Friday, December 18, 2020

Looking for Differentiation? 5 Steps to Transforming You Sales Efforts

There's a lot of me-tooism evident in how most A/E and environmental firms do business
development. Everyone is selling the same things in much the same ways. The lack of differentiation seems lost on many seller-doers who act as if all they need to do is demonstrate that they're qualified to be awarded the job.

On the contrary, qualified firms are in abundant supply. Making the sale still comes down to finding a way to stand out from the crowd. So ask yourself: What makes us different? Ultimately, the buyer has to answer that question. If you struggle to come up with an answer (and most firms do when I pose the question regarding a specific sales opportunity), then how can you expect to be selected?

Let me suggest five steps—shifts in both mindset and method—that will position you for greater sales success by setting you apart from most of your competitors:

Stop selling and serve buyers instead. This summarizes the core philosophy that underpins everything that follows. The reason most technical professionals are uncomfortable stepping into a sales role is their perception of salespeople in general. They see sellers as primarily driven by self-interest. Despite this negative perception, technical professionals routinely slide into the traditional sales persona when engaging buyers. That's all they know.

The serve-don't-sell mindset discards the taint of conventional selling by focusing on the interests of buyers. This should be a natural extension of what we supposedly do best—helping clients using our specialized knowledge and experience. Consultant Charles Green calls this the equivalent of "samples selling." Rather than tell buyers how qualified you are to help them, show them a sample of your work by advising them on their current problem or aspiration.

Bring value to every sales conversation. My success as a business development professional was transformed years ago when I committed to never again waste a buyer's time. That forced me to focus on the buying process rather than the sales process. What did the buyer need from me? How could I best help? What would it take to make every "buying" conversation a good investment of their time?

I became obsessed with delivering my "entree"—information or advice helpful in addressing a client need or aspiration—in every meeting or phone call. I suggest you do the same. It's not easy! But it will separate you from most of your competitors who tend to look at the sales process through the lens of their needs rather than the buyer's. Come up with a customized entree as the basis for every meeting. Tip: When you are conversing or meeting with a buyer, mutually establish the entree for your next interaction.

Go beyond solutions and focus on outcomes. What is the client really buying? Is it your services or proposed solution? No, they're buying the desired outcomes that your services or solution will ultimately deliver. They're buying results. Unfortunately, most A/E firms lean heavily toward selling their qualifications—most likely influenced by qualifications-based selection practices. This is short-sighted. You're not selling what you've done for others; you're selling what you will do for the buyer.

During the "buying" process, avoid quickly defaulting to defining a scope of work (an all-too-common phenomenon in our business)—even if the buyer nudges you in that direction. That's the sure path to becoming a commodity! Instead, start by determining what success looks like for the client. What are the outcomes that define that success? Then outline the strategy for achieving those outcomes. Scope should always follow strategy in delineating your value proposition.

Address both technical and nontechnical issues in an integrated approach. The average A/E practitioner is prone to seeing a technical problem in need of a technical solution. But the client is more likely to see a technical problem that creates business impacts, requiring a technical solution that yields business results. People are also a substantial part of the equation, not the least of which is how the problem affects those in the client's organization.

So a substantial part of what you're selling is business results and human benefits. Is that evident in your technical approach? To help us see client issues more broadly—as clients see them—I advocate breaking down the analysis of client needs and outcomes at three levels: strategic, technical, and people. Your proposed project approach should meld these elements together into a high-value integrated solution. In my experience, this framework has been crucial to winning several premier sales opportunities.

Supplement the sales process by sharing valuable content. Perhaps the most important business development trend you should be following is how much of the buying process has moved online. Marketing guru Lee Frederickson of Hinge estimates that about 70% of buying behavior for clients procuring professional services happens in the digital realm. That means that clients are gathering information and insights online that they once relied on sellers to provide.

This shift in buying behavior clearly elevates the importance of effective marketing—online content marketing in particular. As consultants Danielle Berg and Liz Alton describe it in a recent article: "Today’s buying process begins with Google. If you don't show up in a search and offer engaging content, your services will go unnoticed." It has always been advantageous to engage the buyer early in the process; now that is increasingly taking place online.

While this is an important discussion with regards to your firm's overall business development strategy, this article is focused on selling. So what does this mean for seller-doers? Sharing helpful content should be part of your approach. It can be a meaningful differentiator. There are only so many conversations you can have with a buyer. In between, you can continue to provide valuable information and advice through content.

Ideally, you'd have a storehouse of your firm's own content to draw from. Unfortunately, most A/E firms are content poor. But you can help close the gap by searching online for relevant content (articles, reports, ebooks, webinars, videos) to share with buyers. Although I've produced a good deal of my own content (over 300 articles, for example), most of what I share with existing and prospective clients comes from other sources. If it's helpful, I still get credit for sharing it. And this has helped me close sales opportunities many times.

I remember reading years ago that the best opportunity to differentiate your firm is not in your firm's credentials but how you approach the sales process. My own sales experiences have repeatedly validated that conclusion. Hopefully, the suggestions above will help you discover this competitive advantage in your sales efforts.