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We’re all familiar with the concept of an “elevator speech.” A concise but effective sales monologue. A way of describing and positioning your product, service or idea that, while succinct, is compelling enough to consistently pique the interest of a listener. Your target audience. 

I recently spoke with a corporate marketing chief who is having trouble crafting his organization’s elevator elevator speechspeech. Regardless which marketing or sales employee takes a crack at the perfectly pithy pitch, they’ve been unable to make their software as a service (SaaS) value proposition short, clear and compelling. “Our story’s too complicated, too dense,” the marketers say. “Too many words, not enough impact,” the sales people agree.

The conversation got me thinking: What does it take to craft a great elevator speech?

And that got me thinking just how important it is to focus on the person with whom you’re sharing the elevator.


Fire Up Your Message
Picture yourself boarding an elevator at lobby level, about to make the ascent to your 11th floor office. Just before the doors close, a firefighter steps in.

She’s in full blaze-fighting gear. Heavy yellow rain coat. Black helmet with visor. Oxygen tank on her back. Axe in one hand.

What’s the first question that pops into your mind? Is it:

1) WHAT sort of customer-centric approach, experienced team, advanced training and leading-edge equipment do you folks operate with down there at the station?

2) HOW would you and your associates implement a world-class fire suppression and life saving initiative in a high-rise building such as this one?

3) WHY are you here? In other words, is there a fire in the building?


All Ears?

If you answered 3), you’re in the majority. The vast majority.

When placed in a situation where an elevator speech could be forthcoming, our ear for information tunes quickly to: Why should I care? Why should I care a firefighter is in my building? Why should I care this person next to me is in the SaaS business? Or plastics? Or distance learning?

My theory regarding elevator speeches — and effective marketing messages more generally — is this:

If you’re struggling to articulate a concise, compelling message,
maybe you’re answering the three key questions out of sequence.

You’re spending too much time and putting too much emphasis on:

WHAT does our organization do?, and/or

HOW do we do it?

Then maybe, just maybe, you’re getting around to WHY. WHY the person you’re speaking with (your customer or potential customer) should care?


Why, Oh Why

If you feel the need to take your organization’s elevator speech to another level, make sure you’re starting with WHY?

  • WHY: There’s this particular issue or challenge in the marketplace that matters greatly to certain people or businesses. It might even be something you, Mr. or Ms. Listener, care about.
  • WHAT: Here’s what my company does to address that issue and deliver the desired result.
  • HOW: And we do it in a way that is different, even unique, in these ways, for these reasons.

Answer three questions in the right sequence and there’s a good chance, in 100 words or less, you’ll have an elevator speech that’s considerably more compelling.

Then don’t be surprised if you find yourself with more people pressing the elevator “open door” button in order to ask for your business card.

Does your sales organization struggle to articulate a relevant, arresting elevator speech? Any secrets you want to share about getting more upside from an elevator speech? Welcome your thoughts and comments.

 

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If your organization hasn’t conducted a customer focus group lately, you should. There’s nothing like listening to customers for a couple of concerted hours to get your blood boiling and brain buzzing.

I was fortunate to attend four, two-hour focus groups recently. The company commissioning these groups provides a ubiquitous B-to-B service. Its customers range from Main Street to multinational.

To this company’s credit, the focus for these groups was content. Specifically, sales-support content. What some organizations would call their sales and marketing “collateral.”

This company’s marketers recognize that while the service is what customers buy, the communications and experiences they have via the sales force are a major factor in whether customers ultimately resonate to their brand.

Thus, if a company hopes to retain and build customer relationships, it had better understand customers’ needs, expectations and turn-offs when it comes to sales-support collateral.


Four Causes of “Collateral Damage”
After eight hours listening to business decision-makers talk about the way companies communicate with them via the sales force, I came away with this:

There are four things your customers probably dislike — maybe even detest — about your sales-support collateral. Eliminate these and you’ve taken important strides to having more, and more engaged and delighted, customers.

1. One size fits all
Does your organization claim to listen, to be a solution provider, but then send the same off-the-shelf capabilities brochure or collection of e-mail attachments as a follow-up to every new sales conversation?

If so, you’re failing to deliver on a brand promise. And believe it or not, customers recognize it.

They appreciate it when a sales rep actually does listen to their needs, then follows up with information responsive to those needs. By contrast, if your reps only pretend to listen — or listen but have only generic, one-size-fits-all content by which to follow up — your customers and prospects are in for a let-down.

