Selling Value

Selling Value

For all of us who are selling value more than price, it is always discouraging to hear: “Look, it’s just too expensive for me …” before you even get started with the conversation.  And we’re often selling products and services that are highly technical, customizable, innovative … the very kinds of products that the naive might consider immune to price pressure.  So that’s why this little story about a zipper manufacturer in Slate magazine caught my eye.

Apparently YKK, a Japanese zipper manufacturer has become the de facto standard, specified by fashion designers aYKK zippercross the world.  The reason? … YKK zippers are known for their dependability.  They don’t break.  So even though there are hundreds of competitors, many priced lower, many reputable fashion designers don’t want to take the chance that a 32-cent zipper might pop open and spoil the brand experience for a $200 pair of pants.  A couple of quotes from the article:

“YKK, for decades now, has established itself as old reliable.”

“A zipper will never make a garment,” says [clothing designer, Trina] Turk. “But it can break a garment.”

“The last thing we want to do is go with a competitor to save eight or nine cents per zipper and then have those zippers pop …”

Now perhaps the folks at YKK didn’t intentionally set out to create a value position. Perhaps they just had the discipline to stick to their high quality standards, their efforts to reduce costs and their resistance to discounting … for decades.  But it does demonstrate yet again that even products that might seem to be commodities can be differentiated and avoid the pressure for price-matching.  The key is that their customers believe that there is a difference … and that the difference matters.

How To

We can see from this article some of the steps that are required to accomplish this:

  • First, you must have a real competitive advantage, something that matters to your customer and actually reduces their costs or reduces their risk or improves their ability to sell products.
  • Second, you need to be able to tell the story of why and how your advantage helps people.
  • Third, your customers must see the value.

Now for most of us, customers don’t already see the value, so our sales people must have some proof, some documentation that proves the advantage in actual practice.  That means we have to do a study that will generate proof.  Lots of manufacturers have the first and second points under control.  But very few dare to attempt the third.  So they are left with talking about a theoretical advantage or a potential advantage, and unable to say, “We’ve tested this and it works … and our clients will tell you it works … 7 times out of 10.”

Next Steps

If you want learn to sell a value proposition more convincingly and avoid the discounting trap, then here are some things you can do.  First, you can join us for an upcoming Defending Price workshop.  Second, you can learn more about this important topic from the excellent book and article linked below.   Third, begin to ask your team, “What proof do we have that our products deliver incremental value to our customers?   How could we get more proof?”  And as always, don’t hesitate to call if you’d like to ask questions …

Good selling,


  1. The Value Merchants, a book by J. Anderson, N. Kumar, J. Narus, Harvard Business School Press, 2007.
  2. Customer Value Propositions in Business Markets, an article by J. Anderson, J.Narus, W. van Rossum, Harvard Business Review, March 2006


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Sales + HR Management Accelerate Results

Sales + HR Discussion
If you’re trying to challenge your company to achieve greater business results, then you need all the help you can get.  For example, you may be trying to open a new market, introduce a new technology, turn around a struggling team, or successfully merge two organizations.  For these, you need all the help you can get.  And the help you will need is not just technical help, or financial help or legal help.  You’ll need help with relationships and systems as well.  You will need help establishing trust, building a positive culture, managing disagreements, and negotiating win-win solutions to problems, just to name a few.  And perhaps most importantly, you’ll need help setting up systems and processes that reinforce the culture you are trying to create.

If you’ve never had a good human resources manager to help you build your sales & marketing team, you have missed something special.  It is surprisingly easy to let emotions cloud your objectivity and inhibit your ability to see what is obvious to a third party.  The value of having a coach who is a little removed from the day-to-day frustrations, and yet is expert in understanding human relationships in the workplace just can’t be overstated.  Yet many executives struggle on alone.

I had such excellent HR help in my first sales management position that I took it for granted that everyone had these kinds of resources.  I was working for a large pharmaceutical firm then, but I found later that most companies can’t afford strong HR or training departments.  Even in large companies, Sales and HR management can drift apart.  And I learned that many CEOs have never seen HR working well; so they don’t understand the value and wait until serious problems evolve before bringing in help.

