Ethics and the Art of the Sale

Happy Mother’s Day. I wrote this blog about six years ago, but it is no longer available online, so I thought I’d republish it here with a few minor updates.


Clark Stanley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My mother was a highly successful sales rep in two different capital goods industries for several decades.  She regularly noted how important her reputation was in building her pipeline across her territory.  From her perspective, acting unethically was severe short-term thinking.  You were better off telling a customer that they should go to a competitor for a specific product if you can’t meet their needs than to shoehorn in a solution that only damages your reputation and that of your firm.  While fibbing (using my mom’s polite term when she caught us in a lie) might close a few more deals early on, once you have been found to be slippery with the truth you are unlikely to close more sales at that account. 

My mother worked her territory for over a decade and didn’t win any significant business at some prospects for the first few years.  At the outset, her company had little market presence in the region. But she hung in there and sold a few beachhead deals that solved niche problems.  It was with this long-term approach that she slowly built trust with her new customers.  They then brought her in when new RFPs were being written – she had earned their trust.

Because she sold capital goods to only three segments (Hospitals, Nursing Homes, and Universities), she approached the market with an Account Based Marketing (ABM) perspective.  Each account represented a series of opportunities over the next five to ten years.  She treated each account with respect and built her relationships well ahead of RFPs. She intuitively understood Lifetime Value (LTV).

It is only with a reputation for integrity that you can expect to be called when an exec moves to another company. 

It is only with integrity that you will be asked to advise on an RFP. 

And it is only with integrity that customers will be willing to take referral calls for you or recommend you to their colleagues.

Being shady eventually backfires.  Who is going to call you back when you have failed to deliver on your promises?  It can be a scorched earth approach that is contrary to today’s ABM focus.  With ABM, there are a limited number of top accounts within your territory which are to be nurtured and grown.  Playing fast and loose with the truth, delivering shoddy products and services, or failing to live up to your promises will undermine your reputation at key accounts and erode your brand value.

It can even backfire quickly.  One time, my mother responded to a state RFP with aggressive pricing she knew her competitor was unlikely to match.  She attended the bid award meeting and was shocked to find she was underbid.  As state bidding is open, she reviewed the competitor’s bid and found they had substituted refurbished equipment for new even though the RFP barred used equipment.  She contested the bid on the grounds that the firm had failed to comply with RFP requirements and was later awarded the multi-year contract.  Not only did her competitor lose the contract in question, but it undermined its reputation at the state purchasing department.

Ethical Competitive Strategy

When training sales reps, I also emphasize staying “above the fray”.  Besmirching a competitor’s product also sullies your reputation.  It shows a lack of class and a sense of desperation.  It is much better to position the value of your offering and focus on areas of differentiation than it is to throw mud.  You should lay landmines for competitors, not besmirch their reputation. 

A landmine is simply an emphasis upon those features and benefits where your product or service offering excels.  The goal is to frame the discussion around the dimensions in which your product provides superior value to the end user.  Keep in mind that value is dependent upon the customer in question, so you need to factor in job function, industry, company size, etc.  Also, be careful to select areas in which your firm excels overall, not dimensions in which you are superior to competitor X that is vying for the deal but inferior to competitor Y.  Otherwise, you may later find out you lost the deal to Y.

Likewise, you should expect your competitors to be laying landmines for your sales reps.  They need to understand where these mines are laid and how to diffuse them.

One tool I recommend is the quick parry.  This is a quick response to the question, “how are you better / different than company X?”  A quick parry is only three or four sentences and usually begins by saying something positive about the competitor before transitioning with a BUT or HOWEVER.  The positive item can be a recognition of some dimension in which they are the acknowledged leader or a dimension that is of limited importance to the customer in question.  Thus, if you are selling to an SMB, you might emphasize the breadth of their solution for enterprise customers vs. the ease of use, quick implementation, and pricing models you offer for smaller firms.  Such a tool differentiates your service from the competitor without throwing mud.

