Learning About the Competition

Collect small bits of information about the competition, see the big picture.

By Dave Kahle

“I’m concerned about what my competition may be doing. I know I should be aware of what they’re doing, but I’m not sure how I can find that out.”

This is an issue that’s growing in importance. Our industry is heating up and becoming more competitive. All around us things are changing at an ever increasing rate. That means that it’s more important than ever for you to be aware of what your competitors are doing so that you don’t get blindsided or seriously outmaneuvered.

That happened to me. To this day, I still get a sick feeling in my stomach as I remember the day when I lost my largest account to my arch competitor. It was an account that made up 20% of my total volume. In my blissful ignorance, I was content to grow my business by calling on the end users and purchasing department, while my competition was successfully building a relationship with the administration. The result? My best account signed a prime vendor, sole-source agreement with my competitor, and within 60 days, I was almost totally out of that account. I was totally blindsided.

That’s a lesson that sticks with me, and one from which you can learn. To become good at knowing what your competition is up to, begin by thinking of yourself a little differently. If you’ve read my book, “How To Excel at Distributor Sales”, you know that I believe that distributor sales people must see themselves as “managers of information” as well as “sellers of stuff.” To be effective in the Information Age economy, you must become adept at collecting, storing and using good information. The knowledge of what your competition is doing is one such piece of information.

Begin by consciously collecting little bits and pieces of information at every opportunity. For example, you may have lost a bid or a particular piece of business to your competitors. Rather tha n just moping about it, use it as a learning opportunity. Try to find out from your customer why they awarded the business the way they did. If it was price alone, try to find out how much lower was their price. If it’s something else, find out what. That information won’t help for that particular piece of business, but it may give you an insight into the pricing policies of your competition. Write the information down on a 3 X 5 card, or piece of scrap paper.

Take your good customers to lunch, and casually see if you can steer the conversation in such a way as to learn something about your competition.

Keep your eyes open to the coming and going of competitive salesmen. Note when you see them, and in what account.

Subtly probe the manufacturer reps with whom you work. See if they can give you some insight into the strategies and tactics they’ve seen. Be sensitive and aware of competitive literature, business cards and price quotes lying around. And don’t forget to talk with the other sales people who work for your company to get their insights.

All these are ways to collect bits and pieces of information. By themselves, they won’t help much. But, if you combine these bits and pieces, you may very well see trends, uncover strategies, and discover tactics your competition is using. As you collect each bit of information, capture it by writing it down, and putting the note in a manila folder marked “competition.” If you’re automated, type the information into your computer, and store it in either a Word or database file.

Regardless, what you’re doing is assembling a quantity of information. Diligently collect those bits and piece of information, and file them away. After you collected a quantity of these, you’ll be able to open that file on a regular basis, consider all the pieces of information, and discover a great deal about your competitors.

The trick is to consistently collect and store information. Eventually you’ll assemble an accurate picture. It’s like the popular game show “Wheel of Fortune.” When Vanna White turns over one letter, it doesn’t give you much of a picture of the total answer. But after she’s turned over several of these small individual pieces, the whole becomes clear and the answer to the riddle is simple to understand. That’s the way collecting information about your competition works.

The back of an old business card on which you noted that you saw a competitive sales person showing a new carbide line, by itself, doesn’t mean much. But if you filed that along with all the bits and pieces of information you’ve collected, and then pulled it all out and analyzed it, you might see an entirely different situation. Suppose you reviewed that business card note, and combined it with the note you made to yourself that you saw some sales literature on the competitive carbide line on the desk of one of your purchasing agents, and then saw that you lost a major bid to the competition because he quoted a new line at lower than traditional prices. All at once you’ve uncovered a potential threat to your business. Clearly, your competitor is pushing a new, lower price carbide line. You didn’t learn that from any one piece of information, but rather from the combination of all those pieces, considered as a whole.

The key to uncovering that information, to discovering what your competition is up to, is to consistently collect pieces of information, store them, and then analyze them as a whole from time to time.

