The Best Salespeople Do What the Best Brands Do

best-brands

It’s not news that the role of salespeople and selling is changing.  In the past, salespeople were often the first step in a purchase process, and could significantly influence customer decision-making by controlling information about pricing, availability, competitive advantage, etc.

But in this era of nearly ubiquitous information, customers usually engage with salespeople after they’ve already researched their purchase and in some cases made their purchase decision. Digital commerce and disintermediation have caused many customers to question the importance of having a sales relationship at all. Moreover, companies are learning that true sales success isn’t indicated by the number or size of deals closed; it’s measured by getting and keeping the right customers.

Great salespeople succeed in this new business environment by doing what great brands do.  I laid out seven critical brand-building principles that great brands follow when I wrote my first book.  I’ve now found that these principles are as instrumental to restoring sales to its role as a valuable, sustainable, integral business function as they are to building great brands. 

  • Great brands start inside. Great salespeople sell inside first. Just as great brands start brand-building by cultivating a strong brand-led culture inside their organizations, great salespeople know the first step to sales success is actually one taken inside their own companies.  They contribute tremendous value to their organizations through their market insights and direct communication channel with customers.  So they help their companies with product development, marketing strategy, and customer service by serving as the Voice of the Customer internally.
  • Great brands avoid selling products. Great salespeople cultivate emotional connections with customers. In the book What Clients Love, Harry Beckwith explains that relatively few businesses actually sell products, services, or even expertise; most sell satisfaction.  “Progressive does not sell car insurance.  It sells comfort:  the comfort of knowing that if you have an accident, they will be at the scene, ready to write a check.”  In the same way, great salespeople don’t try to sell items or programs.  Instead, they appeal to and connect with their clients through emotion, brand story-telling, and thought-leadership.  In doing so they take the attention off price and features and appeal to the feelings customers value and the identities they want to experience and express.
  • Great brands ignore trends. Great salespeople don’t imitate, they innovate. Great brands don’t follow what everyone else is doing, nor do they wait to take their lead from customers.  In the same way, great salespeople offer their customers unique perspectives and often seek to push their thinking.  They present a differentiated sales experience by challenging customers’ status quo and teaching them something new and valuable.  They are the “Challengers” that Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson identified in their research into what distinguishes high sales performers.
  • Great brands don’t chase customers. Great salespeople attract the best customers for their company. Just as great brands know they’re not for everybody and so they seek to attract loyal and profitable customers through shared values and common interests, great salespeople are selective when engaging prospects.  Research by VoloMetrix, a sales productivity firm, shows that top sellers build deeper relationships with fewer customers rather than casting a wider net of shallower engagement.  Salespeople cultivate profitable, sustainable customer relationships if they’re savvy enough to focus on accounts that inherently represent a good fit with their company instead of trying to close as many deals as possible.
  • Great brands sweat the small stuff. Great salespeople create extraordinary experiences that embody their brand. Great salespeople know that they can strengthen their brand if they interpret and reinforce it and its differentiating value throughout the sales experience.  So they examine all the different touchpoints between the customer and the brand in the sales process and seek out opportunities to infuse the most influential ones with the brand’s key values and attributes.  They’re also aware of the power of social selling today and they carefully manage their social network activity to make informed, authentic, personal connections.
  • Great brands never have to “give back.” Great salespeople create real value for their customers. Great brands don’t engage in questionable business practices and then try to make up for them with charitable activities and social responsibility programs — they create a positive social impact in the way they design and run their businesses.  Likewise, great salespeople don’t engage with customers simply to make a sale — they look for ways to make their clients more successful.  Leadership consultant Scott Edinger observed, “Sales training programs rightly focus on finding clients’ ‘pain points.’ But great salespeople also know there’s value in pointing out successes waiting to be exploited.”   They know improving a customer’s condition may not always involve a sale and they do it nonetheless.
  • Great brands commit and stay committed. Great salespeople impart the unique value of their brand. Many salespeople feel pressure to gain new business or retain accounts at any cost, but the most effective ones do not give price concessions just to win deals.  They are convinced of the value their company offers and they skillfully help their customers understand it as well.  They employ the techniques put forth by the writers of the book Value Merchants, drawing on their knowledge of what clients value to convey their offer in a way that resonates with them.