If you’re not empowering front-line sellers with collateral system that enables some degree of on-the-fly customization — at least to a modular, if not granular, level — your customers would appreciate it if you did.

2. Selling past the close
A consistent theme from the focus groups: Why does this content look and sound so “salesy?” After all, I’m already a customer!

More than one customer pointed out that, having been a customer for years (decades in a few cases), they felt disconnected and underappreciated when every piece of sales collateral seemed to be written and designed for a newbie prospect vs. a long-standing, supposedly valued customer.

Darn them anyway. Customers have fairly sensitive antennae for detecting when they are being sold vs. informed.

Does your collateral system let you “modulate” tone and message depending on whether you’re communicating with a customer or a prospect? If not, maybe it should.

3. The impersonal touch
Customers are quick to notice when communications feel generic vs. personal.

They might have just spoken with a sales rep hours or even minutes prior. But if the follow-up communication reads or appears stiff, over-designed and templated — as though coming from a corporate marketing monolith vs. a flesh-and-blood person — any warm and fuzzy connection they might have been feeling can quickly diminish or disappear.

In our rush to consistently “brand” all sales-driven communications, care must be taken not to bleed them of a simple, personal touch.

4. Limited shelf life
Customers know the world of business is moving and changing continually. That means they are only so trusting that the information you provide — especially in printed and PDF formats — is current and accurate.

If you have a relatively long sales cycle, and you’re hoping customers will file your collateral away for future reference, don’t bank on it. There’s a good chance they’ll toss it or delete it, assuming things (e.g., product specs, service features, terms of use, etc.) will change soon.

 

A Fifth Element
As the company’s marketers listened to the focus groups, they found their own reason to hate the current collateral system: Inefficiency.

Here they were, spending low seven figures annually to create, print and distribute collateral, and customers were essentially saying: We’re just not that into your sales-support content.

It’s broad-brush, even generic. It doesn’t make me feel listened to and valued. Come to think of it, it’s probably out of date. And you always sound like you’re trying to sell me. What’s up with that?

Given all that negative feedback, it’s hard to imagine customers hanging on to your sales-support content, or investing decision-making confidence in it.

Sound like any sales collateral system you know?


Epilogue: Repairing the Collateral Damage
Did the company’s marketers despair over the harsh reviews?

Fortunately, no. They’re already well down the road toward implementing a Web-based content asset management and delivery application that will drive dramatic advances in how sales provides content to customers.

In a nutshell, this company is reinventing its traditional collateral system by bringing Web 2.0 thinking and technology to it. Making it possible for:

  • Content to be centralized, maintained and quickly, cost-effectively updated online vs. as printed documents or PDFs
  • Collateral assets to be custom-assembled, in collections unique to each customer’s needs and interests
  • Customers to have greater opportunity to self-serve for content relevant to them
  • Having visibility over whether, and how, customers consume engage with the content provided them by sales

If you’re pumping precious marketing dollars into an outmoded collateral system that customers probably hate, time to consider a change for the better.

After all, in this era when we’re all focused on engaging customers in dialogue, and providing them relevant content, a smart place to focus is where you already have dialogue underway: Between your sales force and your target audience.

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If you had to pick two groups inside a corporation that must work together effectively for the enterprise to realize its potential, which would they be?

Manufacturing and R&D? Finance and Legal? HR and Operations?

For my money, it’s Marketing and Sales. No inter-departmental alignment will have greater impact on awareness and affinity for a company’s brand. No tag-team will have quite the same impact on customer experience, for better or worse.

If you agree with that premise, then effective, ongoing communication and collaboration between Sales and Marketing should be a top priority for any company.

That’s why it’s surprising to see how wide the gulf sometimes gets between these two functions, especially in larger organizations.


Case Study: In Search of Corrupted Selling Time
Recently I met with one that has developed, in recent years, an emphasis to the point of obsession on stamping out “corrupted selling time.” Some time ago, leadership decided sales reps were spending too much time on what were deemed to be unproductive activities. 

In fact, someone decided the Marketing people who produce sales support tools and content, including the sales intranet, were among the most egregious of corrupted-time culprits.

Turns out they would sometimes ask sales reps to fill out online satisfaction surveys and need assessments. It also wasn’t unusual for them to involve selected reps on teams planning new sales support campaigns and tools.

At some point (probably during a short-term dip in revenue), it was determined that Sales was spending too much time collaborating with Marketing. So, leadership decided to curtail those interactions. Significantly. No more surveys. No more fact-finding interviews or sales focus groups.

