Up your sales in a down economy

Given the slow worldwide economic recovery, it’s an appropriate time to review our core tactics. Many of us are finding our clients and prospects are risk averse. Here are some effective strategies you can proactively use to increase your sales, no matter what the economic climate brings.

You might be asking “Who will buy from me now?” when so much seems to be at risk.
The ValueSelling Framework® has strategies to help you make the sale, even with timid prospects. While the temperature of the economy will dictate some change, companies are still in business and work is still getting done. So the real question is, “What can sales professionals do right now to position themselves for success?”


ValueSelling Framework basics that will help you exceed your quota:

  • Focus on the positive: It’s very easy to be overwhelmed with negative messages, and bad news always gets more interest than good news. To be successful, however, your attitude is essential. Tune out all the information that isn’t helpful to you right now. Turn off the 24-hour news cycle and the minute-by-minute updates from your smartphone. There is always a lot going on in the market that’s outside your control, so instead focus on what you can control. We are not suggesting that we put on rose-colored glasses. Rather, we should simply find opportunity and positive news wherever we can. Maintaining that positive attitude will help you defend yourself against constant bad news.
  • Focus on empathy: The best salespeople in any industry are the ones who know how to solve their customer’s problems. In uncertain times, people become much more risk-averse, sticking with what they know to be secure and stable. If you’re a problem expert, your job will be to get in tune with your client’s fear of uncertainty. Their fears may manifest in multiple ways, including taking a longer time to make decisions and involving more people to make them. Empathize by offering customers increased understanding and flexibility, and they’ll recognize the security you offer.
  • Focus on real value: Prospects and customers need to understand the real value you offer. When they are uncertain, they spend more time making the decision to buy, and they are concerned about real monetary gains from their investment.  Focus on the real value you are providing to them. Are you positioned to save them money or grow revenue?
  • Focus on preparation: Sales executives are most successful when they’re purposeful, customer-focused, and ready to execute. Spend more time understanding your clients, their industries and markets, and building creative solutions with them. In the end, you’ll spend less time fixing problems in the sales cycle that arise.
  • Focus on qualification: Companies with sales team that excel have customer-centric processes that leverage best practices and repeatable strategies. Their prospect qualification is a multidimensional process, and it doesn’t focus on who has the budget. Just because people can make a purchase – doesn’t mean they will. Your prospect qualification process should be reverse-engineered from how prospects will make decisions:

a.    Should I buy this?

b.    Can I buy this?

c.    Is it worth it?

d.    Am I convinced?

Knowing your prospects’ answers to these questions is essential before you begin investing time and resources in a sales cycle. If your prospect is not qualified, let that one and find someone who is.

Remember, your competitors have the same difficulties that you do. Stay calm, stay focused, and look for their vulnerabilities in the marketplace. You should be playing both defence and offense with your current customers to defend your position. By staying focused on the customer, you won’t be outsold, and you can win the customer’s business and loyalty.

If you really have to enter the US market – some do’s and don’ts

A few weeks back I had written a post on entering the US market. It was very gratifying to see the response from so many of you on that post. So following the lead of that article, here is another one. 

In this post I talk about some of the basic things Indian companies can do to improve their probability of success in the US. If these come across as simplistic, its because they are not hard to do, but they are made hard by the cultural programming we come with. To paraphrase Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, companies have to be consciously willing to say – “Toto, we are not in Bangalore any more”. So, without further ado, here goes: 

Lesson #1

– Employee #1 has to be a jack of all trades

– The first person you hire will likely be required to set up office space, put in a phone system, hire new staff, set up payroll, healthcare, the list goes on. If you are thinking of hiring a sales top gun as your first employee, think again. You will need to have the basic HR infrastructure set up for your sales people to not have to worry about the basics. If you don’t do that, you will frustrate new hires and scare away high performers. 

Lesson #2

– 9AM EST does not mean 9AM – 10AM EST –

We Indians are hardworking, committed but we aren’t exactly known for punctuality. In the US, IST (Indian Stretchable Time) jokes abound. All too often, this translates into missed appointments with customers and prospects. Time is valuable. If somebody has given you an hour, respect that.  While showing up on time is important, ending on time is important as well.  If in doubt, ask. Nobody is going to mind if you ask for permission to go over your allotted time. 

Lesson #3

– Don’t talk over people. Its rude.

– Another very Indian trait is our love for intellectual discussion. Coming from a country of over a billion, we are used to shouting over each other to get our point across. Unfortunately it doesn’t work in other parts of the world. All too often we get carried away and talk too much for too long. Other times, we will interrupt a speaker to inject a point or many times simply to agree. I learned this lesson the hard way many years back, when a customer essentially asked me to shut up and listen (they did buy from me).