Sales Tools

While modern sales tools don’t make sales reps more or less ethical, digital tools allows them to focus on relationship building instead of cold calling and administrative tasks.  When I’ve shown my mother the current generation of sales tools, she becomes jealous of today’s sales reps.  Think about

  • How much closer she would have been to her customers had she been able to review profiles for each company; seen detailed lists of contacts with titles, emails, and phone numbers; and received daily email alerts with account and prospect sales triggers.
  • How much less time she would have spent filling out monthly pipeline reports (three-part carbon forms) had account intelligence been integrated into a CRM.
  • How easily she could have reached out to clients via email or social media by quickly leveraging a trigger.
  • How much faster she would have learned that a key contact moved to another company and planned her strategy accordingly.
  • How she would have benefited by viewing her accounts and prospects displayed on a map to assist with road trip planning.
  • How she could have mapped out the demand unit, identified gaps, and tracked engagement with revenue and sales intelligence tools.

What about the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) strategy?  I tend to dislike it unless it addresses a true pain or fear of the buyer.  When I worked at MCI back in the ‘90s, one of AT&T’s strategies was to emphasize their reputation and solidity.  We used to refer to it as the “Nobody ever gets fired for recommending AT&T strategy”.  It addressed the inherent risk aversion of recommending an upstart over the industry behemoth.  Such a strategy often works best for incumbents as it allows them to focus on their strengths (e.g. experience, stability, breadth of solution, zero transition costs).  Upstarts using FUD need to make sure that they don’t come across as mocking the larger firm instead of emphasizing their strengths as an upstart (e.g. innovation, flexibility, focus).

When training your sales reps, make sure they fully understand your value proposition and those of your competitors.  Reps should only be discussing competitors when directly asked about them.  Landmines and quick parries emphasize your value proposition and differential value while avoiding the pitfalls of mudslinging.  My mother understood these truths four decades ago.


Happy Mother’s Day. I also posted a blog about her sales career in 2016.

Post-Pandemic Business Travel

There does not appear to be a big rush back to business travel after the pandemic, with demand remaining below the $1.4 trillion commercial spend through 2025, according to the Global Business Travelers Association (GBTA).  Only 27% of US companies expect to be spending money on travel over the next six months.

A Fortune Analytics survey found that only 67% of business professionals that traveled for work pre-pandemic plan to resume previous levels.

These results line up with the stated trend towards Work from Anywhere (WFH), with companies no longer looking to maintain traditional five-day-a-week office settings.  A January Deloitte survey found that 75% of CEOs are considering reducing their commercial space requirements.  

Companies have learned how to coordinate activities internally and with customers and partners digitally.  The need to press the flesh doesn’t seem as vital as it did pre-pandemic.

“The outcomes of meetings held on Zoom vs. those held in person are not that much different, but the costs are night-and-day different,” said Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan Survey of Consumers. “It will be hard to justify the costs that were once supported.”

Management Consultancy Oliver Wyman contends that business professionals have found video conferencing and other digital communications tools to be sufficient in maintaining commercial relationships.

The GBTA noted that the pandemic’s impact was ten-times that of 9-11 and the 2008 financial crisis.  After those events, there were also concerns that commercial travel wouldn’t bounce back, but digital channels are much more mature now, and the extended WFH time has normalized video conferencing.

It’s “our expectation that business travel will lag consumer travel,” said Jeff Campbell, CFO of American Express Co., on an earnings call.  

Amazon, which spent $1 billion on travel annually, commented that its “sales teams found new ways to reach customers.”

Forrester Principal Analyst Peter Ostrow suggests that initially, there will be pent-up demand for business travel as individuals yearn to get out of the house. Still, he cautions that this should be a temporary burst, not a return to pre-pandemic travel volume.  Companies should ask three questions for determining the appropriate volume and rationales for travel:

  1. What do Buyers and Customers Prefer?  Not every meeting, particularly those involving disparate buying team members, should be face-to-face.  B2B Sales should recognize that B2B purchasing has adapted over the past year as well.
  2. How Have We Made Things Work Remotely? “Sales leaders must determine what adaptations have supported more productive sales motions, rep productivity, adoption of top-down initiatives, and desired changes in seller behavior.” Being remote has allowed reps to develop new remote selling skills (e.g., prospecting, presentation) that should be retained.  Likewise, CROs should consider whether SDRs should be centralized, or are they better off not commuting each day?  Be careful not to let the voices of those underperformed during WFH drown out those reps who have excelled in the new environment.
  3. What Does the Data Say? Review the data and determine which personas were more or less accessible during WFH, which pipeline stages were faster or slower during WFH, and which product lines suffered due to the loss of in-person pitches.

