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cuts sales battle in half

Building a relationship
cuts sales battle in half

In the latest issue of Fortune magazine, an article appears titled “Confessions of an Ex-Consultant.” When I read the title, I knew it was not going to be an article that made me happy.
In this article, an ex-consultant who is now a senior executive (he didn’t reveal his name) claims that consulting firms have made their money by teaching young consultants to cling tenaciously to every client, and that they will be rewarded and promoted on the basis of their ability to do that. After calming down, I realized he could very possibly be right. Certainly, he has the right to indict the firm he used to work for (he doesn’t say which one), and possibly he could be right about some other consulting firms (although given what he says in the article, it’s more likely he just assumed every other firm was like his).
But, the question that then entered my mind was: “How is that different from the problem that every firm that sells a product faces?”
Whether you are McKinsey selling consulting, Xerox selling copiers or Jones Hardware selling tools, a company must continue selling its product or service. And every marketing course I’ve ever taken teaches you it is easier and more efficient to keep a current customer than it is to develop a new customer.
So, obviously, keeping current customers is in every firm’s best interest. However, your organization’s perspective on its customers and on what you do to try to keep them usually is the difference between whether you actually do keep them or lose them to your competitors. It’s also usually the difference between long-term success and short-term profits.
It is obvious throughout the article that this ex-consultant was more focused on how to make a sale and increase his margins than on his customers’ needs. It’s also very clear that he thought his clients were not smart enough to detect that difference.
He writes of his clients as though they had only average smarts (and infers he is smarter). And he talks of persuading his clients that they had problems they really didn’t have in order to sell them something they really didn’t need.
If his company really trained its consultants that way, it’s no wonder he got out of the business. I don’t know of anyone who could be happy in that kind of deceitful environment.
Fortunately, most firms don’t intentionally operate that way. Unfortunately, with the pressure today to show constant revenue improvement, it’s easy for a company to fall into the trap of trying to manipulate its customers to get sales dollars in the door. The difference between successful and unsuccessful companies is how they respond to that pressure.
The truth is (or at least my truth is) that customers today are smart enough to detect the difference between a company that is only interested in trying to sell them something and one that is really interested in adding long-term value. And that translates to the bottom line.
If you are really committed to helping your customers be better in their business, you may not always sell them something in time to make your yearly bonus. But when they have a problem, they will call you and they will do so consistently over time. It’s called trust. And you don’t build trust by inventing new problems for your customer and then trying to jam your product or service in as the solution to that problem.
Today, consultative selling is the hottest topic in sales and marketing. The concept is simple. You develop a partnership relationship with your customer where you are as familiar with their business processes as they are. You then look for places where your existing product or service fits to add long-term value or, even better, you work with the customer to develop a customized product or service that delivers long-term value. Implementing this method of selling, however, is not easy.
First and foremost, it requires a shift in the mind-set of the sales force. It also will require sales strategies and supporting processes that balance the need for revenue with the understanding that you must work from your customers’ perspectives and needs, work to develop long-term trust, and then deliver something of value far beyond their original expectations.
A consulting colleague describes it thus: “First you’ve got to listen to them, then you’ve got to love them, and only then can you lead them.”
That’s a far cry from most of the get-the-product-out-the-door sales management that goes on today.
When I first heard my consulting colleague describe her theory on customer relationships, I also thought that was a pretty apt description of what it takes to be a successful leader in any type of organization. So although I agree with the ex-consultant that it was time for him to get out of the business, I also have this to say: If his attitudes about business don’t change, I doubt he’ll be any better an executive than he was a consultant.
(Paul Fraser is president of PDF Associates, an organizational-development and management-consulting firm specializing in accelerating change for organizations.)


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