Nearly 15 years ago, I was working for an Enterprise Software company as an Account Manager. My job was to break into new accounts that had never used our software before. One of my earliest accounts was a large manufacturer. They were looking for a product like ours and went through a formal Request For Proposal (RFP) process. Five companies were given the opportunity to respond to the RFP. The other four companies were our four largest competitors. It was clear to me that this was going to be a very hard fought process, and that we’d have to put our best foot forward to have a chance.
My team worked very hard to win this account. We always had answers to their questions within 24 hours. We addressed all their issues, and even brought up additional items for them to think about that they might not have considered. After four months, we were told that we were a finalist, along with one other vendor. And then, ultimately, we were told that we were selected as the winner of the RFP. It was a great victory after nearly seven months of very hard work!
So, imagine my surprise when I was sitting in the office of my customer a few weeks after all the contracts had been signed. I had asked him what it was about our product that differentiated us from the competition. I assumed that we had a better feature or some performance benefit that got us over the top. Instead, he said the following:
Any of the products we evaluated could have done the job. It was almost solely a matter of who we liked better and we felt would be the best long term partner.
Hearing that feedback was the defining moment in my career! I started my professional life as a software developer, and I always thought that the product was the most important thing. This conversation with my customer was one of several that have shaped my view of sales. And it greatly shapes my opinion now when I talk with local publishers about the challenges of digital advertising.
When I ask publishers what their value proposition is, and what they tell prospective customers regarding ads on their site, I’ll get comments about unique visitors, their awesome reports and the benefit of being community-based. These are all important values, but it dawned on me that all their competitors are saying exactly the same things. It’s highly likely that the local businesses feel any of the options for advertising are as good as any other.
So, what should you be saying to potential customers? It’s more about what you should be asking:
- Ultimately, what is your goal by doing this program with us? What would you consider a success?
- What else have you tried – what is working and what is not?
- What one thing could we do for you that would be most valuable?
The vendor that acts more like a partner in success has a better chance of winning the business than somebody spitting out metrics and soft tangible benefits. A side benefit by asking these questions is you may learn that your market’s #1 need is something you could offer, but don’t today. That’s data nearly as valuable as making a sale!
Here’s the other key point – if you win the business but don’t take interest in the customer’s actual needs, that’s a transactional sale that likely won’t last very long. If you want a customer for life, listen well and provide great service. We wound up working with that manufacturer for many years, and generated far more revenue with subsequent business than what we earned winning that first RFP.