It’s Not Your Imagination. Selling Services Is Not Easy.
When we sell services business-to-business we all face a number of challenges. We are essentially selling time, concepts, words. To the prospective customer, that can feel like “air.” Sometimes prospects perceive the purchase of services as another entry on their lengthy to do list. Even if our services are designed to save our customers time, they must invest their mental time in the decision to let us help them.
We live in a service economy, so most of us have had too many competitors to bother counting. Many of our direct competitors have well-trained, talented sales people, so our capacity to present benefits instead of features is no longer a distinguishing factor. However, the greatest challenge is that our real competition doesn’t come in the form of direct competitors–it is the myriad of other priorities that face our overworked prospective customers. These days business people have very little time available to think about anything let alone about us.
These challenges can become good excuses for not closing deals, or they can provide the cues for us to update our approach.
How to Be In Their Minds When They Are Ready
Effective marketing can be particularly useful in addressing the most important challenge: getting the attention of preoccupied business people. When a marketing program is done well, our marketing messages run along side the lives of harried business people.
When they participate in associations, our marketing messages are there as we participate right along side of our overworked prospective customers. When they attend conferences, our marketing messages are there in the form of speeches or seminars. When they attend their industry trade shows, our marketing messages are there with them in the form of exhibits, samples, or advertising specialties.
When they are reading their industry publications, our marketing messages are with them in the form of articles or display advertisements. When they sort their mail, our marketing messages are with them in the form of newsletters, postcards, or invitations to special events. When they go on the Internet, our marketing messages are there in the form of web pages, links, and directory listings.
Our marketing messages put us there with our prospective customers. When we are there with them, we can catch their attention IF our marketing messages are related to the topics that are on their minds at the time. Also, if we have included response mechanisms with our marketing messages, the prospects have our addresses, phone/fax/e-mail numbers and can reach us when they are ready.
Not Everyone Will Be Ready at the Same Time
Timing plays a large role in the marketing and sale of business-to-business services because there is a CONTINUUM OF READINESS among prospective customers no matter what our service is.
The first group of prospective customers are so totally preoccupied with their current priorities that they cannot even notice our networking, seminars, exhibits, articles, advertisements, newsletters, and web sites. A second group of prospective customers could be interested in our topic, but they need more time to “come out from under” their current obligations. Prospective customers deserve time to complete the major priorities that they currently have in motion before being asked to take on anything new. A third group of prospects are considering inclusion of our topic in their next group of priorities. If our marketing messages have been consistent, these prospective customers will have paused to listen, read, or kept a few of our marketing items. A fourth group of prospective customers already recognize our topic as a high priority and are ready to discuss details. If our marketing messages have been in their language, we may even be the only company contacted when the prospective customer is ready to buy.
Most service providers have learned how to handle the first group. As we review the results of our marketing programs, we look for patterns. If a certain type of company never seems to move past the first group, we review our databases for accuracy. Then we look at our marketing messages to be certain that we are using their language. If it is a type of business that we are very interested in serving, we conduct focused market research to be sure we know what is important to them and revise our marketing message accordingly. Sometimes we consider replacing them with another type of business that will move into the second group more quickly.
After we have been in service businesses for a while, most of us learn how to handle the third and fourth groups of prospects as well. Once we have the attention of a prospective customer, we know that it is important to utilize classic sales skills. We need to listen, emphasize benefits over features, build a working relationship, tailor services to their situation, etc.
It’s the second group of prospects that presents marvelous opportunities that are so often missed.
How to Help Prospects Get Ready Sooner
An owner of a service firm that already has too much business or does not want to grow, may be able to wait for prospects to move along the readiness continuum at their own pace, but the rest of us need ways to speed up the process.
Typically, our marketing messages (networking, seminars, exhibits, articles, advertisements, newsletters, and websites) are directed to all four groups of prospects. When we are creating targeted marketing campaigns for the second group, it’s important to remember that one of our primary goals is to encourage those prospects to move into the third group from “being too busy with current priorities” to “considering our topic for inclusion in their next wave of priorities.”
We have successfully utilized what we call TRANSITION campaigns to advance Group 2 prospects to Group 3 status. Instead of emphasizing the benefits of our usual services which the Group 2 prospects have said they are not yet ready to consider, the transition marketing campaign conveys three messages:
- Our genuine interest in the prospect’s current priorities,
- An explanation of the connection between their current priorities and our normal area of focus,
- Ways to ease the transition from their current priorities to our topic.
Prospects often view these TRANSITION marketing messages as a FREE SERVICE because they have been helped rather than pushed.
We can convey TRANSITION messages via marketing techniques and not feel prematurely forced to do more expensive one-on-one selling when/if we have researched what is going on in our prospects’ industries. Industries develop patterns. There are priorities that prospects predictably face prior to considering our services. If we know the typical patterns, we can have TRANSITION messages ready to send in the form of reprints of published articles, direct mail pieces, or e-mail. Prospects feel affirmed and less alone when they see articles about their exact situation, and we convey our true understanding of the prospect’s situation which they value.
Expand Services to Address Preceding Priorities
A second approach to speeding up prospect readiness is to broaden our range of services to address the priorities that tend to precede our existing services. Accounting firms that create departments to help clients select and install new computer systems are often utilizing this approach. Once they have established a working relationship with a client about their computers, the move up the READINESS CONTINUUM and accounting services will proceed faster. The firm that provides both computer and accounting related services often has a head start over competitors that only provide accounting services.
Become a Resource for Quality Referrals
If the priorities that typically precede our services are dramatically different than our firm’s area of expertise, familiarity with firms that provide those services can help speed movement up the READINESS CONTINUUM.
Our interactions with Group 2 prospects are decidedly more positive than they used to be because when a prospect says that he/she is “wrapped up in other priorities,” we can more comfortably shift to a conversation about their current priorities. We position ourselves as a source of constructive assistance when we can make solid referrals for other specialized services. Our prospects are more likely to give us favorable consideration later and our phone calls are well received when we check on how things have turned out.
Learn What’s Important to the Prospect Before It’s Your Turn
We all know that it pays to learn as much about our prospective customers as we possibly can. When a service provider misinterprets “NOT NOW” or “NOT YET” as “NO,” they miss opportunities to get to know their prospective customer. Sometimes prospective customers do not realize that they are revealing very important information to us when they are discussing priorities that do not directly relate to our core services. We can learn how they view vendors, if they are organized, if they are logical and fair, what is important to them, how fast they move, how their decisions are made, etc. This information can come in very handy when it’s your turn to craft a proposal.
Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP, is a growth strategist. The President of the international firm, AMBLER Growth Strategy Consultants, Inc., she has specialized in the strategic needs of growth oriented companies for 27 years. Many of her clients now appear on lists of the fastest growing privately held corporations. An award winning entrepreneur in her own right, she provides keynote speeches on “Breaking Through the Barriers to Growth” and “Taking Your Business to the Next Level.” She was the 10th person in the world to achieve professional certifications for both management consulting and professional speaking. She can be reached by telephone at 1-888-ALDONNA or by e-mail at AMBLER@AMBLER.com