Recently, Social Driver’s Founder, Thomas Sanchez, spoke with Heavy Hitter series author and expert on Sales Linguistics, Steve W. Martin, about optimizing the sales process for digital agencies. Without any “traditional” sales experience, Steve used sales linguistics to become a top sales producer, and later VP of Sales, for a billion-dollar software company. He has helped turn over 150,000 salespeople […]
Recently, Social Driver’s Founder, Thomas Sanchez, spoke with Heavy Hitter series author and expert on Sales Linguistics, Steve W. Martin, about optimizing the sales process for digital agencies. Without any “traditional” sales experience, Steve used sales linguistics to become a top sales producer, and later VP of Sales, for a billion-dollar software company. He has helped turn over 150,000 salespeople into top producers at leading companies such as IBM, NEC, McAfee, Akamai, BEA Systems, Acxiom, and Allstate Insurance, with his proven selling models.
Starting his career as a computer programmer, Steve brings an interesting perspective to the digital agency sales process. So, we’ve tapped his brain to find out more about the landscape of agency sales and how digital companies can optimize their sales strategy. Check out our interview below where Steve shares how small agencies can better understand their customers and effectively drive sales.
Thomas Sanchez: In your post, “Why Customers Don’t Buy”, you talk about how customers go through a lot of stress in the buying process. What types of sales stress are customers facing?
Steve Martin: People naturally assume, particularly outside of the sales field, that decision making is black and white. All or nothing. In my research, however, I have found that most every decision people make is influenced by different factors of human nature. That human nature can be intrapersonal, meaning it’s within the self. For example, this morning I went to breakfast and I had a choice to make: I could choose to eat a donut or a bran muffin. Even this can cause stress because one is healthier for you then the other and one is more instantly pleasing.
Another type of stress is interpersonal stress or stress between people. This type of stress would come from buying something that impacts someone else. By purchasing something [the purchaser] would be affecting someone else which also creates stress.
Then there is organizational stress. In an organization there are people that work below you, people that work at your same level, and people who might work above you. So, people are continually worried about what a buying decision may do in terms of impacting perception from all those people. That also creates stress.
[These stressors] make it very difficult in any field that creates new ways of thinking, such as with digital agencies. Agencies are bringing in new technologies, innovations and ideas to potential customers that may not always be accustomed to [these new ideas] which will create a lot of stress.
So, how does this stress impact the decision making process?
[This stress] creates a tendency towards no decision where potential customers do nothing. Typically in sales, indecision is the biggest problem, rather than competition. The strangest thing about this is that a pitch can go well and there is still no decision made.
That is exactly right. Why do you believe ‘no decision’ happens?
Okay, here is an important statement. Say you decide you want to pitch an account. So, right then you formulate your team and you have already invested thousands of dollars, time and lost opportunities into creating a pitch for this potential customer. Then you go out to your customer and present your pitch. What is their typical reaction? Well, the reaction is driven by some very in depth human emotions and how they receive the information. The fascinating part is, your customers could be extremely excited at that meeting and then just disappear.
What is it that drives a potential customer to disappear?
There are a couple of factors of human nature that are at play. People can receive ideas one of two ways. They either receive them from a big picture, emotional perspective or a detail-oriented, logical perspective. For example, when a company puts out a 300 page RFP they are coming from the logical, detailed perspective.
[Deals can be lost] when you go in to pitch your idea to an executive or creative team from just a high level, emotional perspective, which is often the approach. The immediate reaction to your pitch may be great but the natural inclination of the sales cycle is to change. The perspective of customers goes from big picture and emotional to small, detailed and logical. When the customers do this introspection the whole deal falls apart. They start worrying about ‘this’ or have stress about ‘that’ and the focus shifts towards what can’t be done instead of what can be done.
On the flip side, you can respond to an RFP. The RFP details all the things the customer wants to get done. Now, they are coming into it from the logical, low level perspective. When you then present your solution, “the pitch,” it tends to go to the emotional, big picture perspective. This then brings you back to the same cycle of indecision.
As the sales cycle progresses, the polar ends start to flip. As a result, it is likely that no decision is made. Even if everything is laid out, at some point someone in the organization has to put their thumbprint on it and that is a scary thing.
The way customers want to buy agency services has changed in recent years and it seems small companies are hustling a lot more for business. How can an agency best pursue new business?
You bring up a good point. I think when you think about smaller digital agencies, there is a lot of sales cycle burnout. Smaller digital agencies assemble a pursuit team to ‘attack’ new businesses but the win ratio still tends to be low because of direct competitors and [customer] no decision. Over time, your pursuit team needs to learn to be more up front with customers. There cannot be this ‘leap of faith’ where [the agency] is pursuing business because [the agency] believes it is the best for the job. It has to be much more of an analysis. Almost, for lack of a better word, like ‘handicapping a horse race’. At a horse race there might be 8 horses and extensive race histories for each. Similarly, an agency will have some knowledge about the client, knowing what they have done in the past and how they have been successful. Too many of small agencies pursue business they shouldn’t have. But the agency is blinded in the sales process because they are Pavlovian in how they approach business. When the bell rings [for business] they start salivating to go after it.
With indecision and burnout effecting the sales process, what can a company do to reduce customer stressors and drive decisions?
I think it is perfectly acceptable to have very honest conversations with clients up front. These honest conversations should be about client expectations and company capabilities. In my opinion, the only way to reduce all this stress is to have these deep and serious conversations up front. If the client doesn’t want to have this conversation or they don’t want to accept the agency’s side of the conversation, which is based off truthful experience, then the agency has to shift back to targeting. Segmenting who an agency goes after and targeting is key. Especially, if they are working with creative people.
Taking a creative and enthusiastic approach to new business is exactly the Pavlovian problem. [Agencies] need to take a step back and ask ‘can we win this project’ and ‘who are we selling to’. Instead of fixating on a great idea that [an agency] thinks it can win with, the agency should analyze the account to match the profile with what [the agency] has won in the past. I am not just talking about the projects and what is being sold, size of the business or industry. I mean, specifically, the politics and personalities of how [the customer] is buying. That is what needs to be matched.
Right, exactly. Often the immediate reaction to new business opportunities is wanting to follow through. How does this affect a pursuit team and how do you ensure fewer losses?
I think again that there are a lot of people in these industries who are burnt out. It isn’t just humbling when you lose but you are being rejected psychologically. It’s like you have been broken up with. Your pursuit team then needs to build up for the next opportunity. This can be tough, especially in small companies. Big firms are different since they tend to win based off name and reputation.
The leader of a small company needs to act as a type of ‘playground manager’ to make sure the opportunities are realistic. The leader is ultimately responsible for what sales activities [an agency] pursues. This is an important role. Yes, sales are a committee decision but there needs to be a ‘gut check’ [by the leaders of the company] to make sure each pursuit is a good use of resources.
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