Small Business Minute #72 – Sales, Play the Long Game

Sale, Play the Long Game

We all learn lesson throughout our working lives. Some are good lessons, some are a little painful. Some of those lessons we remember, some we forget. Hopefully, we learn to apply the good lessons as frequently as possible and not repeat those painful ones too often.

One of those lessons I learned a long time ago, was to play the long game when it comes to sales. So, what do I mean when I say, “the long game”? The long game means understanding that actions today may pay off at some future point with unknown timing. The long game is understanding that people are different. Whereas some people need to buy immediately, others prefer to do preliminary research before buying. On the other hand, some customers have existing relationships or inventory that precludes them making any immediate changes but are now entertaining other suppliers.

Never know which ones

A lot of people think of sales as a one hit wonder, whereby if someone doesn’t buy immediately, they are dismissed, and you simply move on to the next prospect. To be fair, some industries have created this environment. What is far worse, is that many individual salespeople operate this way regardless of their industry and think this is perfectly acceptable. Their attitude is, if you’re not buying, you’re simply wasting their time

Fortunately, professional sales people don’t work that way. They know the value of playing the long game. They’re focused on building relationships. They are patient and provide whatever information the prospect requires, all the while knowing many of these prospects will never convert to a sale. As frustrating as that can be, they also know that quite a few will eventually turn into clients. Unfortunately, they never know which ones.

So, the lesson I learned, was when I first started out in sales after leaving my career as a truck driver. Needless to say, I had very little sales training, but I had good instincts and had availed myself to every sales book I could get my hands in order to become proficient.

I decided this wasn’t for me

The job was selling flexible packaging, which was a fancy word for plastic bags, the majority of which were custom printed. I had no territory or existing accounts and was free to travel within reason to generate business. My prospect list covered everything from boutiques, chain stores, manufacturing and agriculture. Pretty much anyone who used plastic bags. This was a volume business because the set up costs for custom printing was high and therefore had to be amortized over thousands of units.

Because of the sheer number of bags companies had to order became quite an obstacle. Regardless if our quality was better or price was cheaper, I constantly faced this existing inventory issue. Although I kept both my spirits and head up, it eventually started to take its toll. Even though I managed to get a few orders here and there, this lack of success, eventually got the best of me and after a full year, I decided this wasn’t for me.

Funny thing is, I wasn’t on commission and I wasn’t being pressured by the owner of the company to up my performance, other than the occasional enquiry of my plans for the day. So, I probably could have stuck it out for a while longer. But alas, I decided to leave.

When I handed in my resignation, I remember getting berated by the owner over how much he had invested in me. I couldn’t disagree, as he had been more than generous, in supplying a car and all expenses along with a decent salary. Suffice to say he was none to happy. But I just wasn’t able to generate many sales and I was getting into quite a funk over it.

Then a funny thing happened

Over the next few months, I kept hearing through the grapevine how disappointed he was in me.  Little did he know I was also a little discouraged with this sales career I had chosen. Then a funny thing happened.

It all started with a few orders trickling in and then they just kept on coming. Within a couple of months, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of orders were placed. These orders came from a number of those accounts that I had visited over that year of cold calling. In today’s numbers, I would estimate the value of those orders would be close to a million dollars. It was at this moment that I learned the value of playing the long game.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that after months of being criticized by the owner for leaving, he quickly changed his tune and began telling people how good I had been. Not something that happens very often.

Although we try to uncover customers needs and overcome their objections, there are plenty of times when you just can’t make a sale. Keeping in touch, following up and being patient has paid off more times than I can remember. The best part of playing the long game is when you least expect it the phone rings and someone wants to place an order. It makes for a real good day!

You may also enjoy The 80/20 Rules of Sales

Copyright © Greg Weatherdon 2018

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Small Business Minute #71 – The One Thing

The One Thing-Money

In the movie City Slickers, Jack Palance’s character Curly and Billy Crystal’s character Mitch are riding along having a bonding moment, when Curly turns to Mitch and asks,

Curly: Do you know what the secret to life is?
Mitch: No What?
Curly : This! (As he holds up one finger)
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean (expletive).
Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?
Curly: That’s what you gotta figure out

I’m always reminded of that scene whenever I ask my clients “What’s the number one thing every business needs in order to succeed?” Inevitably, I get a number of different answers that include reputation, a good product, good customer service, great staff, hard work and so on. Quite frankly they’re all wonderful valid answers and easily qualify within the top 5 items, but not what I consider the most important item. However, every once in a while, I get the answer I’m looking for, and that answer is, money!