Failing to address these questions could result in the loss of many of the digital efficiency gains that have sustained B2B sales over the past year.

In short, Ostrow suggests that research and data guide travel decision-making.  Just as companies are re-evaluating the need for centralized offices vs. hybrid models or fully remote staffing, travel decisions should be re-evaluated as well.  Field Sales and weekly exhibitions in different cities have always been expensive propositions.  The focus should be on adopting the most effective interactions, whether remote or face-to-face, for driving long-term revenue growth.     

Remote work also has a demographic impact, with professionals decamping from New York, Seattle, San Jose, and San Francisco for Miami, Austin, Charlotte, Nashville, and Denver.  There are even a set of “Zoom Towns” such as Boulder, CO, Tulsa, OK, and the Hudson Valley (NY) benefiting from in-migration.

“The rise of remote work changes that equation [between work and home locations]—not in all sectors of the economy but in more than ever before. Skilled techies and knowledge workers, in particular, can enjoy the kind of freedom and flexibility that used to be available only to successful novelists, artists and inventors—the ability to work when and where they want to.  They can increasingly “vote with their feet,” selecting the kinds of places that best meet their needs without worrying about what they can earn in the local labor market.  Families may gravitate to smaller cities, updated suburbs or rural areas with outdoor amenities, while ambitious young professionals fresh out of college or graduate school are likely to continue flocking to urban centers for entry-level jobs and social life.”

Richard Florida and Adam Ozimek, “How Remote Work Is Reshaping America’s Urban Geography,” Wall Street Journal (March 5, 2011)

And WFH has not been a productivity loss, but a net positive as workers are no longer saddled with long commutes and water cooler chitchat.  Stanford University economist Nick Bloom found as much as a 2.5% productivity lift from remote work.

According to Outreach CEO Manny Medina, 70 to 80% of buyers want a digital experience.

From a sales and marketing perspective, many of the digital practices that boosted SalesTech and MarTech industry revenues over the past year are likely to continue.  There will still be field sales reps calling on top prospects, but there will be more video conferencing and fewer face-to-face meetings than before.  Likewise, tradeshows and user conferences are likely to be smaller or operate more as roadshows rather than large events.  Tent pole events, such as Dreamforce, will return, but less popular events may downsize or remain virtual.  And even the tent-poles are likely to be hybrid events.  For example, Dreamforce has always recorded and posted its sessions for virtual viewing, so will likely combine live and digital best practices at future events.

XANT: Inbound Lead Response Rates

In March 2011, the Harvard Business Review published “The Short Life of Online Sales Leads,” which discovered that companies were slow to respond to sales leads, and there were considerable benefits from rapid responses.  The study is often cited, but there was little subsequent data to determine whether these issues and opportunities still held.  Fortunately, XANT recently replicated the study, looking at three years of inbound lead response and contact rates.

The new study analyzed 55 million sales activities at over 400 companies.  XANT looked at 5.7 million inbound leads and found that 57.1% of first call attempts took place after a week or more, and only 0.1% of inbound leads were responded to within five minutes.  However, firms that responded within those first five minutes had an 8X conversion rate versus later return calls.

“Maybe we simply didn’t realize what we were leaving on the table,” wrote XANT. “Maybe we over-rotated on targeted ABM strategies at the expense of speed-to-lead.  Marketing automation shouldn’t replace meaningful and quick sales engagement.”

XANT proposes a second problem that slows lead response times, the manual assignment of leads to individuals, resulting in two sets of delays – the lead routing process and the sales reps’ ability to respond quickly when a batch of leads is handed to them.

“Leads sit, go cold, and revenue slips,” warns XANT.

To address the slow response problem, XANT added a shared record option to their Sales Engagement Platform.  The goal is to work every lead with named accounts properly routed and other leads delivered to a shared pool with priority leads immediately offered to reps.   XANT provides AI tools and a rules-engine to auto-assign leads from target accounts and load others into a shared pool with prioritized leads labeled urgent.  The top-rated leads are then offered to the sales team on a round-robin basis, ensuring that all reps have access to top leads and that priority leads have rapid response rates.

