I learned to sell in an industry that grew more commoditized with every passing year. My first experience was a startup, and I knew nothing about business, competition, or differentiation.
My second experience was working for a company with four thousand offices and four billion in sales. Even though I was hired to work in an operational role, I made calls and won clients, causing my manager to force me into outside sales. This shift began my education in differentiation. This company had a very large binder we provided to our prospective clients to share the various processes differentiating us from our many competitors in the Greater Los Angeles area.
The binder was what you might find in a typical slide deck designed by the marketing and product teams of a large company, starting with a history of the company, followed by the logos of our very large customers, and eventually getting to all our processes & the things we did differently from the rest of the industry. Having worked in operations, as far as I could tell, we weren't doing anything different from our competition, even though our "solution selling" approach worked well enough.
From a Large Commodity to a Smaller One
After having brain surgery, I was forced to move back to Columbus, OH, as I wasn't allowed to drive for two years. I returned to my first business and became increasingly interested in business, leadership, and sales. This smaller company was generating four million dollars in revenue when I returned.
There is something interesting about working for a four-billion-dollar company and getting to see it from the inside. Once you work for a large company you are never again intimidated by them, nor are you likely to be impressed. A large company differs from a small company in several meaningful ways. First, they have a lot more people. Second, they have a lot more problems. Lastly, and most importantly, they spend a great deal of time working inside their business, leaving less time and energy for their clients, as a result of being plagued by internal problems.
To grow my four-million-dollar company, I had to compete against some of the largest firms in the world, including the four-billion-dollar behemoth I worked for in Los Angeles, and companies with even greater revenue. Because we all had the same database of candidates and shared the same processes, there was no real differentiation to speak of.
What You Know and Know-Nothings
In one competitive deal, I sat in a conference room with a decision-maker and two large competitors, my prior company, and a company three times larger. We were all there to talk about how we could support this company during their peak season. As I listened to my two competitors talk, I quickly realized neither of them had ever worked in operations and knew too little to be of any help to the decision-maker. They were know-nothings in nice suits.
We split the business three ways that year, and the next year I displaced both and took the multimillion-dollar deal away from my much larger competitors. My first year back, the large accounts I won almost doubled the business, the result of my ability to talk to them about how best to improve their results.
You are Different in the Same Way as Everyone Else
Most salespeople and sales organizations don't recognize they are different in the same way as their competition.
When there is no real differentiation, the only thing you are left with is the sales conversation. So instead of trying to manufacture some faux differentiation, without knowing it, I adapted my approach from talking about our processes to talking about what the client would need to do to improve their results, backing up my advice and recommendations with data and experience.
Over time, I stopped talking about my company and our processes altogether and talked to my prospective clients about their business and what we might do together to help them improve their results. The conversations seemed much more valuable to decision-makers and decision-shapers. The only time I would refer to how we did things was to explain how it would enable a certain outcome important to the client.
The Hole and the Drill
People don't buy drills. They buy holes. Many people sell as if the hole only exists to create the need for their drill.
I have had a difficult time explaining why you don't need the crutches that are the history of your company, your legendary CEO, your board of directors, your investors, your existing clients, and your solutions. You are different in the same way your competitors are different, and this pattern of the sales conversation proves you are different in exactly the same way as everybody else.
It's difficult to understand the nature of consultative sales. You don't even need a product or a service to help a client improve their results, as the value you create is generated by your counsel, your advice, and your recommendations, all of which speak to the hole. Your clients are less concerned with your drill and more interested in the better results they need. The person capable of helping the client improve their results is better positioned to win than the person who believes their solution creates the value for their clients, and the earlier they disclose that belief, the less valuable the conversation is to a decision-maker.
There are people who care deeply about your product or your service, but mostly they are the end-users, not leadership.
Selling a pure commodity provided me with the experience of having to sell with no real, meaningful differentiation. It provided me with the client's view that suggested that all companies in my industry were the same. The adaptation is one of shifting the conversation to what is meaningful to the client.
What I learned selling a commodity is that you are the value proposition.