The Sales Answer Man
David Straub, Partner and Business Development Practice Lead
Awhile back the Shell Oil Company had an advertisement featuring someone they affectionately referred to as “The Shell Answer Man”. He would have answers to all of your questions about driving and how to save on gasoline.
Years after that ad ran, and ever since, in deference to that ad, my business acquaintances refer to me as “The Sales Question Man”. It’s a fact that my business acquaintances are better equipped than I am to have the answers they need to run their business. What I do well is to ask the questions that get them to discover (or uncover) their answers. Put another way, I ask the questions that challenge them to think about their business differently, or remind them of how they thought about their business when they first began it. And more often than not, my questions challenge my business acquaintances to see new (or renewed) opportunities to grow their business.
The more I know about your business it seems the more questions I have for you to consider. However, when you boil it all down, my questions, at least initially, relate to one of the following three:
- What is your product(s), and who is your competition for that product(s)?
- Do you know where you are going, and just as important, do you know how you are going to get there?
- Who are your best and most loyal customers (or if you are starting a new business or pivoting your current business, who do you think, or who do you hope, your best and most loyal customers will be), and what are you doing to maintain, if not grow, the business of your best and most loyal customers?
Your Product, Its Competition, and Its Category
It seems the longer a business has been around, the harder it gets for its owners to clearly state exactly what their product is. To survive, the business and its products have had to morph so many times that unless they stop and take time to think about it, before they even know it, their products have become something they and their team can’t clearly recognize (or worse yet explain to their best customers). Take a second to think about it. From your customers’ perspective, what exactly are the features and benefits of each of your products (or services)?
When you have completed that exercise take a minute to next think about who is the competition for each of your products. Do you and your competition have the potential to serve the same customer? What makes you/your competition unique? And in this world, you need to think about global competition. Is there someone outside the US doing essentially the same business you are doing who could easily enter your market?
It’s important that we know who your competition is because after building your business by growing your loyal customer base (see section on this topic below) the next easiest way for you to grow your business is by turning your competition’s customers into your customers. Competitive intelligence is critical to this step.
Lastly when your position in the market is strong enough you will want to expand your marketing to include category marketing. To do this you will first have to identify the category your products compete in and understand the “shoppers” (or Purchasing Departments) who purchase from that category. This will also require competitive intelligence. The goal of category marketing is for you to grow your products more than their fair share of their category by being first-in (versus your competition) to growing the category by marketing it (while at the same time, and separate from your category marketing, you will continue to keep your products strong by marketing them). Category is an exciting new source of business growth.
“If You Don’t Know Where You Are Going, Any Road’ll Take You There”
The refrain "If you don't know where you're going, any road'll take you there" (George Harrison, “Any Road”) was essentially a paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Chapter 6 of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where—" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"—so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
If you don’t want just any road to take you somewhere, if you want to know where you are going and how to get there, it requires only a few simple steps. Once you have determined what your product is (from the previous question) and you have branded it (i.e., you have determined what is important about your product for you personally and hopefully the same for your consumers/custmers), you have for all intense and purposes branded your company. And when you have branded your company you have set its purpose, its mission.
With your product and your company’s brand/mission in hand you next figure out where that mission will take you in the future (at least 3-5 years from today). If you are clear about that future state (or some would call it your “vision” or “ambition”), and it’s at least a bit of a stretch to achieve, then next you simply have to clearly determine where relative to your future state you are today (or some would call that your “current state”).
Because we are gifted with a phenomenon known as “Cognitive Dissonance”, with a clear understanding of your current state and an equally clear and stretch picture of where you are trying to go, you can’t help but figure out how you will get from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. The “how’s” that you determine are your “strategies”. Along with goals, they form your strategic plan.
If you are doing this inside an organization (and not alone), to be successful in this strategic planning endeavor it is imperative that you have a high level of respect and trust among your team members. Without respect they won’t empathically listen to what their peers value, and without trust no one will be willing to share the brilliant ideas they have for achieving the future state. As an additional benefit, we know that having a workforce that respects and trusts one another more, leads to greater respect and trust among suppliers, customers, and communities – referred to as Enterprise Engagement. And we know that an enterprise that is more engaged is not only another source of business growth but that it leads to a better place to work, to supply, to shop, and to live.
Most Loyal Customers
If you do not know who your best and most loyal customers are, let me assure you that you are most certainly not alone. Most business owners are so focused on growing their business and thinking that that comes from gathering new customers that they forget their current customers. Don’t get me wrong. New customers are critical (after all, old ones eventually die!). But take a minute to consider this. Unless your best and most loyal customers’ needs are already 100% satisfied, isn’t it a heck of a lot easier for you to grow your business by getting your best and most loyal customers to buy more (or more often) versus trying to convince people who don’t know you or your product to trust either one?
So, the moral here is, before you go out looking for new customers, get to know your best and most loyal customers and see what you can do to turn them into even more raving fans of your product than they already are today. Thank them for their business and don’t forget to ask if they know anyone they can refer! To determine who are your best and most loyal customers, look at the goals you have set. If you are trying to grow sales than your “best” customers are the ones who buy the most from you. If you are trying to grow profits, then your “best” customers are the ones from whom you make the most money.
Partner, Business Development Practice Leader
"David has really improved the way we look at our customers, the services we provide them and the competition that we face by questioning us on just about all of the assumptions that we make about our business. His questions challenge us to re-evaluate our assumptions to see if they are still true. We have found many insights by finding the answers to David's questions that have led us to more effective ways to grow our sales."
Steve L. (President of a firm specializing in Enterprise Engagement)