I recently posted a freelance web development project on a web development job board. Most of the responses, unfortunately, were perfect examples - of what not to do.
Since a lot of sales these days start with “virtual” contact, it’s instructional to see how these guys blew it - and what you can do to make sure you do it right.
You don’t want to do these five things.
1) Don’t send an email filled with typos. Most of the messages were, unfortunately, filled with typos.
The customer’s reaction: I’m not just looking for someone to fix one site. I’m looking for someone who can be a potential long-term vendor, someone I can refer my clients to. If you don’t even pay attention to details when you’re trying to impress, no way am I going to trust you with my own sites or refer you to my clients.
Remember: Potential customers always decide that if there are mistakes in your selling messages, there will be mistakes in your work.
2) Don’t be a nuisance. Several candidates went beyond their initial response via email, and started using other channels to bug me - including Skype, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I was just starting to go through all the emails I’d gotten (in other words, I was at the beginning of my buying process), and these guys were pinging me every two seconds, trying to close the sale. Their own behavior - failing to follow instructions, exhibiting inappropriate behavior, and stepping over the line - automatically put them on the reject list.
The customer’s reaction: Back off! Just because you need to make a sale now doesn’t mean that I am ready to buy.
Remember: Give them space. They’ll think more kindly of you for it. Travel through the sales process at their speed, not yours. Besides, if you appear to be desperate, they will decide you are hurting because you don’t do good work.
3) Don’t fail to read the RFP. The job posting was clear and concise. I said what I wanted and what I expected from them (send me an email with link(s) to your work and be prepared to provide three references). Even those who included a link to my original job description (not really necessary) failed to read what I had written or follow the instructions.
The customer’s reaction: If you can’t follow instructions at this stage - when you’re trying to impress me - I will expect you won’t be able to follow instructions when it’s time to get the work done. You’re failing before you start.
Remember: At this stage of a customer’s buying process, you are hanging by the thinnest of threads. Any small infraction is going to cause the customer to reject you. There will be hundreds of other responses to chose from. Do exactly what is asked for.
4) Don’t provide more information than requested. I made it clear I was only interested in Wordpress developers. But once a salesperson has a warm lead on the hook, it’s tempting to send even more information. It’s a waste of effort. I wasn’t really interested in the sites they had created using other methods.
The customer’s reaction: You have just un-sold me, by raising questions that I didn’t have until you exposed me to the additional info. For example, if you do more than Wordpress development, does that mean that you are not as good at Wordpress as you are other types of platforms?
Remember: One of the key characteristics of a solid salespeople is they know when to shut up. Give the customer exactly what they ask for, no more.
5) Don’t screw up my name. Personally, I don’t get offended if someone calls me “Kristen” or “Kirstin.” I just correct them and move on. But if you’re selling to someone, you’ll want to get their name right. And if they do give you their name, don’t start off your email with “Dear Managing Person.”
The customer’s reaction: Oops. Wrong name. Such a simple thing - and they screwed it up. I’m not about to trust this company with something complicated and important!
Remember: Before you hit the send button, stop. Look at your email one more time, and read it as if you’re the customer seeing it for the first time. One mistake in an email can lose the sale. Not making the effort to find that one mistake will mean your entire effort has gone to waste.
It’s pathetic how often salespeople screw up these bare-minimum basics. If manufacturing operations were run like these sales efforts, our toothbrushes would fall apart in our hands, our smart phones would barely light up, and our cars would consistently sputter and rattle.
If you want to sell more, run sales like a factory. Invest in ongoing training, constant quality control, time/task studies, and continuous improvement. If you are not doing these things, one of your salespeople has just sent out an email that would horrify you if you saw it. Do not expect them to get this right on their own.
We all use email to agree on a meeting time. Unfortunately it's terribly inefficient, especially when it’s done incorrectly. A salesperson who is sloppy about it will drive the new, potential client nuts and make the client wonder if she really wants to do business with the salesperson. It is the salesperson’s first test. You'll want to pass it.
Here's an example of good form:
I understand you want to see a demo of our SuperBigProgram.
I’m able to do this with you at these times - all EST.