The assumption being that time saved could be devoted to selling. Sales productivity would skyrocket. Results would register on the top line.


Unintended Consequences

But the pendulum swung too far. Sales reps, cut off from an outlet to express their needs for new tools and specific messages, grew frustrated. And, because sales people don’t take no for an answer, they began to create their own content. Presentations. Fliers. How-to instructions. Case studies.

In most cases, these materials went in front of customers and prospects with no creative or quality review by Marketing, much less by corporate Legal. Strategic positioning and selling messages, not to mention brand design guidelines, were left to the interpretation of individual reps, many of whom were not peak performers in their high school English or college art classes. 

Because every sales rep was creating his or her own communications, there were no synergies or efficiencies. Within one regional team of 16, each had his or her own collection of leave-behinds. Each had a different, homespun PowerPoint to describe the company’s core value proposition to its most important B-to-B audiences.

Meanwhile, Marketing continued to produce batches of new sales support materials and load them to the intranet. But they were dismayed to see, from Web metrics, that site use was declining.

Weren’t they providing effective, on-target communications tools? Maybe. Maybe not. It was difficult  to say, because they were operating in the dark. Essentially banned from asking Sales for input and validation, for fear those conversations would constitute — you guessed it — corrupted selling time.


Accidental Alignment
Then, almost by chance, two sales reps got invited to a Marketing team off-site. They’d benefited greatly from a new tool Marketing recently developed. They attended the meeting, primarily, to thank their Marketing colleagues.

What transpired, though, was a two-hour, freewheeling discussion over box lunches about what Sales truly needed in the way of new support tools. More customer-relevant content. More step-by-step how-to documents and videos. Shorter PowerPoints, able to be customized with customer-specific data points.

One rep repeatedly flipped open a three-ring binder to show pieces he’d put together. “But I’m not a creative person,” he said. “If you guys could just give us something like this, I know everyone would use it.”

The marketers mostly listened and scribbled notes. This was manna. Internal customers, expressing their needs and challenges, clearly and passionately. It had been so long since this sort of exchange had taken place. Too long. All the meeting participants acknowledged as much.

Moral of the Story

Sales needs uninterrupted time to sell. But Marketing also needs access to talk and co-create with Sales, so effective, high-quality support tools can be developed, reviewed by the right stakeholders, and shared efficiently across all sellers.

Rather than reduce corrupted selling time, constricting collaboration between Marketing and Sales can have the opposite effect. With no one to listen and respond to their needs, sales reps are forced to go off on their own to develop tools they need. In doing so, they become a user base of one for each tool being created.

By contrast, having Marketing and Sales collaborate in a focused way, on an ongoing basis, is a powerful strategy to reduce corrupted selling time. Because the tools Marketing creates are more likely to be those Sales truly needs and will value.

Which means Sales will spend less time crafting their own customer communications.

After all, they’ll be too busy selling.

_________

What about your organization? How do you strike the optimal balance between maximizing selling time and making sure Sales and Marketing are in productive, ongoing dialogue? If you have best practices to share, please do so with a comment. We’ll summarize them in a future post.

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carlin_dvd_frontThe late, great George Carlin was one of my favorite comedians. Carlin died last year at age 71. At least for me, no comic before or since has combined intelligence, facility with language and offbeat insight into humanity’s flaws and foibles with quite his flair.

According to Wikipedia, Carlin was a five-time Grammy winner, the first person to host Saturday Night Live, and is ranked second, behind Richard Pryor, on Comedy Central’s list of all-time list comic greats.

So what does Carlin have to do with creating and delivering communications to support your sales force?

Seven words.

 

Words to the Wise
Noteworthy in Carlin’s legacy is a routine he crafted around “Seven Dirty Words.” The routine became central to a U.S. Supreme Court case in which, by the slimmest of margins, the court upheld government’s right to regulate “indecent” material broadcast over public airwaves.

Now, to be clear, I don’t plan to restate Carlin’s seven words here. And using rough language routinely is not likely to get your sales force far.

But it strikes me there’s a string of seven words that, if able to be stated by more sales reps, would unlock fresh opportunities to be nimble and strategic in how they approach and communicate with customers.

These same seven words would allow marketing communicators to be more immediate, efficient and versatile in how they deliver content to sales — and ultimately to buyers and specifiers.

And, unlike Carlin’s seven, which you could argue are in fairly common use, these seven are considerably underutilized in day-to-day selling.

So, what are these seven magical sales-support words?

 

Let me show you on the Internet.