Try doing anything without money

Money pays the rent, the staff, the new pc’s, product or service development, etc. It’s what keeps the lights on. Money affords you the opportunity to create great products or services. Money allows you to provide great customer service. Money allows you to provide a great work environment. Don’t believe me? Try doing anything in your business without money.

Generating profitable revenue, getting paid and controlling expenses are the key elements to getting money. Do enough of these you’re your bank account grows. I know this sounds pretty simplistic to many, but unfortunately, countless owners don’t get it. What I typical come across are owners spending their time on non-revenue generating activities. Although they’re busy, these activities are just a waste of time and are usually a substitute for doing the things that they should be doing, but don’t like doing, such as a prospecting, follow up calls or networking.

The thing is, the longer they put off doing the important stuff, the longer they’ll struggle. What they fail to realize is that they only have to do these uncomfortable tasks until such time as they can afford to hire someone else to do them. Therefore, it’s in their best interest to focus as much of their attention on generating as much profitable revenue as possible.

Other reasons for building a healthy bank balance is to avoid stress. Running a small business is full of stress and an opportunity to minimize the any of it, is welcomed. Having a healthy bank balance means not stressing over making payroll or paying your suppliers. Having money in your account means being able to take a regular paycheque.

Weather any storm

One of the biggest benefits to having money in the account, is being able to weather any form of revenue drought. Over the course of the 17 years I owned the Marketing Resource Group, we would inevitably have one month of the year where revenues would go to zero. Not just slow down, but really go to zero!

When it first happened, I remember getting very concerned wondering what the heck was going on. Had our service model run its course? Had our clients found another supplier? Had they found an alternative solution? It’s the kind of thing that could really ruin your day, week or month and keep you up at nights.

The first time it occurred was in January, I justified it by saying our clients are just a slow getting back into the swing of things following the Christmas holidays. The next year, it happened again, but this time in March. Once again, I was stressing over it. However, when revenue recovered the following month, I chalked it up to Spring Break distracting my clients. Year over year in continued to happen, but strangely never the same month. Fortunately, as time went on, it became a non event and I just accepted the fact that we would lose a month of revenue every year.

Maintain discipline

The upside of this, is that those quiet months would give us almost four weeks in which to get caught up on a ton of housekeeping activities that we couldn’t get done the rest of the year. Eventually, we actually, planned these activities for our down month. All this to say, that this is another luxury of having money in the account. We didn’t panic, or should I say I didn’t panic anymore. We didn’t rush out and change our strategy or desperately take on any old piece of business just to generate some cash. And we didn’t lay off anyone. We just kept doing what we had always done. We maintained our discipline in targeting those clients we wanted to do business with and with full confidence that the business would return to normal. You can’t do that when your account is empty.

I do recognize, that having money tempts us to get little careless and spend it on “nice to have, versus need to have” items. But those temptations are easier and less stressful to deal with, than having no money.

Curly might be right, that as individuals we each must find our own “one thing” but when it comes to owning a business, there is only one thing, and that’s money!

You may also enjoy Pricing For Profit

Copyright © Greg Weatherdon 2018

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SBM #70 – My Kodak Moment

SBM#70 My Kodak Moment

In its heyday, the Kodak company, used the following tag line in their advertising: “Make it a Kodak Moment!” This phrase was used when taking a picture of someone at a particular moment that will never be forgotten. It even made its way into everyday use to highlight anything good or embarrassing that happened to an individual, even when it wasn’t captured on film.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced our fair share of Kodak Moments in our lives, so I want to share one of mine that will be forever burned into my memory. It was an expensive sales lesson about being overly confident, that I’ll never forget.

This event unfolded when I had my first company, The Sales Support Company. As a quick backgrounder, we provided retail merchandising services for the major consumer packaged goods companies, whereby we performed a myriad of services for our clients that ranged from new product introductions to regular sales coverage and even in-store display building.

