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What If We’re Not Important?

by David Brock on January 21st, 2012

It’s difficult to imagine what we sell might be unimportant.  It’s important to us, it’s how we make our living.  It’s important to our company, it’s why the company exists, it’s why we design and build products and solutions 

Our solutions are important to our customers—at least some of them–perhaps a certain department, a functional area, certain teams within our customers.  It used to be, at least for larger companies, that if we could come up with a business case that was compelling enough, our customers could “find the money.”  They’d take the proposal–by that time, it was theirs–something they were wanted to do, up to management and argue for the money to buy.  Most of the time they’d get it, if it met the financial and business case hurdles, they’d get the funding.  In many cases, as we qualified customers, we either looked for budget already allocated or their willingness to get the money if the business case was sufficient.

But that’s no linger happening.  Regardless how strong the case, how convinced the customer might be, they aren’t getting the money.

We try to solve that problem by calling higher–going to the “C-Level,” engaging them, pleading our case, showing the business case, talking about the compelling results and value we produce.  The C-Level executives may nod their heads in agreement, say it’s impressive, thank us for our work and helping them address issues in their business, recognize the value we have created, smile, shake our hands, and do nothing.

See things have changed.  Regardless how compelling our value proposition, how great the business case, how much the functional or departmental executives may argue for our solution; executives aren’t finding the money.  More than ever before, executives are investing only in things that directly impact their strategic priorities — and it’s only their top strategic priorities.

All companies have long lists of things they’d like to do.  Great business cases for improvements, new processes, new approaches, areas to grow and expand, new products to develop.  But investments are only being made in the top 2-3 priorities.  If your project doesn’t fall into one of these priorities, you aren’t going to get the order.  You may have made the sale–the customer has chosen you as the solution they would like to implement, but you are not going to get the order unless you are in the top 2-3 priorities.

What do we do?

It’s a tough question–there are some sales strategies we might look at, there are some business strategies executives in your company might consider.

The biggest problem in confronting this issue is our individual and corporate egos.  It’s hard to imagine not being important because what we do is so important to us.  It clouds our vision and our ability to recognize and address the problem.  But however important we think we are to our customers, our opinions don’t count!  Being important to the customer is the only thing that counts.   So we have to get our egos out of the way to recognize and address the problem.

What next?

Well a good start–probably the only start is finding out what’s important to our customers.  It’s not understanding their problems, but it’s understanding their strategic priorities.  What are the top two or three things they are struggling with?  What are the top two or three initiatives their executive are concerned with?  Until we know those, we have no hope of being important to our customers.

Once we understand those strategic initiatives–focus on the top 2-3.  How do we position what we sell to fall under one of those strategic initiatives?  It doesn’t mean we have to solve the whole problem–we just have to be able to take a bite out of it.  We have to be able to demonstrate that what we do helps them address one or more of their top 2-3 strategic initiatives.

Recently, I spoke to a very clever sales person.  She recognized that her solutions weren’t really important to her customer–that is, they were very important in a part of the organization, but at an executive level, where the investment decisions were being made, her solutions weren’t on their radar screens.  However, she learned that customer satisfaction was a top priority.  The customer was being pummelled in the markets with customer satisfaction issues.  Their competition was attacking them, customers were fleeing.  Customer satisfaction was the most critical issue the top executives were dealing with.  She and the department head–the person who really wanted to buy her solution developed a new strategy. 

They looked at how the solution would impact customer satisfaction.  It wasn’t something they normally focused on–primarily their solutions focused on internal operational efficiency, but she knew that wouldn’t sell.  The question they confronted was “How do we link what we are doing in this department to improving customer satisfaction?”  They were able to develop a case where they could show the solution contributed to the focus on customer satisfaction.  It didn’t make a big dent in the customer satisfaction issues the executives were facing, but it took a bite out of that problem.  That’s all they needed to get approval to go forward.

Do you know what your customers’ strategic initiatives are?  Do you know how you help your customer with those initiatives?  Until you can answer this, you are wasting your time and your customers’ time.

This needs to be part of the qualification criteria–not just yours, but the buyers you work with at the customer.  What you sell is important to someone at the customer.  They want to talk to you, they want you to help them solve their problems, they want you to help them think about their parts of the business differently.  They are eager for you to create value.  But if what you and they are doing doesn’t fit within the strategic priorities of the enterprise, if you can’t find a way to show the solution addresses one of more of the top 2-3 priorities, you are setting yourself and your customers up for failure.

It’s important for you and the customer to qualify the importance of what you are doing.  It’s a tough, but critical discussion.  Customers may not want to have it–their egos are involved as well.  It’s hard for them to understand their function may not be at the top of the hit parade of their executives.  But if we don’t have those discussions and mutually develop a strategy go be a part of what’s important, we’re wasting time.

But what if, however clever you may be, you just can’t find a way to be important?  You still have to sell, what do you do?  I’ll address that in an upcoming post.

(By the way, if you are struggling with these issues, call us up.  We’ve been working with lot of organizations on strategies to overcome this.  We’d be glad to explore these with you.)

 

 Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

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3 Comments
  1. Thanks David, that was the first article of yours that I’ve read (though I follow you on Focus and heard your webinar the other day). Very relevant to me and my line of work now and I’ll put it to use, thank you.

    • Thanks for the nice comment Roz! I hope to see you as a frequent commenter, it’s good to have you as part of the community. Regards, Dave

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