“With records in a shared pool, reps won’t get bogged down or locked out,” said XANT. “High-performing reps can blow through their leads quickly and continuously draw from the shared pool.”

XANT describes Shared Leads as another robot that improves the efficacy of sales reps.

“Whereas many treat automation as a way to email spam, we treat it as an enhancement to improve engagement and sales,” explained XANT Head of Product Mark Littlefield. “The basics of Robots include auto-enrolling records, opportunity funnel progression, prioritizing tasks, triggering reps to customer events, performing reliable data entry, and a lot more.  With Shared Records, we’re bringing teams the flexibility to compile records into shared folders or automatically assign them to the right reps so they can accelerate their speed-to-lead and their time-to-value.”

Quora: What are the most typical ways in which a salesperson will push self-interest (and decrease trust) onto a prospect?

The Full Question

What are the most typical ways in which a salesperson will push self-interest (and decrease trust) onto a prospect? ‘Wanting to talk about their product’ is common, but what other less obvious ways crop up?

My Response:

Not all of these are self-interest, but they all are ways that sales reps undermine trust and fail to establish a relationship with their customers and prospects.

Bad mouthing a competitor — it shows a lack of belief in your own offering. If the statement you make is incorrect, you look dishonest and you have blown the deal. I generally suggest that when reps are asked about competitors that they say something positive (but not highly relevant to the prospect) about the competitor and then pivot back to their offering by highlighting an area where their product offering excels). This allows them to stay above the fray, avoid badmouthing the competitor, and quickly shift back to their value proposition.

Misrepresentation — if you don’t know the answer, don’t wing it. Be honest and follow up quickly. Reps aren’t expected to be technical experts, but they should know the basics of their offering.

Likewise, if your products are not well suited to meet their current requirements, then don’t push solutions that will leave them disappointed. Either they will figure it out after wasting a lot of your time (and theirs), or they will purchase your product, be disappointed, and never buy from your firm again. This kills future deals at the company when their needs shift (or your product capabilities are deeper). It also kills future deals at other companies when they change jobs. Honesty may not win you the deal today, but dishonesty will kill future deals when you are a better fit. You can’t win back trust once it is lost.

Not being prepared — There is little reason not to know the basics of your customer and prospect. You have access to LinkedIn and the company website. You can also gather firmographic information (size, industry) and industry information from subscription services (e.g. D&B Hoovers, InsideView, First Research, Vertical IQ, etc.).

Failing to listen — Good selling entails listening to their needs and concerns.

Pitching too early — It is ok to talk about the product, but only after understanding the customer’s needs. You should start by listening and understanding their requirements and then discussing your value proposition and how you can help meet their needs. Focus on value. When discussing features, tie them to relevant benefits, but avoid a feature deep dive unless that is what the client wants. Reps often are too quick to demo.

Slow Follow up — If you offer a client samples or a service trial, turn those around immediately after the call (or within a few hours if you have other calls). If you need to get back on technical items, send them a list of the open items and cc or bcc the technical team. If you offer a quote, SOW, or RFP response, then let them know when they will be available. If you can’t close the loop when selling, what confidence will they have that your firm will deliver on time, swiftly support technical issues, or provide proper training?

Slow Response — Likewise, slow response to website or chat requests can be a deal killer. If you are unable to respond immediately, then send a quick email acknowledging their request with anticipated follow up. Slow responses erode trust and provide time for them to consider your competition.

Being Creepy — Being overly familiar, contacting somebody five minutes after they’ve visited your website (unless they have requested to be contacted), being inauthentic.

In short, we are talking about honesty, authenticity, listening, good follow up, and knowledge about your products and prospects / customers.

Working at Home — Ideas from Tech Companies

Over the past few days, I’ve suggested ideas for maintaining pipeline and maintaining a positive and constructive outlook. This is now looking like it will last through the spring and potentially into the summer, so let’s be open to new ideas, practices, and routines.

I collected some ideas from those in the tech industry that I follow.