Some of the best companies I deal with do that, and take it to one layer deeper. They meet from time to time in sales meetings, and share the information each individual sales person has collected. The sum of all the information collected by the entire sales force is bigger and greater than that of any one person. So, the composite information, collected by the entire salesforce and assembled and analyzed by the sales manager, gives the company an insightful picture of the competition.

Keep in mind, as a sales person in the Information Age, you’re a dealer in information as well as a seller of stuff. Seriously address the process of systematically collecting, storing, and analyzing information, and you’ll gain incredible insights into your competition.

Copyright MMX by Dave Kahle
All Rights Reserved

About the author:

Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales authorities. He’s written twelve books, presented in 47 states and eleven countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of sales people and transform hundreds of sales organizations. Sign up for his free weekly Ezine. His book, How to Sell Anything to Anyone Anytime, has been recognized by three international entities as “one of the five best English language business books.” Check out his latest book, The Good Book on Business.

Ask questions to facilitate every step in the sales process

Make it easy to exchange information with your customers.

By Dave Kahle

A study published a few years ago identified the top five behavioral characteristics of the superstar sales people.  Number two on the list was this:  They ask better questions.  Amazing.  Of all the possibilities for ways that the superstars differ from average sales people, who would have guessed that they excel at this fundamental communication skill.  Everyone can ask questions, but they ask better questions.

This competency is composed of two fundamental parts:  1) Preparing better sales questions, and 2) Implementing them with excellence.  In Best Practice #34, I discussed the first part of this:  Preparing better sales questions.  This Best Practice speaks to the second part – excellent implementation.

In the hands of a superstar sales person, a better sales question is clearly the most powerful sales tool at his disposal.  He/she uses it to show interest in the customer, to facilitate relationships and rapport, to uncover opportunities, to uncover hidden motivations and agendas, to gain feedback on solutions offered, to unveil concerns, and gain agreement on the next step and close the sale.

From the very beginning, the first “Hello,” to the very end, “How satisfied are you with your purchase,” questions are the infrastructure upon which the sales process proceeds.

To begin to move toward excellence in this best practice, focus on these issues:

1.  Create an atmosphere that is conducive to the honest and comfortable exchange of information.

2.  Ask your questions in the correct sequence.  Think through the questions you want to ask, and arrange them in the sequence that makes it easiest to answer, and provides you the information you need.

3.  Respond to your customers’ answers positively.  Every answer provided by a customer should be immediately rewarded with a positive response from you.  This indicates that you are listening and focusing on the customer.

This competency of asking better questions is so important that you should spend the rest of your career becoming better at it.  As the study indicated, it is one of the most fundamental of all skills that separate the best from the rest.

As you become a master of this most powerful selling tool, you’ll naturally experience the rewards of better customer relationships, greater knowledge of the customer’s situation, greater confidence and competence on your part.

You’ll be on your way to becoming a superstar sales person.  If you want to become a superstar sales person, do what the best do.  And this is one of the key best practices of the best sales people.

To learn more about this best practice, consider my book, Question Your Way to Sales Success.  If you prefer an online experience, check out these two lessons on The Sales Resource Center:  Pod#4, and Pod #5 “Mastering Your Most Powerful Sales Tool.”

Creating a Powerful Sales Plan

Sales Plan

By Dave Kahle

Field sales people have a unique aspect to their jobs – they have the ability to decide what to do every moment of every day.  The need to make this decision – where to go, who to see, who to call, what to do – distinguishes the sales profession from most others.

I’ve often thought that the quality of this decision, more than any other single thing, dictates the quality of the sales person’s results.  Consistently make effective decisions, and your results will improve.  Make thoughtless, habitual or reactive decisions, and your results will be sub-par.

One of the ways to ensure that you make good decisions about your selling time is to create a comprehensive sales plan.

What’s a sales plan?  A written, thoughtful set of decisions about the most effective things you can do.  A sales plan should be the result of some good thinking, wherein you analyze and prioritize a number of different aspects of your job.