 
Acceptable variants would be  “Let me show you what I mean,” or “Let me show you how it works,” with the Web as an eventual destination implied.

If the conversation were happening by phone, the seven words might be, “Have you got Internet access right now?” If a rep bumped into someone in a hallway or lobby, the seven words might be: “Can we go back to your desk?”

So it’s not really about seven specific words, but more to the underlying point:

The Web, surprisingly, is still a relatively untapped resource in how most organizations deliver sales support.  


The Net-Net of Effective Sales Support

Think about how much time, effort and resources go into getting reps equipped to deliver an effective, consistent message and presentation. The printed brochures, sell sheets and collateral systems. The PowerPoints. The lugging along of projectors, samples, flip charts and display boards.

Now ask yourself how much more empowering it would be if a rep, after an initial conversation, could simply go to any Internet-connected computer and explore — in a way tailored to the particular client — a treasure trove of customer-facing content. Information. Case studies. Research. Visualization tools. Calculators. And more.

Is this an argument for keeping your corporate Web site in a perpetual state of brochureware?

No. It’s about making relevant, value-adding, even inspirational content readily accessible online — either within a special section of your Web site, or on a separate, dedicated microsite.

Do that, with the right content, and no joke: You’ll notice customers and prospects smiling. And you’ll see more sales reps, more often, laughing all the way to the bank.

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Straight up news: If your organization relies on an inside sales force to keep the pipeline full and leads nurtured, you’ll want to know about a new professional association just launched here in my home state of Minnesota.

The American Association of Inside Sales Professionals, born March 27, bills itself as the only organization of its kind “dedicated exclusively to advancing the profession of Inside Sales.”

Larry Reeves, COO of AA-ISP, estimates there are as many as 1 million professionals working in, or managing, inside sales organizations in the United States.  Reeves, along with AA-ISP founder and CEO Bob Perkins, hope to attract members by the thousands from that universe, including sales execs and managers, the inside reps themselves, plus sponsors interested in reaching inside sellers with products and services.

AA-ISP already owns an attractive, business-like Web presence, including a sprinkling of white papers, registration for an e-newsletter, and just-launched functionality for member forums.  Plans call for offering members leadership and career development, a jobs board, a speaker’s bureau, a marketplace for consulting services, plus educational conferences, Webinars and other networking and best-practices sharing opportunities.

AA-ISP also is developing online accreditation courses for inside sales pros. Among its early affiliations, it’s struck an alliance with The College of St. Catherine, a St. Paul liberal arts school which offers two bachelor’s degree programs in sales, one concentrated in business-to-business, the other healthcare.

Perkins, a sales executive at Merrill Corporation, was quoted in a news release announcing AA-ISP’s launch that not long ago “inside sales was perceived as annoying telemarketers or unsophisticated ‘order takers’ who smiled and dialed.

“Today,” he said, “inside sales is an integral part of many organizations’ overall sales strategy… It’s not unheard of for inside sales representatives to build and manage multi-million dollar accounts and close six-figure sales.”

The association’s first annual Leadership Summit is set for June 9-10 in Minneapolis.

For more info on any and all things inside sales and AA-ISP, call 800.604.7085, ext. 130, or e-mail info@aa-isp.org.

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It’s springtime, which means pothole repair season. Midwest road crews have shed plows and salt/sand spreaders and are now gearing staff and equipment for filling those car-crunching cracks and crevasses (at least in Minnesota, spelling and word choice intended).

All of which reminds me of an important way sales and marketing teams can collaborate powerfully. Especially at a time of year when many organizations are mid-plan, still well ahead of next year’s planning and budgeting cycle.

Start by asking yourself this question:

Are we serious about fixing potential potholes in our value proposition
and sales pipeline, or should we continue to patch them over?

My friend, Mike, asked himself this question a few years back. He’d just signed on as a product manager with a company that makes gizmos. Mike’s predecessor had convinced leadership (and they, in turn, convinced themselves) that their gizmo already enjoyed 80 percent market share. Based on that assumption, it was easy to justify why sales had been largely flat for a while.

Not a caretaker by nature, Mike sensed something was amiss. He struck a deal with the sales VP to enlist field reps as on-the-ground market researchers. Knowing the reps were motivated by money, Mike and the sales VP figured out a way to meaningfully reward the sellers for becoming temporary survey takers.

Mike developed a simple questionnaire, then asked the reps to pay a visit or make a call to their wholesaler customers. The survey asked two questions:

  • How many gizmos did you buy last year?
  • Who did you buy them from?

