Nobody would consider giving up to be an acceptable business practice but I’m surprised how often I encounter sales leaders and people who, sometimes unknowingly, do just that when they don’t have an obvious strategic advantage.
I recently had the opportunity to be on an advisory panel for a component company working to increase sales to the technology industry. Someone commented that they couldn’t sell to companies that hadn’t already decided, on their own, to make strategic investments in their component category. I completely agree this makes it harder but most sales professionals would be out of work if they just gave up when customers didn’t consider their product strategic.
Most sales professionals never get to sell for a company that has a truly strategic and unique offering. Even in high tech, with the speed of change, most of us don’t get the privilege of working for a market leader in their glory days. In the entire population of sales people, only a relative handful ever get to sell for the likes of a Microsoft before the mid-1990s or an Apple in the early 2000s, and yet many still have great success in the sales profession.
When you don’t have a product or service that everyone is craving, how can you sell? When your product isn’t strategic and unique, you can still be successful by broadening the definition of “product” to emphasize differentiated benefits that customers get when buying from you and your company versus the competition. You’ll typically see that you have more to offer than the thing that’s on your price list and combining that broadened product definition, with your knowledge of the customer, will often result in very strategic offerings without any new product development.
Boeing, in the late 1980s, is a great example of broadening the definition of product. They were getting intense competition from the likes of McDonnell-Douglas and Airbus, and as is typical, price became more of an issue. The benefits of Boeing’s wing technology; (part of what makes a Boeing airplane unique) was being challenged along with other superior attributes of Boeing airplanes. FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) being fed to the airlines, by Boeing’s competitors, was that an airplane was an airplane. How Boeing responded was not only very smart but a great service to their customers.
At that point in history Boeing had supplied enough airplanes that they had 7X7s flying out of almost every airport in the world. They had massive amounts of information on issues that were important to airlines. They knew the effect of different climates on airplane materials, they knew the difference in wheel wear from different tarmacs and they knew the total seat capacity of each airport along with how many people wanted to fly. With this information they were the best airline consultants in the world because they could help customers not only better forecast maintenance costs but could also help them predict the most demanded routes. Airlines got much more than an airplane when they bought from Boeing.
Their sales teams had this benefit to offer when they called on airline executives. Imagine how strategic these conversations were. The Boeing sales team could build models on the potential for revenue from new routes. They could show analysis that helped airlines determine the best locations for hubs. They could help the airlines reduce spares inventories by helping them better predict when parts would wear out. These things didn’t promote the benefits of having Boeing’s technology in an airplane but, instead, they addressed issues that made doing business with Boeing much more valuable than doing business with other airplane manufacturers. You didn’t just get a great airplane; you got ways to improve your business practices in ways that airlines considered highly strategic.
When your product isn’t strategic and unique, broaden the definition of “product” by considering the non-product benefits your customer gets when they buy from you.