My HR colleagues tell me that they see salespeople and sales managers get in trouble in a couple of predictable ways:

  • Salespeople tend to get in trouble for discipline reasons: not enough calls, lack of reporting, and yes, not enough sales.
  • And sales managers get in trouble when too many of their people lose the edge, or don’t have it to begin with, either because management skills are weak or because hiring and training skills need help.

These observations suggest that every company needs something more than a set of evaluation forms and a set of unwritten rules about how managers can get results.  We can see that the work of HR managers and the work of sales managers need to come together into one focused program.  What my company and your company needs is a carefully constructed performance management process.

It all starts with the work: asking ourselves what results we want and what tasks are required in our specific situation to get those results in a predictable way.  We ask what steps a prospective customer will go through as they decide to purchase a product.  The answers define the sales process.  And we identify the points where a salesperson must be engaged in that process, and what skills are required at those points.  You might say that we develop a sales strategy.

Once we are clear about the sales tasks, we can identify the skills, knowledge and abilities needed and begin to develop a job description, hiring profile and interview guides.  We want to hire not just experienced sales people, but people who have been successful using the kinds of tactics that are required in our specific situation.  Some companies need sales people who are good at cold-calling, others need people who are diligent with lead follow up, and others need those who can hunt down  the one big deal that makes the year.  Understanding these sales tasks can also be used to develop performance evaluation documents that really help managers and employees communicate about the work in progress and the skill areas where coaching is needed.

One of the most powerful tools in the management kit is the bonus plan.  And yet this tool often gets so little attention that it becomes more a source of irritation than motivation.  It can be tricky to figure out how to structure a compensation plan so that it reinforces your objectives, doesn’t break the bank and still is reasonably fair, so this is an area where professional help and deep experience is extremely valuable.

We think the interaction between sales managers and human resource managers is so important that we’ve created a new training program called “Sales + HR Management Accelerate Results” (click for more info) to help executives who are trying to improve the effectiveness of their teams.  We urge you to take a critical look at your HR systems and your sales process, especially if you have had only a little support in this area.  And if you find you need help to make improvements, we’d love to help.


Technical Sales Consultants, LLC

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Just Do Something!

salesmoving1.jpgHas anyone asked you the hard question yet?  In tough times, we are often asked, “What are we doing about it?”  Sales Managers especially will be asked this as soon as revenues start to slip below forecast.  My advice is this: have an answer.

The expectation behind the question is that you already have been thinking and planning and that you have some ideas even in the face of unforeseen, unprecedented difficulties.  If the person asking is your boss, it means that your boss’s boss and all those up the chain to the board of directors are also asking (or soon will be asking).

So don’t let the uncertainty overwhelm you.  Instead sit down with pencil and paper, perhaps with a close circle of advisors, and generate an idea list.  Brainstorm freely, without critique, rejecting no idea at this stage.    The world has changed, so take the opportunity to think outside the box.

Once you have a list, then spend some time thinking and evaluating (but don’t get stuck there).  First make sure your ideas are not harmful.  Resist the urge to slash prices.  Instead, make small investments with the resources you have.  For example, run a contest with prizes, enlist others in the organization in part-time sales work or networking, give something away, launch a new educational seminar program, implement a new customer satisfaction survey, implement training or a coaching program.  Look for things that bring more people into contact with more customers, more frequently.  Look for things that improve skills or productivity.   Everyone in the organization wants to help, so enlist them.  Everyone is willing to work harder and longer in tough times if they understand the purpose and how it will help.

Don’t forget to look for things to stop doing; this is great time to get rid of administrative work that is benefiting too few stakeholders. Move meetings into early morning or weekends or cancel them altogether.

As you begin to make choices, expect that you will try and discard many ideas to stimulate sales in the coming months, so don’t get hung up looking for a perfect solution.  Instead, look for things you can try quickly, measure easily and abandon quickly if they aren’t producing results.  This is a great time to have a bias for action.  If you don’t have that bias naturally, then call on your people who do.  You know … the ones who never seem to analyze anything.  Try to have a new pilot project ready to implement with a different group of people every month.