In other words, a fairly painless piece of research for reps and customers alike. But fairly painful, it turned out, for the company’s cozy assumptions. As results were tabulated, that solid 80 percent market share crumbled, pothole like, to about 50.

Then Mike developed a second, more detailed survey. This one asked questions about what distributors liked, and didn’t, about gizmos and the manufacturers that produce, sell and deliver them.

When Sales returned with those results, Mike was awash in customer insight and competitive intelligence. Enough to approach manufacturing and logistics for some suggested product and delivery tweaks. Enough to craft a more aggressive, differentiating message and marketing plan for the coming year.

It wasn’t long into that new year before Mike’s product-line revenues were clipping along at a 33 percent higher rate.

The takeaway: A product marketer and his sales colleagues decided to look more closely at the road they were travelling. They dared to wonder whether they might find potholes. And, upon finding some big ones, they decided to engineer a fix, instead of slapping on another patch.

Specifically, they recognized that:

  • Flat revenue means a plateau — but not necessarily a lofty one.
  • Any time sales and marketing can collaborate on knowing customers and the market better, that’s a great investment of time and effort.
  • It pays for marketers who inherit product lines and distribution channels to question assumptions (trust, but verify).

Got potholes in your pipeline? Cracks in the market position and brand perception you believe you enjoy?

If so, they might not be visible from headquarters. But you could very well spot them, and be able to repair them, by going on the road to talk with customers.

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Hillel Cooperman knows a thing or two about software. After all, he formerly directed the Windows user interface team at Microsoft.

Hillel Cooperman sees the distinctions between content and software disappearing ... fast.

Hillel Cooperman sees the distinctions between content and software disappearing ... fast.

Pause for a moment and try to picture a job that’s even roughly analogous in terms of day-to-day impact on modern-day multitudes. Home page gatekeeper at Google? Chief looker-at-the radar for the National Weather Service? Head clock winder at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England?

But we digress.

During last month’s Custom Content Conference in Miami, Cooperman spoke about what he sees as the next generation of online brand advertising: the Branded Software Experience.

Cooperman’s main point: software and content are becoming so intertwined, there’s no longer much point in drawing any distinction.

“The line between content and software is no longer relevant,” he said. “Branded software is already the new branded content. Brands will be in the software business.”

It’s worth noting that Cooperman has founded a company, Jackson Fish Market, which, as described on its Web site, “makes beautiful consumer software for the Web.”  But his remarks at the CCC were more than self-serving. They were spot on. And the point he was making extends well beyond consumers.

Indeed, a broader takeaway to be drawn from Cooperman’s comments is this: Content is more than articles. More than Web copy. More than white papers.

Content is about so much more than words.

For the record, my working definition of content (one that’s served fairly well for a few years now) is this:

Value-adding information, interactions and experiences
by which brands engage and build affinity
with the audiences vital to their business success.

Picture content as encompassing — but also going well beyond — words and articles, and suddenly all sorts of possibilities emerge for adding value and sparking engagement. 

Cooperman cited as a prime example Nike+. If you haven’t seen or heard of it, Nike+ is, well, I’m not sure there’s a label for it. Yet. Let’s call it a product-software-lifestyle mashup developed expressly for a target audience. In this case, runners.

Here’s another, perhaps less sexy, but no less powerful example of content and software converging. A few years back, the firm where I work, Hanley Wood Marketing, had as a client a heavy-equipment manufacturer. This client had done extensive research on how its machines compared with competitors’ on more than 40 performance factors of relevance to buyers and end users.

Unfortunately, that data sat in a three-ring binder at headquarters. Then, one day, the client asked us if there were a way to get the data into the hands of dealers.  There was. We developed a piece of custom software — a competitive-sell configurator — that empowered dealers to instantly generate detailed, side-by-side performance comparisons among competing front-end loaders, giving them a powerful new way to engage potential buyers in strategic sales conversations.

It’s these sorts of tools, not only white papers and webinars, that are defining the edge of innovation in branded content. Widgets. Generators, Configurators. Calculators that let customers, prospects or stakeholders accomplish real work, or real lifestyle fulfillment.

Where in your business is there a junction where value-adding content and software can powerfully converge? On your Web site? An in-store kiosk? In the hands of the sales force? On your employee intranet?

When you find it, and make it happen, stand back: That explosion you’re about to hear is a value-adding branded experience.

Got a favorite example of a content-software convergence that’s driving your business? Your comments and case examples are welcomed.

Photo credit: Custom Publishing Council

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