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Developing Account Strategies

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, from the First Steps to Success in Outside Sales
Copyright 2003, by Dave Kahle.

Our objective for this chapter is to equip you with an understanding of the principles and processes you'll need in order to develop effective account strategies.

Keep in mind that you are in it (this job) for the long-term. This is not a six-month job. You're going to be doing this work, calling on these customers and developing this business for some time. Rarely will you make one sales call on someone and then never see them again. More likely, you will come to know these customers. You can't expect to sell everything to everyone on the first call. That means you will see them again and again and again. That means that you must view each of your customers from that long-term perspective.

Not all accounts are alike. They are different in their needs, in the dynamics of each situation, in the personalities of the people and the competitive situation that they present. Every account that you call on is somewhat different from all others. That means that you cannot treat each one the same.

Add these two observations together, and it means that you must create an individual long-term strategy for each account to whom you sell.

First, let's define our terms. Strategy means a series of steps designed to bring your prospect or customer from where they are now to where you want them to be. It's the long-term view. Realistically, it's a planned series of sales calls in which each sales call has a distinctive set of purposes, a distinctive piece of education, a person or set of people to speak with, and a distinctive agreement that you'd like to attain. The purpose, the timing, the organization, and the sequence of that series of sales calls is the strategy. It's the long-term perspective, the big picture, of what you want to do and how you want to do it.

It's like a football game. In every football game the coach develops a game plan. That plan describes how he wants the team to go about each individual play, ending up in winning the game. The plays themselves are like sales calls. Sales calls are the tactics, but the big picture into which they fit is the strategy. It's the strategy, the big picture, that we'll focus on in this chapter.

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Dave Kahle
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First, let's review the two basic sales processes we examined in the first chapter. The first one focuses on creating customers, and the second one focuses on creating partners out of customers. You recall that the process works like this: first you identify suspects, and then you turn suspects into prospects, and prospects into customers. That's one set of sales calls. That's one strategy to achieve a purpose -- to influence someone to purchase from you for the first time.

Then the second part of the overall sales process is to take those customers, people who have purchased, turn them into clients, and finally turn a client into a partner. In terms of the biggest, most basic strategy, you strive to turn every prospect into a partner.

Let's assume that you have made at least one sales call on a series of prospects. In the course of those first few sales calls, you have discovered some things about each of those prospects.

You have gained a sense for the situation at each account.Now you have to make some decisions. What do you do? What strategy do you follow to turn each pros-pect into a customer?

Here are some typical situations that you're likely to encounter. We'll describe each situation and then discuss an appropriate strategy.

Situation Number One:

Here's the first one. You visit a prospect for the first time and discovered that right now they have no opportunity for you. "You're a nice person. We like your company. We just don't have any opportunity for you at this moment." That's a very common discovery in a first sales call on a prospect. What do you do? What's your strategy?

You must get the prospect to agree on a reason to see you again. Each time that the prospect sees you again, you must try to create an opportunity by completing the first couple steps of the sales call in ever more detail. In other words, you must create an opportunity by understanding this prospect deeper and deeper. Then you methodically present your products to them, focusing on those that you believe most appropriately match their needs. Make sure that you present your most effective or most attractive product. Present that ace that you have that everyone has to buy from you because it's such a great value.

As you continue to call on them, you strive to extend your relationships into all parts of the account. If you have been working with the purchasing agent, try to see the operational people. When they see you, go back to that original sales call and do each of the steps deeper. Try to uncover an opportunity that they may not even be aware of. While it seems odd, it happens regularly. It is common to hear your first contact say, "No. Everything's fine. We don't have any needs. Our current vendors are taking care of us." But the situation often is different when you gain access to the production area or back where the operation takes place and you talk to some of those people. If you ask questions of them, you almost always find things that aren't quite right. If you can get to that level and dig to that depth you will discover some of those things, which you can turn into opportunities. If something is not quite right, that's an opportunity for you to fix it by presenting your product or service.

Situation Number Two:

What about the situation in which you have met with a prospect and there is an opportunity. What do you do now? What's the next step?

Try to turn every opportunity presented to you into two steps, particularly when you are new and meeting people for the first time. For example, they may say something like this, "Yes. We're interested in your blue widgets; there is a possibility of doing some blue widget business here."

At that point you can say, "OK. Well, my blue widgets are ten dollars a dozen. Do you want some?" You could present your solution and ask them to buy some.

I believe it is more effective in the long run to turn this opportunity into two sales calls. Don't just immediately say, "Well, here's our deal" and hope to close it then. I'd rather you create an opportunity to get back into this account two times. The first time you'll dig deeper to understand their situation deeper. The second time you'll present your best proposal.