Camera of choice

This last item, in-store display building usually required us to take a picture of each display as proof of performance. This was a pretty common practice in those days and these photos would ultimately be submitted to the client. Like pretty much everyone in the industry, our camera of choice was Polaroid. It’s ability to produce an instant picture that could be immediately catalogued with all the necessary information made it attractive unlike traditional film which required waiting until the whole roll was used and then developed.

Although we had a pretty impressive roster of clients, most of which were global players, we still wanted more. One such prospect was the Kodak Company, which at the time was one of the worlds largest photographic film companies. When you consider that in those days film was sold in thousands upon thousands of retailers that ranged from the local corner store to department stores. This was an ideal client for our services.

Over a number of years, I had tried multiple times to get an appointment with their senior sales personnel only to be rebuffed. However, over time, we did manage to execute a few small regional projects but certainly not on the scale we had hoped. These small projects had happened only because we had developed a working relationship with the local sales representative. Over time though, the impact of our performance on these small projects began to get noticed at higher levels of the organization.

Perseverance

As luck or perseverance would have it, we were finally invited into the inner sanctum of Kodak’s head office to pitch our services. This was monumental. For the record, Kodak was a very conservative company and for them to even contemplate outsourcing some of their retail sales/merchandising services was enormous opportunity.

I don’t quite remember how many hours I had put in preparing for the presentation, but I do know it was significant. Aside from the general overview of our company, I also prepared summaries of performance with other similar sized organizations as well as a summary of our performance on the numerous small Kodak initiatives. The time spent on this was well worth it, as it could result in a six or seven figure annual contract.

At this point in the company’s evolution, we were no longer trying to prove our concept, as we, along with some competitors, had firmly established the viability of an outsourced sales and merchandising force to the industry players. So, needless to say, I had developed high degree of confidence in our ability to win over Kodak, much as I had with other clients.

As I entered the board room at my scheduled time, I was taken aback to find 10-12 very senior managers sitting around the table. Typically, a presentation of this nature would only involve 3-4 managers at most companies, but apparently Kodak worked differently. Although surprising to see such a gathering, this didn’t really phase me as I had presented our services often enough and was feeling confident and in hindsight possibly a little too relaxed.

I knew all was lost

The presentation unfolded as usual with all major questions and objections handled deftly. As we moved into the Q & A session of the presentation, I was feeling pretty good and possibly a little cocky at this point, as I felt I was winning them over. Questions continued to be asked and I continued to answer them confidently. Then came a perfectly natural and expected question that ultimately derailed any hope we had in ever getting them as a client.

The question was simply, “How would you quantify or authenticate the merchandising activities or display building reported by your field force?” As soon as I heard the question, I knew I had the answer and without missing a beat, I answered it with three little words that before I had finished uttering them, I knew all was lost. What was those three little words? “We take Polaroids!” The silence was deafening.

Whatever goodwill I had generated or convincing argument I had put forth, I was done. Competition in the film category was fierce and Kodak was the leader in those days and just arrogant enough to let you know. So being stupid enough to mention a competitor’s product by name was not one of my brightest moves.

Yes, it was an innocent mistake, as Polaroid was the generic name for any instant developing film much like Kleenex is for facial tissue, but they certainly did not take it that way. I did try to lighten the mood a little but to no avail. It was clearly evident that there was very little chance of regaining any lost ground as the questions dried up and meeting was concluded.

It was like a ground ball trickling through your legs

I’ve never forgotten this Kodak Moment. Being over confident and letting your guard down when so much is on the line, is a rookie mistake. It was a hard learned and expensive lesson much like letting an easy ground ball trickle through your legs that allows the winning run for the other team to make it home.

To make matters worse, was that we had opened their eyes to the potential of outsourcing this area by executing those smaller projects on a local level. The business eventually went to a competitor and the size and scope of the assignment was as I had thought.

From that point on, I always tried to add a small preamble before answering a question like “Being able to quantify the display activity is something we all care about…”. By doing so, it gave my brain a couple of seconds to consider my answer instead of blurting out something stupid like “We take Polaroids!”

Copyright © Greg Weatherdon 2018

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