Selling Your Price: How to escape the race to the bargain basement
A Solution to What? – Differentiate or die – a buck at a time.
Scott and Christine walked up the hallway to grab some coffee from the pot near the receptionist’s desk. When they returned to Christine’s office, he said, “Do you have time to walk me through my next call on Dr. Wright? I’d like to tell you I understand Action Selling well enough to know exactly what to do now that you’ve pried my eyes open, but we’ve already established that I need to make some changes.”
Christine smiled. “You mean that instead of a route, you’ve been in a rut. And now you want to change that, beginning with Dr. Wright?” You’ve been acting like an order-taker, not a salesperson, she thought.
“A rut instead of a route. Yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve been in,” Scott said. “I’ve been making my route calls without a real plan. Instead of acting, I’ve just been reacting. But no more.”
“OK,” Christine said. “Let’s start with your overall goal. What is it that you want to accomplish with customers like those at Dr. Wright’s office?”
“Action Selling told me to be a consultant with a purpose.”
Scott thought about the question for a while. “I want to do what Action Selling told me I should always do,” he finally said. “I want to be a consultant with a purpose. When I walk into a customer’s office, I don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, here’s Scott. How are we fixed for cotton rolls and how much is he charging?’ I want them to be excited to see me.”
“You want them to be excited because you’ve become a valuable contributor to their business strategy?” Christine asked.
“Right. I need to differentiate myself, and I don’t want the differentiating factor to be price. I want to offer a solution that adds value in the customer’s eyes — something that gives the client a reason to buy from me even though I might charge more for something like a bottle of disinfectant. I want to take the focus off which supplier is offering the lowest price this month. I want the competition’s next flyer to be irrelevant.”
“It sounds like you don’t just want to sell more to Dr. Wright, you want to sell more at a higher margin,” Christine said.
“Yes, that too. I’d like to be able to differentiate from the competition even if our basic products appear to be the same.”
Commitment Objectives don’t just move me closer to a sale; they move the customer closer to a solution.
“Good,” Christine said. “And how can you use Action Selling to achieve those goals?”
Again Scott took a moment to think. “It starts with Commitment Objectives,” he said. “I think I’ve been making a mistake by seeing them only as commitments I want from the customer for my own reasons. If I’m really selling solutions and not commodities, the Commitment Objectives I set for every call don’t just move me closer to a sale; they move the customer closer to a solution for an important business need. If I go into every sales call with a Commitment Objective tied to the customer’s needs and not just to my desire to make a sale, then it isn’t only the sales process that’s moving forward every time I show up. It’s the customer’s business strategy that’s moving forward.”
“That’s exactly right, Scott,” Christine said. “And you become a key player in that strategy. Pretty soon you won’t have to compete with every discount flyer that comes into a dentist’s office — or even with our competitors’ territory reps. You’ll be far more valuable to your clients.”
“Starting with a Commitment Objective, that’s really what the whole Action Selling process enables me to do, isn’t it?” he said. “And the salesperson who manages the sales process the best is the one who wins.”
“The salesperson who manages the sales process the best is the one who wins.”
You really are starting to get it now, Christine thought. “Another way to say that,” she said, “might be that if you want ‘customer loyalty’ from Dr. Wright and his staff, you won’t get it just by showing up on your route calls and being a nice guy. You’ll have to earn it somehow. Do I have that right?”
“And you said you intend to start earning that loyalty by exploring their needs,” Christine said. “But to be in a position to earn the loyalty you want, you have to uncover needs that you can do something about. What does Action Selling suggest that you do to identify needs for the special features of your products or your company’s services?”
“Oh, yeah,” Scott said. “Action Selling calls it Back-Tracking Benefits. I think Dr. Wright is a candidate for our frequent buyer program, Partner Plus. Like a lot of our customers, he buys products from three or four suppliers. We’re one of them. If I can sign him up for Partner Plus, I could get more of his business, and protect my margins, and probably save him some substantial money when all of their costs for acquisition are considered. At the very least I could simplify his ordering and inventory process, which would save time and money. That’s the solution I have in mind.”
“So to Back-Track Benefits, you’ll ask questions designed to uncover needs for which Partner Plus would be a good solution?” Christine wrote some quick notes on a sheet of paper:
“I remember how that works,” Scott said.
“All right, let’s go with that,” Christine said. “But let’s also remember that programs like Partner Plus aren’t the only option we’ve got to differentiate ourselves in customers’ eyes.”
Do you really know that? Christine thought. I wonder. But first things first.
“So, who are the people in Dr. Wright’s business whom you’ll have to sell on Partner Plus?” Christine asked. “Could Susan the office manager sign up for the program on her own initiative?”
Scott frowned. “I doubt it,” he said. “In fact, I’m sure Dr. Wright would have to OK the decision. He also has a dental assistant and two hygienists who get involved in ordering products. They tell Susan what they need, and sometimes they do the ordering themselves.”
“Sounds as if you’ve got a classic sales situation, with three different kinds of buyers in the picture, all of whom must be sold,” Christine said.
“A lot of salespeople think that if they can just reach the UDM, their problems are over.”
Seeing Scott’s blank look, she elaborated. “In every business-to-business selling situation, you have a single ultimate decision maker or UDM — Dr. Wright in this case. That’s the person with the authority
to make the final buying decision. A lot of salespeople think that if they can just reach the UDM, their problems are over — they don’t have to bother selling anybody else.
“Big mistake,” Christine continued. “Because the UDM usually will rely on input from two other types of buyers. First, there are user buyers — the people who actually use the product or who manage the users. For most of our products, your users are the dental assistant and the hygienists.