And when you go to your management meetings, be prepared to present the ideas you’ve tried, how they worked or didn’t, what you learned and what new things are coming next.  Avoid at all costs saying, “Well, we’ve tried everything and we’re running out of ideas.”   That’s the signal that the company needs someone who has more ideas that you do.

You will likely find that some of your programs didn’t do what you expected, but they had other good results that you didn’t foresee.  Publicize those!  Improving morale is critically important in tough times.  On the other hand, you may just find something that works, something that everyone should be doing.  If so, quickly turn that pilot program into a training and implementation program.  Make celebrities out of the pilot team and get them to help everyone else get rolling.  You’ll also find that some people get results with a new program and some don’t.  Some are reluctant to try and some are unable to adapt to a new environment.  Identifying performance problems quickly is another valuable outcome in a challenging time.

This can be an exciting time if you manage it well.  Tough times have the power to transform people and revive sluggish organizations.  So don’t just stand there … do something!

Good selling,

Technical Sales Consultants, LLC

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Profiting from Tough Times

Everyone seems to be fascinated by the economy and how to manage a business when all the predictions seem dismal. Depending on your industry this may be a time when you find yourself really scrambling to keep up, or you could find yourself with time on your hands as things just slow down.

It’s important to spend your time doing productive things and not just in frantic activity. Sometimes the best outcome of tough times is that you are primed and ready when things start to turn around. Two areas worth your investment are process improvement and skills improvement. Both will pay dividend in the near- and long-term.

Remember that when funding is tight, your lead generation vehicles will generate fewer productive leads, because fewer people have the funding and permissions they need. Given that situation, this is a good time to look at your lead management process and ask how you can improve it. How can you filter out the curious and focus on the funded? Could you provide a downloadable presentation or white paper for the curious and ask them to self-qualify?

Another good use of your time is skills improvement or “sharpening the saw”, as Stephen Covey would say. Invest some time in training to sharpen your team’s questioning and listening skills. Those skills will help you to understand the predicaments that your customers are in and give them both good advice and good solutions. Improving the skills of your sales team to generate more business is a lot less costly than expanding the team.

If you don’t have an internal training team, then hire a trainer for a sales process or sales skills workshop.  I’d love to help you with it or to recommend others.  And if you can’t afford a trainer then, at least buy everyone a book and go through it together. There are some sales book suggestions at this link. Be sure to offer it in both paper and audio formats; look for video as well. Hold regular discussion sessions and apply the lessons to your business. Ask someone to formulate discussion questions from the book. Assign someone else to prepare presentation slides with graphic illustrations. Ask people to try out the new ideas and report back. Create a game or a contest.  Different people learn differently, so try to engage all the senses.

Tough times come to everyone sooner or later. When they do come, invest the time wisely to keep your team motivated and to learn the lessons that will help you be at the head of the pack when recovery begins.

Good Selling,


Technical Sales Consultants, LLC

Posted in listening, management, process, sales, sales incentives, sales training, technical sales, toughtimes | Leave a comment

The Power of A Report

Focus on TargetA great question to ask a sales managers is “What do you ask your people to report to you?”   The answer reveals a great deal about what is important in that organization and how it is being communicated from top to bottom … and from the bottom up. 

But sometimes when I ask, I hear a troubling answer.  It usually starts with the words, “Well, we used to …” followed by some rationale for why the reporting process is no longer needed.  It may be that the information is available in a new CRM system, or that someone else runs reports for everyone … or that management just lost interest.  Somehow the focus and the accountability are lost.  The motivational power of a team bringing results to the table and saying “here’s what I’ve accomplished” is no longer available.

And sometimes I hear the philosophy of “I don’t need reports; all I need are the results.”  There are situations where that approach works well, but they are few.   For the more complex technology sale, the sales cycle is long enough that we need some early indicator of how things are going, so that we can adjust our tactics before it is too late.