Mon April 8 from 2 - 5 EST
Wed April 10 from 11 - 3 EST
Fri April 12 from 9 - 12 EST
Please let me know if anything works for you within these ranges, or suggest another day/time. I will send you an invite with a link to the WebEx meeting. [Or, if it is a phone call: “Please also tell me which number you'd like me to call.”]
Thanks. I look forward to speaking with you.
[Sig - with name and FULL contact information, including name, title, website, email, physical address, and phone number.]
I also suggest that your email "from" be your name and phone number (as in, "Kristin Zhivago 401.423.2400") so that people never have to open your email to find your phone number. The worst thing you can do is send emails without any contact info at all. Everyone uses emails to find the phone numbers of people they want to call.
Note that the example above:
- Immediately states what the email is about.
- Clearly states the time zone for all times listed.
- Gives the customer several date/time ranges to pick from.
- Gives the customer an opportunity to pick an alternative time.
- Confirms the next step - online meeting or call.
- Will allow the entire appointment-setting process to take place in three emails - his first one, her response, and his confirmation.
I just tried to set up an appointment with someone in sales, and it took 7 emails, just because the person didn't read the brief, but carefully composed email I had sent. He then didn't provide the requested information, nor mention that he was on Eastern time (his company is located in California, which implied he was on Pacific time). He's in my toaster now and has a limited amount of time to get his act together.
You can waste precious, tone-setting emails just agreeing on the time zone!
Don't flunk the salesperson's first test. Be careful, and very clear.
Thanks to site tracking, cookies, and A/B testing, you can monitor and analyze what any person does on your website, and how they respond to your content. So why are companies still struggling to produce content that helps them sell?
Because metrics can tell you what, who, and how, but not why. If you don’t know the why, you don’t know what you have to do to sell more.
I’m writing this post because I feel sorry for all the companies that waste so much time and money on websites that don’t move the revenue needle. I am saddened to see managers being misled by their tracking results. I’m tired of everyone thinking that A/B testing is the end-all, when it never tells you the all-important WHY.
All of this weblog analysis and A/B testing, if not coupled with real-customer-interview research, falls into the same old stupid category of “I am going to figure out who they are without ever actually getting to know them.” It’s just as pointless as the old-school, pre-web, “throw the pasta at the wall and see what sticks” marketing methods.
What makes us think we can get away with this? Fear and ego. We are afraid that what we learn from real customers will force us to change what we are doing. That bothers us, because we like what we are doing. We thought it up. It makes sense to us and we are comfortable with it.
The bad news is, this thinking leads to business failure. What makes sense to us is always off-target. Each time I ask CEOs what they think is important to customers, and then ask customers the same question, I find the two lists are different. Very different.
The good news is, there is an easy way to get past this counter-productive thinking, and once you do, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. The change is always much less painful than you would imagine, and the revenue uptick is well worth the trouble.
I’ve literally seen the clouds depart and the birds start singing in the minds of CEOs and entrepreneurs who read what their customers say in the interview reports I present. Suddenly, they know what they are doing wrong, what they should be doing that would be right, and how to make those wrong things right. That’s not something to be afraid of. That’s something to run towards and embrace.
So we need the why. How do we get to it?
1) Ignore your potential customers. A lot of marketing research (and even A/B testing) focuses on prospective customers. But they are not real customers. They are people whom YOU are HOPING will turn into real customers, just like the salesperson who identifies a “target” and then contacts that “target” hoping to “convince” him or her.
Only your current customers had the right need, and actually chose your solution, for their own reasons. Only your current customers experienced your strengths and weaknesses. Only your current customers can help you reverse-engineer their successful buying process, using their experience and knowledge to direct your efforts - so that the next person with the same problem will be able to smoothly complete their buying process.
After you’ve made customer-driven changes, your new buyers will be able to find you where and how they expect to, they will see that your solution “fits” their problem, they will see that you have a credible track record solving that problem, and they will decide they can trust you to solve that problem for them.
Currently, the biggest shift in the marketing world - a literal tsunami - is the fact that customers can now talk easily with each other and share their experiences.
