marketing strategy working together with the 7 Elements framework can help you thoughtfully plan out your advertising, marketing, pr and business development efforts to increase your success in winning new business.
The goal of marketing strategy is to figure out smart ways to compete with your product or service. The problem I find with the strategies of many small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) is simply not enough business focus. Companies are pulled in countless directions by market forces and customer demands. Especially if the business has been around for a while. In an effort to grow sales, many companies have expanded their product or service scope, have widened the net of their target audience, and have lost sight of how they are unique and what they stand for. They have morphed until they are indistinguishable from most of their competitors. Many customers are left without a highly compelling reason to buy from these companies any longer.
Surprisingly, the key to regaining business growth often requires more focus. I call this the paradox of focus because it is counterintuitive to human nature and market forces. The natural tendency is to add-on, to do more, to say ‘yes’. As a company loses its unique competitive position, the top line may grow but the bottom line remains flat or declines because of downward pressure on sales price.
There are very few companies that consistently generate superior financial performance over long periods of time. Successful companies work very hard to maintain a unique market position. Great profit margins exist in the rare space of unique competitive position.
It doesn’t mean that a company’s strategy shouldn’t change over time. It simply means that you shouldn’t unconsciously let your scope creep to the point that you lose what makes your business special. Evolution is healthy as long as it is thoughtful. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment or be opportunistic at times. What we’re talking about is your core business. At its most basic level, specialization is the essence of good marketing strategy for most SMBs. To help you evaluate or re-evaluate your marketing strategy, think about these three topics as they relate to your current position:
2.How You’re Different
3.Who You Serve
Like many business concepts, marketing strategy really isn’t difficult to understand. However, as is often the case in life, the hard part is in implementation. Marketing strategy can be surprisingly hard to get right in a dynamic industry with multiple competitors. Let’s take a look at these three in more detail.
1) What You Do
‘What You Do’ is an exercise in being very explicit about what work you will do. If you’re a services company, it’s about the specific services you will provide. If you’re a product company, it’s what products you will produce or what industry you will serve. If you’re a custom job shop, it defines the types of projects you will work on or the materials you will work with. The flip side to this exercise is also defining what you won’t do. According to Michael Porter, a leading scholar on strategy at Harvard Business School, “Strategy is most importantly about defining what you won’t do.”
In order for a business to be very good at something – and recognized by customers for this competence – you have to focus on a few carefully selected things at the exclusion of many others. It’s not that you can’t do the other things, or couldn’t if you worked at it, it’s simply that by trying to be all things to all customers you end up being not very memorable about anything. One of my favorite sayings is “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Or, you shouldn’t try. So, be very clear about ‘what you do’ and work very hard at fighting off scope creep.
2) How You Are Different
‘How You Are Different’ is about doing things differently than other providers. The key here is to be different in measurable ways that are both easily recognizable and valuable to your target audience. You can be different in any aspect of your customer value chain, including:
• product design
• product quality
• services offered
• target audience
• process technology
• customer service
• distribution channels and partners
A common pitfall for companies in defining how it is different is to simply say, “We Will Be The Best”. Trying to ‘be the best’ by offering essentially the same exact product or service to your customers is a race to the bottom.
Being unique is better than being ‘the best’ because there is no one universal industry ‘best’. ‘Best’ means different things to different customers. In an effort to understand this point, let’s take a closer look at the U.S. airline industry.
For most of the past 30 years, no customer can really tell the difference between Delta, United, American, and the other major airlines. Unless you’re someone with great knowledge of the industry, you simply can’t tell them apart. They may as well all have the same name and logo. The big airline companies have been fighting tooth and nail to ‘be the best’ for decades and have been completely undifferentiated in every meaningful way.
Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines had a very different approach. They chose a distinct marketing strategy by not competing directly with the major airlines. Southwest’s short-haul, budget-priced approach didn’t work for every customer, but many customers loved what they did. Southwest did what they did very well and were easily recognized for being the best at that one thing. Southwest was the only airline company in the U.S. that was consistently profitable from 1980s to the present.
Steve Jobs of Apple may have said it best, “We can’t look at the competition and say we’re gonna do it better. We have to look at the competition and say we’re gonna do it differently.”
3) Who You Serve
In deciding who you will serve with your product or service, the key is to know which customers value your uniqueness. ‘How You’re Different’ and ‘Who You Serve’ go hand in hand. In deciding how you are different, you must in parallel decide ‘for whom’. The natural tendency is to increase the scope of your target audience, not narrow it. It’s hard to tell a customer ‘no’. It’s hard to walk away from ‘closing a deal’. Winning new business is exciting. Yet, saying no or walking away is exactly the right decision in some situations if you want to grow profitably.
Become very close to a specific subset of customers that appreciate your uniqueness. Your target audience can be differentiated in many ways including a) geography, b) size, c) industry, or a number of other demographics. Understand your customers’ problems, their needs, and their hot buttons. And be the very best at serving these specific customers better than any other provider.
Many businesses lose focus over time. What makes a new business compelling in the early stages can fade as it grows and matures. The scope of what it does and who it serves can creep until the point where margins begin to erode and someone says, ‘something must be done.’
Here are a few tips to help get things started in thinking about your marketing strategy. Ask yourself these questions. These questions can lead to interesting discussions about what you do best, how you’re different, and who your best customers are:
1. What project or product from the past 24 months are we proudest of?
2. Which of our current clients would freak out if we disappeared tomorrow?
3. Which work seems the most effortless for us?
4. Which work do we rarely get push-back on price?
5. What project or product do we make the best margin on?
6. Which products or services would our core customers not miss if we stopped tomorrow?
7. Which areas do we not have any head-to-head competition?
8. Who are our main competitors and how are we different?
More products, more services, a bigger target audience. Better, right? When it comes to marketing strategy, bigger is not always better. Until your revenue approaches that of Google, or Proctor&Gamble, or Wal-Mart, ‘going big’ is typically not the smartest, most profitable path to growth. It’s the ultimate paradox in business. It’s the paradox of focus.