A good sales plan addresses different time durations and different aspects of your job.

Annual planning retreat

Every sales person should discipline himself/herself to an annual planning retreat.  Set a day or two aside, every year, to engage in some serious planning.  Turn off the phone, shut down the email, and immerse yourself into deep thought about the coming year.  Begin by specifying a series of annual sales goals.  What, specifically, do you want to accomplish this year in your job?  I recommend no more than five specific sales goals.  Typically, one of these goals describes the total volume of sales dollars you want to create; another may describe the number of new customers you want to acquire; yet another may relate to the number of high potential customers with whom you want to increase your business.  Regardless of what your goals are, an annual, written, specific set of goals is the beginning of a sales plan.

Next, give some thought, and express that thought on paper, as to your basic strategy to accomplish those goals.  If you are going to acquire 20 new customers, for example, exactly what are you going to do in order to accomplish that annual goal?

Classify all your accounts by their potential.  Rank them in order, identify the highest potential, and then plan to spend more time with the highest potential.

Re-organize your filing system; throw out the obsolete hard copies and delete the unnecessary electronic files.

To do this well, you will need to devote a full day or two.  This annual exercise is the first part of a good sales plan.

Monthly plan

Next, you should develop a more detailed plan every month.  Produce a one or two page document which contains your specific commitments to the most effective actions.  Once again, you are required to analyze and prioritize your efforts in regards to a number of issues.

First, your monthly objectives:  What do you want to accomplish relative to the annual goals that you set?  If you said you wanted to sell $2,000,000 worth of your goods this year, how much do you have to sell this month?  Each of your annual goals should have a monthly component.

Next, you should address your prospects and customers.  In order of priority, in which prospects and customers should you invest your time?  That priority often takes the form of a methodical and objective ranking into categories – typically A, B, and C – based on potential.  The sales plan then describes your plan for coverage of the A’s and B’s.

You should address the CTM opportunities, regardless of where they occur.  CTM stands for Closest to the Money.  Analyze and prioritize your efforts related to those opportunities within your territory that are closest to the money.  What are you going to do to bring each of them to fruition?  Specify each, the dollar amount of the opportunity, and what your actions should be.

Your company may have certain key product or product lines that it wants to emphasize.  If so, you’ll need to analyze and prioritize your efforts in regards to those product lines.  What will you do this month to increase sales of those product lines?  What specific actions will you take, in which specific accounts?

Finally, what will you do this month to improve yourself?  What classes or seminars will you attend?  What books will you read?  To which CDs will you listen?

Note that all of this addresses not every action you will take, but rather the most effective actions.  You can note these things on a page or two.

Don’t think that you can keep all this in your head, and skip the discipline of writing it down.  Writing each specific action and strategy down, whether it’s on a yellow pad or a computer document, forces precise thinking.  The written word also commits you to a degree much deeper than if you keep the idea locked in your head.

After you have completed this monthly sales plan, it’s time to schedule your time.  Lay out a plan for each day for the next 30 days.  Where will you plan to be, and who will you plan to see?  Reflect first your priorities from your monthly plan.  Then fill in the non-priority calls.

You and I both know that your days will rarely go according to plan.  However, without a plan, you will have totally given up the ability to control and manage your time.

By having a plan you have something to fall back on, something to refer to, some benchmark by which to measure the constant and urgent demands on your time. So, there is an annual component to your sales plan, as well as a monthly discipline.  But you are not finished yet.

Weekly plans

You need to reorganize and recommit to your monthly time and territory plan each week.  Adjust your plan based on what actually happened the previous week.  For example, if you didn’t get to see an A account that you had planned on seeing, can you see them this week instead?  Make your adjustments each week.  Each week, at the end of the week, spend some time planning and preparing for the upcoming week.