Your current customers are more similar than you’d expect. Their stories about their experiences with your company make them a resource or a threat - depending on your behavior towards them. They are the “experts” to whom your prospects are turning to get the real dirt.
Your customers and your prospects have the same problems and needs. Your prospects also know that your customers have no personal interest in your company - they are simply customers attempting to help other buyers make a good buying decision. Prospective buyers are influenced far more by those who have purchased, than by anything that a marketer could say to them.
Before beginning the buying process, a prospect has certain concepts and ideas about the product, but at this early stage, those ideas are uninformed. Clueless, really. These people are not a good source of market research.
It is only after your prospects decide they want to buy your type of product or service that they go to those who have made that purchase. As soon as they access that information, it doesn’t matter what they used to think. Their key question, “What will happen to me after I buy?” will be answered by those who have been there, done that.
2) Ask the same people your prospects are depending upon: Your current customers. Your current customers overcame their own skepticism and distrust, and all the barriers that your mistakes placed in their way. Your solution or product seemed like it would meet their needs. They gave you their hard-earned money, in the hope that they would not be disappointed.
They experienced how you treated them during and after the buying process. They found out for themselves who you really are, what you really care about, and how you really behave. Your customers now possess a body of knowledge, based on personal experience.
This knowledge and experience is what they talk about when prospective customers contact them and ask about your product. What they say is your real marketing message, whether you like it or not.
Interview your existing customers personally, on the phone. Ask them what brought them to you, why they decided to buy from you, what they had to overcome to buy (what their objections were and why they decided to buy anyway), what their experience was during and after their purchase, and what they say about you now.
Humbly, quietly, and intently listen as they tell you what you can do to make it easier on them and others like them. Don’t defend, and don’t argue. Learn what their challenges are, what they prefer, and the trends they see in their market.
This information, gathered from 5 - 10 customers of any given type, will give you head-slapping insights and the direction that you need. You will suddenly know what you should do to make it easier for them - and others like them - to buy from you. You will understand how you and your people must behave, and how your company has to be run, so that these special people will be glad to recommend you to others.
To make more sales, you must know why. There is no better way to find out than to ask - person-to-person - then listen. Then act on what they teach you.
The entertainment industry tends to portray people in business as greedy, selfish jerks. I spent a number of years in that industry, and I can understand why they think that way. Most of the people in power in that particular industry really are greedy and selfish.
Any industry that requires you to be thinking of yourself 24/7 tends to attract a certain type of person. I decided to leave show business because I knew that if I stayed in it, I would be ruining my chances of being the kind of person I wanted to be.
But the "jerk quotient" can also increase as companies grow. I’ve worked with hundreds of CEOs, entrepreneurs and other managers running companies of all sizes. There's no question that the bigger the company gets, the greater the possibility that it will be filled with jerks, unless the founder is absolutely devoted to customers and employees.
As customers, we recognize those customer-centric companies easily; they stand out in their industries. Zappos, Southwest, FedEx, and Amazon come to mind. They provide something to their customers that very few companies provide: Comfort.
It doesn’t really matter what they’re selling - shoes, flights, package delivery, or, in the case of Amazon, just about everything. What matters is that the company’s leaders actually care about their customers, and their customers can feel it. They are comfortable dealing with the company. Each successful interaction raises their comfort level further. In return, they do everything they can to reward that company with their business.
You can’t fake caring, even though it is common practice to try. Politicians are the best at it; they promise the moon, ultimately deliver a rotten little piece of cheese, and try to string you along until the next election.
As companies grow into the billions, the employees congratulate themselves that they work for such a big, important company. They think of themselves as big and important because of the reaction they get when they say to others, “I work for [VeryBigCompany].” While I have met some nice people inside Very Big Companies, because of the bragging factor, these large organizations tend to fill up with paper-pushing, back-stabbing people, endlessly holding pointless meetings. They slowly bleed the company to death.
Why does this happen?
Because most of the people who work there never, ever come in regular contact with real, live customers. They live in a customer-free world, where their salary and the work they do is in no way connected to real customers.
It is easy for them to assume that they are smarter than customers, because they haven’t heard a real customer talk about how bad the company’s products and behavior are. They also haven’t personally experienced how smart their own customers are.