We ask for reports not only for the information but also for the focus they provide.  If you want better focus and a clearer connection of effort to results, then try this:

  • Choose one important activity and ask your team to report on this for the coming three months.  Choose carefully, because you are making this one thing a top priority for your team.  Perhaps it will be proposals written, demonstrations conducted or new product seminars presented.  Whatever it is,
  • Ask for the report weekly in an informal, convenient way. 
  • Respond to each person when they report their results. 
  • Send out a ranked list of the top producers each week, leaving the bottom performers off.   
  • For those who are having trouble, find out why and offer to provide help. 
  • Ask those who excel to share their approaches with everyone else, rewarding them with recognition. 
  • If you are a manager of managers, then ask each of your reports to summarize the information coming from their team. 
  • And if you are fortunate enough to have a working CRM system, you can do all this more easily “in the system”.

You’ll learn a lot with this simple exercise.  You’ll see how most people respond to clear direction … and also how some people resist any sort of change.  You may start to discover which of your people have been getting good results through effective action … and which ones are just lucky. 
After 3 to 6 months, you’ll be convinced of the value of the simple report, but you’ll probably want to change the focus for a while.  That’s okay … some organizations declare a new focus each quarter.  You’ll learn new lessons each time, and take progressive steps to toward making yours a team of top performers.  I’ve seen it work many times and it can work for you, too.
If you could use some help in setting this up then, just give us a call.

Good Selling,

Technical Sales Consultants, LLC

Posted in advice, CRM, management, sales, sales process | Leave a comment

Selling Pencils – Selling Technology

PencilsWhat does selling pencils have to do with selling technology? Quite a lot, if you’d like to double or triple the effectiveness of your sales force!

Recently I was leading a sales training session for a life science company and used the time-worn example of selling pencils to explain the advantages of asking questions and focusing on benefits rather than features. You know the drill: having an eraser is a feature; being able to revise on-the-fly saves me time and paper. And if flexibility is a feature, then a benefit is being able to sketch in a diagram or illustration as I write, “unleashing my natural creativity”. We have to ask questions and listen to the answers to know which of these things are important to specific person.

As I made these points, I noticed that the people in the group began to grin and nudge each other, snaking sidelong glances toward one particular person in the room. “Alright,” I said, giving up on holding their attention, “let me in on the joke.” The woman who was the center of attention spoke up and admitted sheepishly, “

“It’s just that I’’m a little obsessive about using a particular pencil and everyone kids me about it. I like the ones that have a natural finish because they don’’t slip through my fingers when my hands get sweaty!””

She made my point for me that day! Who would have guessed that particular reason for preferring a particular writing tool? The only way to uncover that kind of “customer need” would be to ask some good customer-focused questions and listen carefully to the answers.

If you were interviewing each of your current sales people for a new position, and asked them to sell you a pencil, how many would ask questions to uncover your needs and then present on the benefits relevant to your needs?  Salespeople with technical products often have difficulty with this. We don’t want to seem naïve, so we don’’t want to ask questions that might be too simple. And our customers also don’’t want to admit it when they don’’t know much about a particular topic.

So while we talk technical terms with great assurance, assuming they know everything we do, they smile and nod and begin to think about something else. There is so much to know about these products and so much to know about how people use them that it is hard to resist the urge to unload a lot of that hard-earned knowledge on our audiences. But we’’ll never really know what drives buying decisions until we learn to ask … and to listen carefully to the answers. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” [] and it still is true.

Here’s an exercise for your next sales conference call:

  • Make a list of several top customers and some that have recently started buying from you.

  • In advance, ask the salesperson responsible for each one to find answers to these questions:

Why do they use the product? How exactly do they use it? Where does it fit in their process? What do they like most about it? What do they like least? How does it compare to competitors or alternatives?

  • Make a list of the answers share it with the group.

  • Don’’t accept top-of-the-head answers (like “they use ours because they get good service from me” or “we have the best price”); press for the more detailed reasons.