“Second, there is what’s ordinarily called specialist buyers. In the computer industry, for instance, specialist buyers are the IT staff. The ultimate decision maker might be a CIO, the person who controls the budget, but the CIO isn’t going to buy anything without consulting the IT staff and the users.”
“In your case,” Christine said, “Susan is standing in for the specialist buyer. She basically functions as the purchasing manager, right? She keeps track of inventory, orders, billing, and so on?”
“Right,” Scott said. “But wait a minute. If Dr. Wright is the UDM, he’s the one I really have to convince, isn’t he? He’s the only one who can agree to try Partner Plus.”
“A good plan begins with a Commitment Objective.”
“He’s the only one who can say yes,” Christine corrected. “What’s important to remember, though, is that the other two buyer types can always say no. They can’t make the sale for you, but they can sure kill it: ‘Dr. Wright, this so-called solution of Scott’s is going to interfere with our ability to serve patients by doing X, Y, and Z.’ No, you need the users and specialist buyers on your side. You want them to be telling Dr. Wright how your solution will help the business, not hurt it. When you said that you and Susan are going to be partners in solving her consumables problem, that was an important insight. Don’t lose track of it.”
“Gotcha,” Scott said. “So I need a plan to sell Partner Plus to all three types of buyers. And as we Action Selling professionals know, a good plan begins with a Commitment Objective.”
“And where do Commitment Objectives come from?” Christine asked. “How do we decide what our Commitment Objective for a call ought to be?”
“Commitment Objectives correspond to the milestones in my sales cycle,” Scott answered. “Milestones are the important steps that have to be completed leading up to the final sale. In this case…well, let’s see, with three types of buyers…”
“Keep it simple,” Christine said. “Your milestones will be similar with each kind of buyer. You want to question them all about their needs, with an eye toward looking for ways that Partner Plus could help them, right? And you’re hoping to enlist Susan as an ally in this project, so you might have some special milestones involving her.”
With a little help from Christine, Scott created a list of sell-cycle milestones.
Scott circled the “Proposal Meeting” at the bottom of the list. “All three buyer types are at the same proposal meeting,” he said. “The other milestones are likely meetings with the individual buyer types.”
“I see you added ‘preview proposal’ in the Specialist Buyer column and ‘demo products’ under User Buyer,” Christine said when Scott finished his list. “What are those about?”
“The Commitment Objective at each milestone is for the customer to agree to proceed to the next milestone.”
“Since Susan is going to be my ally, I want to run my proposal past her and get her suggestions before I present it to the whole group,” Scott said. “As for ‘demo products,’ it just occurred to me that I could increase my margins further if I can persuade the dental assistant and the hygienists to try some of our own Partner-brand stuff instead of the major brands they buy now. I’ve mentioned our house-brand products before and got the brush off. But I’ll bet if I can bring up the Partner brand in a conversation about their overall use of consumables, they’ll be more receptive.”
“Good ideas,” Christine said. You’re not bad, Scott, once you’ve gotten a shove in the right direction. “Now, if I understand correctly, your Commitment Objective at each milestone is for the customer to agree to proceed to the next milestone?”
“Right,” he said. “For instance, in my initial contact with Susan, the Commitment Objective is that she should agree to the needs analysis. After my needs analysis with Dr. Wright, the Commitment Objective is to get him to agree to the proposal meeting at a specific time. And so on.”
“In Act 3, I do most of the selling by listening, not talking.”
“I see. And most of the ‘selling’ you do with each of these buyers is going to take place when?” Christine asked.
“In the needs analysis, which is essentially Act 3 of Action Selling,” Scott replied, smiling. “I’ll do most of the selling by listening, not talking. If I Ask the Best Questions, I should be able to uncover needs that Partner Plus can fill. Then, at the final proposal meeting, I’ll tie my presentation back to those specific needs. I’ll explain how Partner Plus would be a good solution for Dr. Wright and for Susan and for the user-buyers.”
“The most useful needs are the ones in which the buyer has a personal, emotional stake.”
“That brings us back to what you said earlier about high-yield needs, doesn’t it?” Christine asked. “If the most useful needs you can uncover are the ones in which the buyer has a personal, emotional stake, how do you get at those through your questioning?”
Scott hesitated. “Hey, I’m the guy with a rut instead of a route, remember?”
Christine laughed. “You’re starting with a theory that Partner Plus is going to be your solution, right? It helps if you also start with some theories about what your customers’ high-yield needs might look like. For instance, I’d guess that Dr. Wright wants the best possible ROI on his investment in consumables. I’ll bet that’s a high priority issue for him far more than it is for the other types of buyers — because it’s his money that is buying the consumables.”
“Yeah, good,” Scott said, making a note. “What else?”
“Nah-uh,” Christine said. “Let’s think about this together.”
They worked up a short list of categories into which the high yield needs of each buyer type were likely to fall. They divided them into Needs for the Features of their solution and Needs for the Benefits that those features will provide.
“So in Action Selling terms,” Christine said, “you want to surface needs for the most impactful features and benefits of Partner Plus with Act 3 questions. Then you want the various buyers to agree on them in Act 4. Is that right?”
“Well then, what kinds of questions might you use to bring those needs to the surface?”
“Based on the list, I’d need a slightly different set of questions for each buyer type,” Scott said. “I’ll want each buyer to discuss their high-yield needs candidly, so when I present Partner Plus I can tie the personal needs to my solution. If I can do that, I’m sure they’ll quit concentrating on the price of individual items.”
Christine studied him. “You know what?” she said. “It feels to me like a professional sales call is about to happen.”