Even if they did hear customers describe their disappointment, they could easily blame it on someone else. “Oh, that’s just because the guy who heads up customer service is a jerk,” they can say. “Not my department, don’t look at me.”
The entrepreneur who starts a company can’t play the avoidance game. If the customer isn’t happy, the entrepreneur has no one else to blame. In order to survive, the entrepreneur must find a way to make it right. This is more true than ever, now that “other customers” are the main source of information in the business world. You can no longer treat customers like dirt and expect it to remain a secret.
As the company grows, entrepreneurs start to delegate what they used to do themselves. They become more and more isolated from their customers. And, the employees working directly with customers will make sure that any discomfort on the part of the customer will not make its way to the boss. They try to keep it a secret. When they do report to the boss about a problem, it’s all watered down, so they don’t look bad. The boss never knows just how big the problem is or was.
But didn’t I just say that you can’t treat customers like dirt and expect it to remain a secret? Yes. Sooner rather than later, a customer will complain online. But the boss will be encouraged by his direct reports to see this as an isolated incident, the ravings of a “difficult customer” who doesn’t reflect the norm. And the boss, who has plenty to do, and who trusts the people who have been hired, will be inclined to see it the way they present it to him. He’s got so many other things to take care of, things that seem more pressing, that he lets it go.
Thus begins the separation between the customer’s comfort and the boss’ character. Entrepreneurs who start their own companies tend to do so because they have recognized a problem they can solve or a need/desire they can satisfy. Sure, they get excited about the prospect of making money, but they are also excited about how their product or service can help others. This is the mark they want to make on the world. They want their customers to be comfortable with their product or service, their people, their processes, and their policies. They know that this is where success will come from. But their increasing isolation from real customers makes this more and more difficult.
As I help CEOs and entrepreneurs take their companies to the next revenue level, I always start by interviewing real customers and uncovering all those secrets that the boss has been insulated from. I expose the boss to the customer’s reality. Once he knows what is really going on, the boss can start making the right decisions.
Instead of seeing a complaint as an isolated incident, the boss will realize that the complaint is just the tip of an iceberg - that the problem occurs frequently. When I interview customers, even just 5 - 10 customers, they all mention the “uncomfortable” aspects of the company, and they all agree on what those issues are - even though they may have never talked to each other. They are all speaking from their own experience, and their experiences are the same. If there is a jerk running customer service, they’ll say that their experience with customer service is always disappointing. If your employee heading up quality control lets certain things slip by, they’ll say that the product it is unreliable.
You can’t ensure that your customers are comfortable doing business with your company if you aren’t talking to them yourself on a regular basis. You also need to have an experienced interviewer call them periodically, because they won’t tell you what they will tell a professional third party interviewer. Customers won’t want to hurt your feelings, nor do they want to be seen as a “problem customer,” so even they will water down what they say, when you ask them directly. If the interviewer also assures them that their comments will be passed on without attribution (and keeps that promise), they will really open up.
I have come to see “character” as a healthy combination of persistence, careful analysis, and humility. It takes good character to admit that our customers have something to teach us about their comfort, and that if we assume we are smarter, that we know better, we will ultimately poison our own businesses from within.
Have you talked to your own customers lately? Do you spend at least 25% of your time with customers? Have you had a professional interviewer call them and ask them about their experiences with your company/products/services and how you could improve? If not, you are becoming dangerously separated from their reality.
Given that their reality drives your revenue, you’ll want to change this in 2013.
What is going to matter most to all companies in 2013? Only one thing, whether you are a MomPopoly (great new term - thunk up by Carlos Dunlap et all at Colloquy) or a Fortune 50 corporation.
Not the news, the wars, the disasters. Not the constantly shifting regulations, the “cliffs,” or the larger trends.
Nothing matters as much as your customers' experience, every time they interact with your product, people, or processes.
Their experience determines what they say about you to others who are considering buying from you. What they say determines if you prosper or struggle in 2013. It’s that simple.
Even something as basic as your phone system will make them want to do business with you or want to avoid you; recommend you to others or warn them to stay away.