So, I'd rather you say, "Ok. What I'd like to do is come back next week and talk with the people who are actually using the blue widgets and gain a better idea of that application, then after I do that I'll come back and present our widget solution.

Why would you do that? That doesn't sound very efficient. No, it's not efficient, but it's effective. Remember, you are in this for the long-term. You are building relationships. You are gaining trust. You are understanding the customer. If you can take this opportunity that they have presented to you, and turn it into an opportunity to meet more people, to understand this prospect deeper, and then to make a sharper, more focused, more perfectly matched proposal, in the long-term you're going to be much better off. You're going to have broadened and deepened your relationship in the account.

Consider, also the concept of an enticer. What's an enticer? An enticer is a small purchase, an easy thing for your customer to buy that opens the door for you in that account. Once you have something that the account buys from you, you can take advantage of that relationship that you're building to expand to other types of business. Here's an example. I was working with a client company that repaired and serviced computer hardware. They really were not interested in you bringing a broken monitor to them to fix. What they really wanted to do was come into your business and write a service contract to maintain all of your equipment.

From the customer's perspective, that's a big risk and a substantial amount of money. Most people, on the basis of one sales call, were not really interested in giving that much responsibility to a company that they did not know that well. Understanding that, rather than ask for that contract initially, we created an enticer.

Remember, an enticer is an offer that is easy to say yes to, and that opens the door and gives you an opportunity to expand the business. The enticer we developed was this. When the salesperson offered their preventative maintenance service contract they would also say something like this, "Now I realize that you may not be ready for this big purchase, so what we'd like to do is just find some way that you can get to know us and we can get to know you a little better. Here's a coupon for 50 percent off the repair charge for your next piece of equipment. Anytime anything in here needs to be repaired, you can take this coupon and give it to us and we'll repair it for half of our normal cost. We're losing money on that, you understand that, but we're investing in you, the customer, and we think that if you will do this little piece of business with us, you'll get to know us and we'll get to know you, and then we'll have an opportunity to go further." They presented it just like that. It was an enticer -- an opportunity to come back in and re-establish and build the relationship.

The idea is if you get them buying something, it gives you a reason to be there and an opportunity to expand the business.

You may recognize an underlying strategy at work here. It is that you use every opportunity to expand the relationship, to know more people, to ingrain yourself deeper in every account. The two strategies we discussed, using an opportunity to expand the relationship and developing and enticer, are both variations on this core approach.

Situation Number Three:

What about the prospect who says, "We're very happy with our current vendor?"

What's your strategy in an account that's loyal to a competitor?

Two possibilities. First, don't compete. Don't go head to head with the competition. You'll lose. Instead, go around the competition. It is likely that the competitor is supplying a lot of the high volume, high visibility products and services in this account. That's why that competitor is visible and why there's some loyalty. At the same time, that vendor is probably not supplying everything. It is possible that this particular account is buying some things from someone other than the competitor. Those are the items on which you should focus. Don't challenge the competitor head to head where he or she is strong. Rather, go after the little bits and pieces of business that might be currently eluding that competitor.

Take the business away from someone else - someone who is a smaller player in this account. Then, after you have gained some of these smaller pieces of business, you establish a presence in that account and you can begin to build on that basis. At some point, if you're successful, you may be positioned strongly enough in the account to go head up with your competitor later. The first strategy is to go around them, not through them.

The second strategy is to clearly and plainly present yourself as a second option. Say, "Yes I appreciate that the competitor is doing all the business and that's fine. Good for you. At some point in time you may want a backup supplier. It would be good for you to have a trusted secondary source." You position yourself as the secondary source, the Plan B in their eyes. As you do that, you again create a presence in the account. If you're successful in doing that, you provide the account a reason to see you again. Every time you are in that account you have an opportunity to push your agenda forward.

Situation Number Four:

What about the prospect that you just can't get any where with? They won't talk. They just won't give you any information. You don't know exactly what's going on. You don't know because the account doesn't talk much. What do you do?

This is the most difficult of all situations to work with. You must create some opportunity in this account. If you don't, nothing is going to happen. You can't sell effectively in an account that will not talk with you.

You must get past that. You have to have information. You must understand and learn about your prospect. The sales process is dependent on that. Until you get them talking, until you uncover some opportunity, until you get some information, you're going to be stymied.

There are a couple of things that you can do to get a non-communicative customer talking. One is to tell stories about other people. I don't mean gossip. Rather, tell success stories. Tell stories about other accounts that you believe are like this one. Tell stories about their needs and their applications and what they've done with some of the product categories that you sell. Then ask them, "Are you like that? Does any of that relate to you? Does any of that make sense to you?" You tell a story about someone else and then ask the customer or the prospect if they are like the person in this story.