A much more culturally acceptable norm is to not interrupt a speaker. Let them finish, ask if they are done and then make your point. When making your point, use short sentences and stop often and ask for feedback. It is not natural behavior for us Indians but we need to be conscious of it. 

Lesson #4

–  Learn to say no

– We work hard and we love to please. Sometimes it translates into not being able to set boundaries. In the product or the services business, you have to set boundaries if you want to be profitable. If something can’t be done or will cost more, flag it. Customers expect that. We can’t please everyone but if you don’t set boundaries, you will please no one.

Lesson #5

– Over-communicate

– You have a client. The project has begun and the India-based team is working hard. The India team is telling you everything is on track but the customer keeps sending you emails on how she is not happy with the project. Sounds familiar?

In my experience, this happens most often because the Indian team does not communicate enough with the client. The already jittery client who has bet on an unknown quantity gets even more rattled by not getting any regular updates from India. Make a conscious effort to communicate every day. It could be just an email update summarizing what was achieved that day but it goes a long way in giving peace of mind to the client. 

Lesson #6

– Use your network for initial hires, if using recruiting companies, choose carefully

– Your first few hires are critical. They are best picked through people you know and trust. So, first look to your network. If you do have to go and hire an agency, be picky. Indian recruiters, and I am sure there are some good ones, come with the same set of problems as the rest of us from India. My sample size is small but in my experience (and the experience of many of my associates), they aren’t punctual and don’t call on time and their follow-up is terrible. Rather than getting prospects excited about your company, they end up pissing them off. So, do your due diligence and talk to current clients of the recruiting company you are thinking of employing. It is worth spending time thinking through your hiring strategy. Humans make the company. Don’t forget that. 

Every one of us is shaped by our experiences. My observations are shaped by mine. For what it is worth, my viewpoint has evolved on four continents over a 24 year period. Like everything else though, it changes through new interactions and experiences. These are my thoughts today. Tomorrow might be a different story.

Agree. Disagree. Or have another viewpoint. Would love to hear your thoughts.

iCalibrator – Bridging the Knowledge Gap

The product – iCalib aims to automate the process of practical learning during the training programmes. Trainees are given exercises to practice the skills they are expected to learn. In a typical classroom model, the trainer is not able to evaluate all trainees individually (sometimes the trainers are not capable of it also). The system would provide individual feedback, and also enable the trainees to re-attempt the exercises till they are able to achieve the desired objectives.

Pramod Saini started iCalibrator after gathering valuable experience from the industry. Having done his BTech & MS from IIT Madras and spent 10 years at Wipro in Global R&D role. In 1997, he left Wipro and Co Founded Momentum Technologies, which later on got acquired by Sopra, a French group.

Problem Identification : The Ideation
Every organisation begins with an idea. An idea is basically a solution to a specific problem which the founders are trying to address. In this case, in the year 2000, what was observed was the poor quality of software professionals in employment. The number of “professionals” flooding the market but with no control on quality whatsoever. Especially on the quality of input. The Students coming out of Engineering colleges, fell short on quality. This problem was identified years back and would find resonance much later as various studies were to indicate. In other parts of the world, especially in countries like US & Canada, a fresher would be able to write good software, within 2– 3 months of their first programming job. In India, this period would stretch to almost a year, and even more at times. The problem was much deep-rooted. Poor students were a direct result of poor
teachers, who were themselves all at sea, technically.

The Delivery Mechanism:
The approach was to impart training, through mentoring. To create an environment which wouldenable students through self-learning modules based on Practical exercises and projects. Mentors from the industry would assist trainees in writing good software, something on the lines of what was prevalent in Europe – Teacher & Assistant. Progressively, it was getting difficult for organisations to make freshers project-ready. It put additional pressure on resources and even then, the outcome was not always desirable.

Mentors, of course came with a cost. The effectiveness of this model would ultimately depend on the quality of mentors, which in many ways was a costly proposition and hence a challenge on scalability. This challenge would be addressed by reducing the dependence on mentors and leveraging technology to take up the same role. In due course, the product became very good and
the effectiveness was unparalleled. There was another challenge – to position the company in tech space, rather than as a training institute. The automation of solution would help position them as enablers to e-learning companies.

Challenges in selling this product

  1. Selling a complex idea is always tough and so is the positioning. The processes were pretty complex so not so easily reproducible by rival organisations.
  2. Selling to the target market in India. Decision-making is a slow process and there is some inertia which takes ages to overcome.
  3. Indian Product mindset, in the end-consumer’s mind. If it’s Indian, it isn’t good. Very difficult to break this mindset.
  4. Companies started putting their potent recruits though these tests and the results were disastrous. Not that the tests were exceptionally difficult but the aspirants were below par : The whole problem that was being addressed.