Daily plans

Finally, you need to plan each sales call.  What do you want to accomplish in each call?  What do you need to prepare in order to accomplish it?  Again, you’ll be more focused and more committed if you write down a specific outcome that you would like to achieve in each sales call.  Keep in mind that sales is a process, consisting of a series of steps that the buyer and seller take to come to a good decision.  Your planned outcomes should be narrow and specific.  Something like:  “Acquire the information I need in order to structure a proposal,” instead of “Sell this account.”

The creation of a sales plan, as you can see, is not a simple, one time event.  Rather it is a discipline that involves a commitment of time and thoughtfulness at specific intervals in the year.

It is also not just an administrative requirement, but a powerful tool that enables a professional sales person to consistently make good decisions about the most important question he/she faces:  Where to go and what to do?

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We have a number of resources to help you do this.  Consider our Kahle Way® Selling System, and read the book, 11 Secrets of Time Management for Sales People. If you are a member of The Sales Resource Center ™, consider Cluster CL-88: Planning, or Pod-38: Strategic Planning for Sales People.

Question and Answer #47- Overcoming Negative Perception

This is a Sales Question and Answer article from guest poster Dave Kahle, author and leading sales educator.

Overcoming negative perception

Q.  How do I overcome a customer’s negative perception of my company because of some earlier mishaps in the account?

A.  Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we didn’t have to deal with these kinds of situations?  But, of course, these problems are, in one sense, job security for us.  If there were no problems, and all the customers were easy, they wouldn’t need us.

First, let’s keep this problem in perspective.  Believe it or not, this is one of the most common problems that sales people present to me.  That says to me that you are not alone.  Almost every company messes up at some point.  So, while the customer may make you feel like your company is totally incompetent, chances are he has had similar problems with other suppliers.  So, unless it was a mistake of huge proportions, or a pattern of repetitive problems, it’s probably not as big an issue as the customer is leading you to believe.

Customers have been known to try to parlay a mishap on your part into concessions from you on price, delivery, or some other aspect of the transaction.  Over-inflating their reaction to your mishap can be an intentional strategy.  So, guard against the tendency to overreact.

Regardless, you now have to deal with it.  Let’s assume that the customer’s negative attitude is real, and not just a negotiating strategy.

Start by putting the issue on the table.  If you haven’t yet apologized for the “mishaps”, make sure that you do.  Be careful not to blame anyone, but do explain, with specific detail, what changes your company has made that are designed to prevent the mishaps from occurring again.  Give him a reason to believe that the “mishaps” were an exception, not the rule.

Having done that, you can not expect that the customer will automatically believe you and restore his confidence in you.  It is more reasonable to expect just the opposite.

Doing business with you, from the customer’s point of view, has become a greater risk for him.  What price does he pay if he trusts you again, and you again mess up?  Looking at it from his perspective, he risks more by doing business with you than he does with your competitor.  You must, therefore, methodically work at decreasing the customer’s perception of his risk.

I’d recommend that, once you’ve apologized, you don’t bring the topic up again.  You’ll just cause the customer to harden his attitude.

Take a longer term perspective.  Look for small decisions he can make.  Small volume items and things that are purchased only occasionally — the bits and pieces of his business that no one particularly wants.  Try to get the customer to take a chance with you on those items that are of low risk.  And then do it again.  One small risk, followed by another small risk, and another, will begin to incrementally change the customer’s perception.

Slowly, over time, you re-establish your reputation as a quality supplier and pick away at the customer’s negative perspective, not by what you say, but rather by what you do.  Wait to make an offer on a substantial piece of business until you feel that the customer trusts you and your company more than he does now.  At some point, if you follow this strategy, he will.

Be smart, understand the issue of risk, see it from the customer’s point of view, and dig in for the long run.  If it was easy, your company wouldn’t need you.

Copyright MMX by Dave Kahle

All Rights Reserved

About the author:

Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales authorities. He’s written twelve books, presented in 47 states and ten countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of sales people and transform hundreds of sales organizations.