Another way is to use open-ended questions. An open-ended question is a question for which there is no right or wrong, and one in which the customer must talk a bit and explain. For example, you could say, "Tell me about..." Use the words "tell me" and then fill in the blanks. Every time you use the words "tell me," you're asking an open-ended question that prompts the cus-tomer to speak a lot.

Another tactic is to verbally present them a list of items and ask them to respond to each list. Ask, "Do you have any needs for this? Do you use any of that? What's your position in regards to this?" You methodically work down through your list, expecting to hear yes or no answers. And, as they give you those yes or no answers, you take notes and gain something of an understanding of this account.

Another strategy is to methodically present all of your most powerful products. Take one in at a time, present that one and ask for their reaction, their response. "Do you use anything like this? Does this make any sense to you?" You let them react to your presentation.

All of those are different tactics. Which works for which prospect? I don't know. You must work that out.

In every case you must get information from the account before you can do anything in that account. You must figure out a way to get a non-communicative customer or prospect talking and sharing information with you. With no information you cannot go any further. Information and conversation with your customer is the commodity that you work with as a professional salesperson.

In both of these last two situations; in the account that's in the hands of the competitor and the account that won't communicate with you, you need to objectively assess the potential of the account. In other words, is it worth putting a lot of time and effort in even if you gain all the business? It may be that your time is better spent elsewhere. It may be that their position is so hardened that it would take you three or four years to influence them to change that position. It may be that the potential payback isn't worth it.

It may be that it is worth it, but that's a question you need to ask about these last two kinds of situations. Is it worth it? Assess the potential. If you decide that it is worth it, then you do need to be persistent and understand that at eventually something will change.

I remember being very frustrated with one of my accounts that was a non-communicative customer in the hands of a competitor. I just couldn't get anywhere in that account. I expressed my frustrations to my manager. He gave me some very wise advice. He said, "Remember, the only thing that you can count on is that something will change. You don't know what and you don't know when but you know that it will, and your job is to position yourself to be the person they look to when things change."

He was right. In this particular case, the competitive salesperson was promoted and moved out of the territory. A new salesperson took over, and he just didn't have the same relationship or personality that the first one did. The customer began looking for other options, and I was there. I began to grow the business when that change happened. Sometimes just being persistent when the potential is worth it will be the most effective strategy.

Often too, the more difficult the account is at first, the greater is the potential later on. You've heard the saying that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. It's been my experience that the obverse of that is true also. Often the harder they fall; the bigger they are once they fall. Let me give you an example of what I mean by that. When I was selling hospital supplies, I visited a medium-sized hospital for the first time. The materials manager saw me. I did my presentation -- who we are, what we did, and why they should care. He looked at me after I was done and he said, "Young man, we don't know much about your company at this point, but what we do know we don't like. Secondly, we have too many suppliers. We don't need another one. We're trying to rid ourselves of some of the suppliers we have. So I'd suggest you go away and not come back."

I thought, "OK. This is going to be a challenge."

I opted for one of the strategies that I discussed here. I visited the account again, about six weeks later. I was able to see the same individual again. This time, I brought in my most powerful product, the product that everybody purchased from us because it was such a great value. It was an item called suction tubing. Suction tubing in a hospital is a staple item that is used throughout the hospital, in almost every department. Hospitals cannot function without it.

We had an arrangement with the largest manufacturer in the world and we had great prices and a good range of different packages and sizes. Our line really was a great value. So, I came back in with my ace product, and presented our suction tubing program. He looked at me and said, "We don't use any." When he said that, we were sitting in his office in the basement and I looked out the open door to his office out into the hallway and there, just outside the door, was a cart. On the cart was suction tubing. I could see it. He knew I could see it. He was lying, I knew he was lying and he knew that I knew that he was lying.

I thought, "Hmmm. This is going to be difficult." What he was doing was protecting the relationship he had with his vendor -- my competitor. This was one of these accounts that was in the hands of a competitor and was not going to give me much conversation because they were protecting that relationship.

I eventually found someone else in the account that I could work with - someone who was a bit more open-minded. I persistently presented my products until an opportunity opened up. The primary vendor, my competitor, had a backorder on a product. We were able to supply it because we were positioned as, "Let us be your backup." We were. We came through, and that led to an opportunity, which led to an opportunity, which led to an opportunity.

Eventually, three years later, that particular hospital was my best account. Now they were protecting me when I was on the inside, just as they were protecting my competitor when I was on the outside. In some cases, when the account is large enough or the potential is great enough, it's worth hanging in there and being persistent.

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