Every month folks from the Institute of Directors meet in Guildford to tackle a business topic in some very active discussion groups over coffee, and a hearty breakfast. This month’s topic was “selling matters” – and if you run a business you know that it definitely does! Selling is a word that almost universally creates a negative reaction, even though we are all in sales in one way or another.
Done right, selling is actually to everyone’s benefit: For the seller, it creates revenue and employment, for the buyer, it introduces them to useful solutions to their problems, and the right people to support them in adopting those solutions. Of course it doesn’t always seem to pan out quite that way…

Improving your sales

There is an awful lot of sales advice out there, and the average CRM company’s blog is littered with listicles and advice. These are the key takeaways that I reported back, from talking with an energetic (and highly successful) group of business leaders:

Stop. Look. Listen.

Economies periodically recalibrate and stabilise. Bear markets follow bull markets, and bull markets follow bear markets. Stop and reflect on your sales process: Where did your best customers come from? Where did the worst come from? What is working well? What needs to stop? The sales process always starts with listening: what do you already know about your customers and your market? What can you ask, and learn, to help you be more effective?

Ask – Don’t Tell.

If you are a B2B business, your best source of sales is almost certainly referrals from existing customers: They understand what you do and how you work, and will give you warm introductions and a glowing reference. If you aren’t getting referrals, that is direct quality feedback on your product or service – don’t do another thing until you’ve fixed that (if you need help getting customer feedback, get in touch, we have a range of tools to help you resolve that, and can point you to other solutions too).  Ask, politely, for referrals, and listen to the feedback. Understand your customers’ current issues and pinpoints, and be sensitive to them.

Stay on the map.

There are four main ways to grow a business, and these are characterised in the Ansoff Matrix
"Ansoff Matrix" by JaisonAbeySabu - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ansoff_Matrix.JPG#/media/File:Ansoff_Matrix.JPG
Diversification is for the brave and the well capitalised – if you don’t have a saturated market, and large amounts of cash in the bank, you want to stay down and to the left, in the green. That market penetration quadrant can be further divided into four segments:
Sales Matrix
In terms of managing risk and cost, the usual priority is 1, then 2, and then 3. Selling more of what you already have, to existing customers is almost always going to be your fastest path to revenue, unless you have already fulfilled the needs there. Next is reaching new customers with existing products, ideally via referrals from existing customers. If you are in a niche market, where referrals are harder because of competitive pressure, the next target is incremental development of your product or service offer.

Be Discoverable. Be Credible. Be Fun.

In today’s digital age, being discoverable is critically important. If someone mentions your name or business in a meeting, can the people listening find you on-line? If they can, can they understand what it is that you do, and more importantly, what it is that you can do for them? Your on-line footprint is a huge part of your brand – guard it well. Over the last year I have watched a number of businesses jump on the “content marketing” bandwagon, employing agencies to churn out “content” for them. The damage this can do to a small business is untold. Hastily researched articles, put together by someone without expertise in your business and your specific target market can destroy your credibility with potential customers. Put your best foot forward, demonstrate your expertise, and reveal your personality and the personality of your business. Yes, I said personality. With a few notable exceptions, businesses don’t buy from businesses, those business transactions are through people to people interactions. Minimum viable personality applies, and if you don’t yet know what that is, find out. Yes, people want a solution to their problem (once they see the problem and understand the solution) but they want a meaningful (and emotionally positive – aka ‘fun’) interaction too.

Qualify Out Early and Often

All too often I see sales people holding on to a sales opportunity like a child trying to make a melting ice-cream last in the midday sun. And I have been guilty as charged here. Don’t do it. Qualify opportunities early, and re-qualify often – that means:  is your product or service a good fit for their needs? Is this the right timing for them (and for you)? Do they have budget, and the ability to spend it? Yes, if you are a salesperson,  I did just mangle the BANT framework – put the customer need first, not the budget.
Qualifying out early saves your time, saves the prospect’s time, and potentially wins you an advocate. We have a story in the office, which has almost passed into folklore, about a customer we pointed to a competitor’s product three years ago, because we knew it was a better fit for them. They remembered us for it, and when they moved to another business, which was a fit for us, and they got back in touch and purchased. Happy customer. Happy us. Qualifying out early frees up everybody’s bandwidth, it is good system hygiene.

Margin Beats Revenue

Much of what is written online about growth hacking and sales is directed towards revenue growth. If you are a bootstrapped or self-funded business revenue is not your priority, margin is. Winning a huge deal that costs even more to deliver than it brings in  will wreck your company. “What kind of fool would make that mistake?”, you ask, “most business owners” I say, and point you to the business failure rates and most common root-causes of businesses failure. If you own a growing business, you need to understand margin and cashflow, inside out, outside in.

A Good Journey

A sale is a journey, it is not an event. That means you need a process and a plan. Making it a pleasant journey for your customers will pay you dividends, literally. There is a huge sense of satisfaction in knowing that someone got home early and spent extra time with their kids, or their friends, because your product helped them get their job done that much more quickly, more safely or more effectively. It’s why we do what we do, and really it is why you do what do you too!