SalesLoft

In this morning’s team meeting the EMEA SalesLoft team discussed how we can keep the culture and mental wellbeing at the forefront while we work remotely…

We are having a daily stand up for 15 minutes, virtual team lunch on a Wednesday and virtual Friday drinks. We are making sure we put time aside for exercise and doing the things we love. We are being mindful of continuing to share ‘glass half full’ stories. We are also looking into what we can do to help with the bigger issue that people are facing in regards to the Corona Virus – local charities, food banks, the elderly.

Ollie Sharpe, SalesLoft VP of Revenue, EMEA

TOPO

A TOPO study of 350+ marketers indicated that only 16% of firms see a significant impact to their pipeline, 64% see a moderate impact due to coronavirus.  The biggest impacts are due to canceled events (87%), corporate travel bans (64%), buyers working from home (53%), and prohibitions against face-to-face meetings.  Only 27% cited buyers not booking meetings and frozen buyer budgets (22%).

TOPO survey (N=350)

ClickZ

Research conducted in 2018 by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research  indicated that B2B marketers who participate in industry events allocated nearly 40 percent of their budgets to exhibitions and industry shows, almost five times more than the 8% spent on online marketing.

Even if only a small fraction of the events’ budgets is shifted to online marketing, it would translate into a massive growth in web marketing.

The major advantage of digital marketing, besides the fact that it does not require face-to-face interaction, is that it is measurable. Marketers can quite easily obtain a good picture of their spending return on investment (ROI), and of which activities generate the highest number of quality leads and at what expense.

Assuming that many marketers will have some extra free time, especially those who will have to go into home isolation, they are advised to use it to review their online marketing strategy and redefine their marketing messages.

Dan Gerstenfield, Interteam Content Services

David Brock

It’s time to pick up the phone. No texts, no emails, no social platforms. Pick up the phone and talk to someone. You are probably dealing with some of the same issues that come with physical separation.

It’s not the time to pitch people, it’s the time to show that you care–about them. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, but ask them how they are doing, ask how they are keeping engaged and productive, share some ideas.

All of us share in this experience. Each of us is figuring things out. We can learn from each other, at the same time feel more connected.

David Brock, Author of “Sales Manager Survival Guide”

Sirius Decisions (Forrester)

  • Create a task force. Except in very large companies or those with specific types of risks, most companies do not have a dedicated crisis response team, and many have never created even a bare-bones crisis communications plan. Now is the time to do so. Bring together functional leaders from across your organization to begin identifying and prioritizing issues, with all major functions and regions represented. The senior communications leader is usually at the helm, and in some smaller organizations, the effort may be led by the CEO. Other participants will likely include human resources, legal counsel, operations/facilities, sales and customer service leaders, and various marketing/communications disciplines that are either directly affected or will be involved in delivering information to audiences. Each individual should have a clear understanding of his or her specific responsibilities.
  • Prioritize issues of greatest urgency. Ensuring the safety of employees, customers and other stakeholders is obviously the priority, and external guidance from public health experts will be important to understand what these issues are…
  • Develop a protocol for emergent situations. Obviously the plan should lay out a set of actions the organization will take immediately, based on what is known today. However, the situation is fluid and it’s not possible to know with certainty what the situation will look like in a month or six months. That’s why it’s important to have a protocol for addressing new situations as they emerge… 
  • Prepare the communications engine. Providing transparent and ongoing communication is the hallmark of good crisis communications. The communications team needs to analyze the types of communication that will be needed to support a variety of scenarios. One of the most challenging aspects of crisis management is the need to create a wide range of critical content, have it vetted by legal and pushed out through channels as quickly as possible. Create templates for common types of content and stub content that can be built-out as needed. Set up an expedited legal vetting process and work with digital teams to identify how content will be conveyed through the company’s owned channels (web site, social, communities). Also prepare spokespeople – from the CEO to the receptionist, with concise answers that can be given without additional approvals or escalation paths.
  • Map communications strategies to audiences. SiriusDecisions always recommends starting with an understanding of the audience, and crisis response is no different…
  • Maintain open communications with employees. A large percentage of the workforce will face some kind of disruption to their normal routines or even their income…One of the first priorities should be to plan for how communications will flow internally: the channels and cadence that employees can expect, as well as where to go if the normal channels (which may occur in a face-to-face environment) are not available. Also remember that employees are a channel, and if you enable them with content, they can extend the reach of your information and credibility with audiences. [Full Text]

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