  • Finally, assign the group to work up a list of good questions that will help to bring out this kind of information from the customers you haven’t yet landed. Miller and Heiman’s book The New Conceptual Selling has a great section on “Learning to Listen” with guides for developing questions.

From this exercise, you can train your sales people to present benefits to doing business with your company that really matter to the people you are pursuing. And the sales results will improve.

A professional never stops practicing the basics.If you’’d like some help making this a productive and fun exercise at your next sales meeting, please contact us.

Good Selling,


Posted in benefits, life science, listening, management, sales, sales process, sales training, technical sales | Leave a comment

What Customers Really Want

In April, I had a chance to preview a recent study conducted by BioInformatics, LLC, a market research firm in Arlington, Virginia. The study was called, “Improving Sales Rep Performance … Life Scientists’ Perspectives”. I was intrigued with the findings as they relate to sales force effectiveness in the life science industry and you may be as well. The analysts gathered data from researchers in the life sciences about their perceptions of effective sales people and what they wanted from them. These researchers gave very clear responses about what they want from sales people, which we can use in hiring, training and marketing program design.

What Customers Want

  1. demonstrations
  2. training
  3. troubleshooting
  4. advice
  5. individual pricing

What these customers want is pretty straightforward: they want demonstrations, training, troubleshooting, advice, and individualized pricing. So what’s a sales person to do about this when he or she needs to grow existing business, launch new products and fight off the competition?

Finding Mutual Benefit

Often a good solution is to look for mutual benefit … providing what customers want will give sales people access and enable them to do the other work to help increase sales of the full portfolio. Below are some specific suggestions:

  • give a demonstration or seminar showcasing a new technique, and along with it showcase established products. Use “giveaway reminders” for older products that are difficult to include in technical conversations.
  • troubleshoot customers’ problems; bring in an expert by phone or in person if needed. While you are engaged, asked questions about the direction of their research, other products they are using, problems they have encountered.
  • connect with your technical service department to find out what your customers are calling about and the advice that is being given. Help to spread the word among your contacts.
  • give excellent advice: understand the work your customers are doing and the problems they have; understand all the available products and services and be able to fit the best solution to each person’s specific need.
  • use pricing discussions to find out how much customers buy in various categories and why they have chosen a particular approach. Find out what competitors are established in the lab. Ask for information and uncover opportunity during the process.
  • assign someone other than a sales person to do the quotation paperwork, and have the sales person focus on handling the customer interface. Don’t send customers to a website or a customer service agent for pricing; keep the salesperson in the chain of communication.

The Role of Managers

How can managers help sales people stay on the path of meeting these customer needs? First, we need to make sure we hire the kind of people who can be trained to give demonstrations, troubleshoot problems, and give valuable advice on product selection. Next, we can use our creativity to find ways to develop demonstrations and training seminars for products. Putting together a kit with all the needed materials goes a long way toward helping people implement. Next, we need to train people to understand both the technical background and the communication skills needed to deliver the information. Train them also on the connections between new and existing products; show them how it all fits together.

And as you send them out to implement, don’t forget to ask everyone to report regularly on their success. If each sales person reports to their manager, and then each manager summarizes and reports in turn to their director at the end of every week, it becomes very clear to everyone what the organization wants to see. Out of this process will come the success stories that provide fine-tuning to the strategy and encouragement to those who are struggling.

Zig Ziglar is famous for saying that the more you give people what they really want, the more they will give you what you really want. In order to give customers what they really want, we need to develop a plan, train the people and then implement the plan!

If we can help with you with this in your organization, just let us know.

good selling,

Technical Sales Consultants LLC

© 2007 Technical Sales Consultants, LLC

Posted in lifescience, research, sales, sales process, sales training, technical sales | Leave a comment

Life Science Sales: A Call to Action

A recent study of sales force perceptions by GS Discovery has some findings that certainly caught my interest. And I think they will interest more than a few of you in the Life Science Industry. This study may be the first of its kind for this industry

The study highlights some findings which deserve immediate attention from sales and marketing executives. More than that, the findings represent a “call to action” for executives in the life science industry. Because I believe these factors will be important to your business, I want to take a moment to share my perspective on the findings.