Let’s look at this as if we were the customer.
When you call a company to ask a question, you only do it AFTER you have looked online and have been unable to find the answer.
When you call, what do you really want?
YOU WANT A HUMAN BEING TO ANSWER THE PHONE ON THE FIRST RING. Yes, I typed that in caps for a reason.
Further, you want that person to be pleasant and helpful. You want that person to be so knowledgeable about the company that she can connect you with the right person to solve your problem - or solve it herself. Or, if she has to pass you on, you want her to stay on the line until she is sure that the person understands your problem and that your problem will be solved. (Suggestion: Call this person a “customer concierge,” because he or she will be much more than a receptionist.)
You don’t want to be “greeted” by a machine. You don’t want to be told “please listen carefully, as our menu has changed.” You don’t want to be ordered to press one for this and two for that, and you certainly do not want to be stymied by the fact that none of the options presented will solve your problem.
And, you especially don’t want to be told that “you can also get your questions answered on our website, which is [the whole website address, as if you never used the web].” Duh. Of course you already expected to find it there. You went there first - and looked, didn’t find what you needed, and finally had to call the company, only to be tortured in voicemail hell. They replaced a helpful person with a slimy, uncaring, copycat recording that says they care, when they obviously don’t. (And don’t get me started on music on hold, or bad music interrupted by commercials, which you are forced to listen to as you try to do something else while waiting!)
You know perfectly well that the only reason the company is using this voicemail system is for their convenience, not yours, in spite of their sugary sentences to the contrary. The truth is, they don’t want to be bothered to answer your question or solve your problem.
Why weren’t you able to get your question answered when you went to the company’s website? Because the company folks don’t even know the questions that real customers ask. They think they know, but they don’t.
Gerry McGovern recently lamented how unengaged senior management is with the reality of the interaction the customer has with their website, in an article called “Management practice lags behind technology innovation.” He’s right.
The C-suite treats the corporate website as if it were just another brochure, something they can “set and forget,” like they did in the old days of advertising, print, and PR. They have no idea that their digital presence has become the company. In the mind of the customer, it is the company.
Why is management so clueless?
Every single time, after I interview my client’s customers and present my findings, even the most confident, savvy CEOs look at me, shaking their heads, incredulous. “Wow. I had no idea.”
They have just realized that all those beliefs they held, the perceptions about their customers, their strengths and weaknesses, their opportunities, their systems, and their position in the market - all of these - were “off.” Often they discover that the positive products and services they offer have not been communicated successfully, so that customers believe something completely different.
Whatever the specifics - and it is different for every company - company managers are not in sync with what their customers are thinking, what their customers want to do, and what their customers want them to do.
This doesn’t mean that the company has to change everything. On the contrary, it usually means that the company’s managers have to make some changes. Some of them will be minor, and others will be major, but they will all make sense, and will all be enthusiastically implemented as soon as the company is able to do so. We always start with the low-hanging fruit. The success of those changes will prove to everyone that this is the right thing to do and they will embrace the more difficult undertakings.
As management makes these changes, the employee water-cooler talk starts to take on a different tone. “Wow - management got a clue! Did you hear what they’re doing?” Customers, prospects, and partners will be pleasantly surprised. They will think: “That was easy. Easier than I thought it would be. Easier than before. Easier than the competition. Good.”
The amazing thing about all this, is that you can know exactly what your customers want from you, within a few weeks, using the phone interviewing method I describe in my book. Or, heck, just hire me to do it. :-) I’d love to give you that “Wow” moment, and help your customers get to their own “wow” moment while interacting with your people, processes, products, and pages. That's what I live for, because it is the most powerful change lever that managers and owners can use to increase revenue.
Regardless of how you get there, the point is, you really do need to do this in 2013.
By the end of 2013, any company that is still clueless about what their customers really want will be hanging by a thread. There are enough forces working against you right now; you have control over this one, and it is pivotal.
P.S. I should add that when you say, "Your call is very important to us," and then send them into voicemail hell, you may as well have added, " . . . and that is why we are going to make this as difficult as possible." That's how the customers see it. They are not amused.