Struggle – On Purpose

This is a Sales Tip of the Week from guest poster Shulman & Associates.

Which is more important? Selling your image or selling product.

The STORY:

Greg walked into the office of Able Manufacturing, sat down across from Harold Covill, the President, and smiled.

“Greg,” said Harold, “I know that grin.  For the past five years you’ve been selling us the lubrication oil and whenever you have that grin, you have something else to sell us.”

“I don’t know how to tell you this.  You may be upset,” responded Greg, as his grin disappeared and was replaced with a look of pain.

“What, nothing to sell me?”

“Worse.”  Looking at his left hand, Greg loosened his tie with his right.

“Worse?  You’re leaving the Linden Oil?”

“This isn’t easy for me…I wanted to put off telling you…”  Greg took a deep breath and looked up at Harold.  “They are changing the formulation of the lube oil.  In six months, all of your equipment will have to go through a three month change-over.  Or you can switch to the competition.  I’d understand.”

Greg averted his eyes and stared at the company pictures on the wall behind Harold.

“Is this new formulation any good?”

“Probably.  You know what they say…”

“Yeah, newer and better than before.”

About a minute of absolute silence ensued.  Greg fiddled with his tie, his sleeve cuff.  Then finally looked back to Harold and saw he was grinning.

“Never thought you’d be grinning about this.”

“Well,” began Harold, “I guess I shouldn’t let you keep squirming.  I appreciate that you didn’t try to sell me, but you are going to anyway.”

“Our competition has the old formulation.”

“Don’t care.  I’ve been thinking about upgrading all of the equipment, and with the new lube coming, I think I will.  I’ll get you the specs for the new units by tomorrow.”

Harold got up from behind the desk, “Stop looking pathetic, Greg.  You’ve solved my problem without even knowing what it was.”

The RESULT:

Greg made this sale because he made it “safe” for the prospect to talk. The prospect came up with the reason to buy, not Greg. Since it was the prospect’s reason, the need to buy became very important and had to be acted on as soon as possible.

DISCUSSION:

Greg has made the long journey that many salespeople never make.  When he started out in sales, he knew nothing and still made sales which he attributed to beginner’s luck.

He then journeyed on to educating himself in-depth about products.  He knew everything.  His sales went up.  Then, deciding that product knowledge was obviously the key, he spent untold hours learning every nut and bolt.  His sales then started dramatically going up, and just as dramatically, going down.  Up and down like a yo-yo.

Something wasn’t right.

So he found himself struggling to make sales and discovered a wonderful result.  Watching him struggle on purpose, the prospects told him what they needed.  His sales were higher than ever but more importantly, they were consistently higher, month in, month out.

Greg has journeyed to become a professional salesperson.

APPROACH:

The biggest difficulty a salesperson will have in trying out this approach is one of self-image.  The stereotypical salesperson is in a three-piece suit, perfectly groomed, well-spoken, has an answer for any objection that a prospect will ever voice and knows every closing line ever invented.

So you have to ask yourself, which is more important, selling your image of a salesperson or selling your product?  Don’t answer this too quickly.  Think about it.

Allowing the prospect to see you struggling, which you know you are doing on purpose, allows him to relax and open up.  He wants to help you make the sale if your product works for him.

You “struggle” by asking questions, not giving answers.  You may already know the answer, but ask the question anyway.  The prospect may surprise you.  You may find an answer you never considered.  And that new answer, which the prospect gave you, may be the one to make the sale.

Consider this for a moment, if you already know all the answers, why bother with a meeting?  Just call the prospect up, rattle off the answers and take the order.

But we know it doesn’t work that way.

THOUGHT:

It should not be the goal of the salesperson to sell his image. Selling your image doesn’t put money in the bank. Selling product does.

About the author:

Shulman & Associates is a professional development firm specializing in sales and management training and sales force evaluation. Visit their website to register for a FREE Sales Training Workshop. Learn how to increase sales, improve margins, and accelerate new business development. Breakfast is included in this workshop.

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