There are some “red flags” in the study that show up both in customer relationships and in internal management practices:

Red Flags

  1. Sales people don’t feel they get enough time with their customers.
  2. Competition is increasing and sales people want more competitive product information.
  3. Credibility with customers is declining.
  4. Mergers and major reorganizations are disrupting customer relationships.
  5. Most sales people aren’t convinced that they are working for the best company, and even though satisfaction is quite high, they don’t expect to stay very long.
  6. Almost half the respondents feel their compensation is either not fair or not competitive

The first four points are primarily customer relationship problems. All raise red flags for the future of life science companies’ relationships with their customers. In fact, the first one, “decreasing time with customers” kills companies. And this threat follows directly from sales people earning less credibility with customers, increasing focus on competition, and increasing turnover of sales people from reorganization. As the industry becomes more competitive and companies are more focused on their own overstuffed product lines, sales people begin to look less like trusted consultants and more like the path to a discount. This decline in credibility has occurred in many industries, and it is a one-way street. This is the first call to action: let’s hit the brakes and steer in the other direction.

Which other direction? Remember Macy’s surprising and most effective sales tool in “Miracle on 34th Street”? It was as simple as knowing the market and being willing to recommend whatever the customer needed … even a competitor’s product if yours couldn’t meet the need. To get more time with customers, we must equip sales people to bring more value to their relationships. First, we hire people who have solid experience working in labs, just like their customers do, and then train them to understand the choices and trade-offs their customers have to make, as well as how their own products fit. Just reciting features and benefits isn’t enough. We make sure sales people are consultants and not just order-takers. We try not damage their credibility by asking them to repeatedly pull business forward with favors and discounts to make the quarterly goals.

The Call to Action

  • Hire people with solid experience at the lab bench to sell technical products.
  • Train them to understand the customer’s perspective and how their own products fit.
  • Make sure they are consultants and not just “order takers”.
  • Teach them to sell, but to do so ethically and credibly.
  • Make it worth their while to stay for the long term; keep your product innovation, training and compensation at the leading edge of your industry.

That said, they still have to sell, and consulting isn’t the same as selling. We need to train people to give good advice, but then press for specific action, to leverage relationships and cover all the buying influences. It’s not easy to do both, but it’s not impossible. That’s what the best sales people have always done.

The second eye-opener in this study is the reminder that good sales people have lots of options and many sources of information in the life science industry. They are constantly looking at the industry and making career choices based on who has the best products, the best compensation, or the best training for the future, to name just a few factors. They listen not just to their management but to recruiters, other sales people and their customers. It is easier to lose good people than we might think, especially to a sharp sales manager who is intent on building a strong team. Reorganization makes our people more vulnerable to competitive recruiting; so do flawed compensation plans and overly ambitious revenue goals. The resulting job-hopping by cynical sales people compounds the credibility problem with customers and erodes confidence in the entire industry.

The best sales managers learn to recruit the best people, to train them well and continually work to make them want to stay for the long haul. They create loyalty by developing people, coaching and teaching business skills that are valuable. They use their influence with management to keep innovation flowing to the product line and to keep training and sales compensation at the leading edge.

While we see red flags in these study results, we also have answers and antidotes to address them. We have resources in training groups, research departments, human resource groups and a vast array of agency and consulting options. This study will make a great topic at an upcoming strategic planning meeting. Get your team started assessing the situation and generating ideas right away. Let me know how we can help you.

Good Selling,

Technical Sales Consultants, LLC

Reference: (see RepReview Life ScienceSM: The Life Science Supply Marketplace from a Sales Representative Perspective, December 2006,

Note: While I’m not affiliated with GS Discovery, I do have a friend there and I made some pre-publication comments on the study, so you’ll see me quoted in the press release. The study highlights are available for download at the agency’s website,; for a free copy of the full study, contact Mark Walker at GS.

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