Being the best isn't good enough

By sending invoices regularly there is a real possibility that you start believing to be quite good in what is mentioned on the invoice. As a result you start telling this to your customers and prospects. Until one day you may notice that neither your customers nor your prospects are really impressed.

A situation well-known
Some years ago I was hired by a German company to acquire new customers. This company produced products to be used in the process of steel making. As one would expect there were quite a few other companies doing the same thing, selling similar products.  And even more, there were substitute materials available. The customers, the steel mills, could choose out of a number of suppliers and alternatives. Nothing strange, this market situation was just like any other and is quite recognisable to a lot of companies.

Also very recognisable was how we and our competitors sold ourselves. The sales argumentation was mainly focussed on promoting the product. To make a real impression on customers, arguments were used like: we are market leader, we have the highest quality product, our products meet the highest standards, we deliver outstanding service and our production is the most efficient.

Apparently these arguments didn’t really impress. Somethimes it looked like buyers of the steel mills were hard to impress with anything. Most of the salesconversations ended up in an ordinary price negotiation. Even being market leader, claiming the best products didn't prove to have a lot of value.
As soon as the buyer mentioned an alternative source the value of the above sales arguments disappeared. At that moment there always was a more competitive price possible. Even in case the buyer maybe wasn’t telling the exact truth by mentioning a lower priced bid, from experience he knew there was always a reduction possible. The only real impressive argument as the one mentioning efficient production process. That was a real advantage. And if you were not the one being that efficient, then you were the one with a challenge; you had to do some homework.
No longer the best
When I started my assignment, we had the opportunity to make a different approach. So we started to ask ourselves questions. What would happen when there would be a different relationship possible between the customers and us? Imagine that we would be co-operating in stead of supplying? Imagine a situation in which we help a customer and additionally deliver products? What would such a situation mean to the relationship?
What would change when a customer would tell us about his worries and important issues? If we would be allowed to think about solutions for those issues, to participate in challenges, participate in reaching objectives, savings, process improvements. How would that change our relationship to the customer? 

This resulted in thinking about the real needs and requirements of customers? Was it just the product? So we started asking ourselves the question of what it was we were really good at?  As when you are good at something, you may be able to help customers.

At first it wasn’t easy and conversations didn’t go smooth. We were used to tell about ourselves and our product. And also our prospects were used to suppliers telling promotional sales stories. In the beginning there was some initial reserve. We didn’t ask for orders. Instead, we started asking what they really wanted. What the important issues were to them. What worried them? What would make them happy?

Eventually the old pattern was broken. As we stopped telling to be the best, stopped telling we had a bettre solution, a different relationship developed. We didn't only got in contact with the buyers and logistic planners, we spoke to production managers, product and process developers and logistic managers. We started to help them with more than only supplying product. We tried to help by smarter delivering, we joined them in saving energy costs and together we thought about developments to make progress. We were not the best supplier, we became an excellent choice.

And of course we did sell products. And our invoice still mentioned these products. Our sales negotiations were still intense. Doing business remains doing business. But it did result in growing volumes and better price levels than we were used to. We were not threatened any longer to be substituted by another supplier. We delivered more that we invoiced.

An excellent choice
Please be aware, that even when you’re selling products, a customer becomes happy by being served. Try to find out what makes him happy. Be genuinely interested in your customer. Get insight in what moves him and what worries him. That enables you to really help. And of course this has to be in line with what you are doing.

Make your help visible and you may also sell your products along with it. Don’t think about being the best. Make yourself an excellent choice.

Klaas Meekma.


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