Expectations from the eco-system.
I guess, by eco-system, you refer to the whole learning industry. I hope that the Indian Software service providers actually put in effort to increase the quality of their software personnel. The problem of low quality is very well understood, but I believe that the organisations do not put in additional effort to improve quality because: (1) A large number of jobs are actually software maintenance jobs, and organisations believe that very high quality is not required. (2) Some senior management members believe that they do not want to invest in training personnel who might leave them and change a job immediately after. However, I think that this is a short-sighted approach that is detrimental to the overall industry and the value that we bring to the end customer.

Next 12 months for iCalibrator
In the next 12 months, we expect to raise some funds, and utilise them to enhance our product as well as focus on sales/marketing activities so that we can put our message across to the potential clients. We may be required to do some pilots, where the additional funds will help. We also plan to enhance our product so that it could be easily integrated into the training processes of any eLearning provider. Therefore, we see ourselves becoming a totally technical company, providing various automated aides to enhance the effectiveness of eLearning models.

Does your customer know what you are talking about?

Let us face it, technology startups are often founded by geeks, employ geeks and hence are, more often than not, geekdoms. There is tremendous value in it. However, there is a significant downside to this as it relates to communication.  Geeks speak geekspeak and unfortunately that is all the customers hear a lot of times. This is a HUGE mistake.

Never forget who you are in the business for. It is your customers. If your value proposition is not clear to the customer, you will perish. The customer needs to see value. She needs to know that you understand her pain and will help her. She needs empathy not geekspeak. And this is true even when you are speaking to tech buyers. You need to be very clear on how you and only you understand the pain they are feeling and can help them. If you can establish that empathy and can weave it into the product you are pitching, you are already ahead of the competition.

Abandon the geekspeak and the discussions on all the bells and whistles that your product has. Instead, focus on business value it creates or the business pain it alleviates. Use simple, easy to understand language. For example, instead of saying “the product has an enterprise class data warehouse based on a dimensional data model, supported by all major RDBMs, that houses information from disparate sources”, you can say that “using a single repository of data all the business users see the same version of truth. This allows for accurate and timely decision making and meaningful interdepartmental communication”. By eliminating geekspeak you have shown how the product is meaningful to the business user. Nice technology is good, in fact it is essential, but it is not an excuse for clearly articulated benefits. It is almost as though most technology companies operate behind a cloud of geekspeak, and it is the company that breaks through the clouds and communicates simply, that stands out.

So, spend some time. Understand the business problem you are solving, develop empathy with your potential customers and analyze your competition. You should then be able to come up with a story that resonates with the customer. If you are able to do that, you have the power to change the dialog, project yourself as the hero and differentiate yourself from the competition. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Just open the door for me, I can close the sale

In the course of my career, I can’t remember how many times I have heard some version of this phrase from entrepreneurs. In fact, there is a thriving industry that has grown to service exactly this need: door openers that use their connections to get warm introductions to companies for a retainer and a commission. Even with that, why is it that most startups fail for lack of sales? Is it because the introductions weren’t warm enough? the entrepreneurs weren’t competent enough? the product wasn’t good enough? or something else?

In this series of blog posts I will explore some of the reasons behind this and what can be done to mitigate the risk of failure.

In my view, the failing is in the mindset which leads to a flawed approach. Having a repeatable, scalable sales and go-to-market strategy is not akin to flinging stuff on a wall and seeing what sticks. You need a plan. You also need to be nimble and reduce your burn rate. Most of all you need commitment from the executive team. The good news is that there are people that have thought through this. In fact, it would do entrepreneurs a lot of good to learn more about Steve Blank and Eric Ries.

Steve Blank (steveblank.com) has written extensively on developing a customer before you even go ahead and develop a product. There is a lot of truth to that but it may not always be easy to do.  Not to worry. In case of companies that already have an offering but are looking to penetrate new markets or grow in existing ones, it will do them a world of good to understand the needs of potential customers before doing much else. There may be an unmet need that they can exploit.  There may be channels that can be used, partners that can be leveraged. The point is that, if you elicit potential customer feedback, you will likely spend less time and money and have a greater chance of success, than if you were to enter the market and tried your “luck”.

Eric Ries (http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/) has taken the philosophy behind the “Lean Manufacturing” techniques developed at Toyota Corporation and applied them to startups. The key philosophy is to have multiple, quick, low-cost trials of the product with real customers to figure out what customers really value and throw out what they don’t. The idea being that you don’t end up spending millions of dollars and many months in developing something that the customers don’t care much about.

There is a lot to learned from these gentlemen. There is a lot also to be learned from one’s own experience and other helpful individuals’. So, dear entrepreneur, slow down a bit, assimilate information, think, and then act. It will do you a lot of good. Above all, know that entering new markets or developing new customers is hard work that requires time, thought and resources. It is not just a matter of opening doors. If anybody tells you otherwise, then I have a bridge to sell you.