Great salespeople implement all of these principles in a cohesive, coordinated approach that mirrors the brand-as-business management approach used by great brands to develop powerful and valuable brands.  Just as great brands cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with their customers, great salespeople cultivate a deep connection between their company  and their client’s business.  To borrow a term, the best salespeople are brand evangelists.

Guy Kawasaki first adopted the term “evangelism” into the business world by applying it to an innovative approach to sales, marketing, and management.  Evangelism, as he defined it, means “convincing people to believe in your product or ideas as much as you do” because evangelists believe that what they offer is truly helpful and valuable to others.

Over the years, many technology companies have developed the role of a technology evangelist or “chief evangelist.”  These people are charged with building up support for a given technology, and then establishing it as a standard in the given industry.  Like these technology evangelists, brand evangelists — that is, great salespeople — build up support within a market for a brand so that it becomes the brand leader in its category.

Importantly, brand evangelism is not another one of the customer-centric or customer-driven sales approaches that have become popular in recent years.  Customer-centric sales and most other sales improvement approaches are pursued for the sole purpose of increasing sales.  Brand evangelism is about engaging customers in a way that produces stronger and more valuable brands and sustaining long-term business success for their companies and their clients.

This is what great salespeople do.

Is Your Ad Agency Ripping You Off?

ad agency ripoffs

Charlatans, con artists, and thieves make their way into every industry…and the creative sector is by no means immune from this group.

Ad agencies, public relations firms, and marketing companies are entrusted to represent their clients’ financial best interests when negotiating advertising pricing. Although these entities may be employing their best negotiation skills, clients do not necessarily enjoy the full benefit of the result. This is due to a widespread lucrative practice of pocketing money that exchanges hands underneath the radar.

Agencies typically bill in one of three ways:

  1. Monthly fee – a flat rate retainer for ongoing services which is governed by a strategic plan
  2. Hourly rate – a method for clients that require occasional services
  3. Project rate – a negotiated rate for a special project or short-term campaign

The monthly retainer arrangement is the most common method for companies that prefer to outsource their strategic communication needs. This method benefits both parties. The client company knows how much to budget and it can deduct the expenses from taxes. The agency is able to maximize employee productivity through long-term scheduling and has a reliable monthly source of income.

During the ad buying process, it is not unusual for agencies to negotiate discounts or rebates from media companies on top of lower prices.

Here’s how it works. The agency negotiates several months of radio or television commercial time. The media ad rep gives the agency a discount, typically 15-20 percent.  The ad rep offers to provide two invoices: one that reflects the full price and another that reflects the discounted price. The agency passes on the full price invoice to its client for reimbursement and keeps the discounted invoice for accounting records.

In this scenario, rather than pass the discount on to the client, the agency quietly pockets the commission, which, for a multi-month contract, is a lucrative deal. Keep in mind, the agency bills the client a monthly retainer fee. Unless pocketing the discount goes against the terms of the agency’s contract with the client, pocketing the discount is perfectly legal.

Legal or not, this double-dipping is also perfectly immoral.

K2 Intelligence, a global corporate investigations firm headquartered in New York City, conducted a seven-month probe to look into agencies that are pocketing advertising discounts and rebates. According to the Wall Street Journal, the firm found widespread abuse of this unethical practice. This prompted J.P. Morgan Chase to launch an audit of its ad buyer. As some hidden deeds began to come to light, the agency’s work was suspended on Morgan’s $250 million ad-buying campaign.

A plethora of corporations are following J.P. Morgan’s lead as a result of K2 Intelligence’s findings. As a result, some companies are reviewing and renegotiating contracts to eliminate this practice.

Because of the sheer violation of trust in these situations, a number of contracts will not be renewed. And while K2 said that it was outside of its scope to determine whether laws were violated, it is a fair assumption that corporate counsel will be looking into that matter.

By reason of decency, an agency that receives a monthly retainer simply should not collect advertising discounts that could be passed on to the client. Doing so demonstrates poor character and amounts to a lack of gratitude for the privilege of being awarded the client’s business.

There is nothing wrong with an agency pocketing discounts if doing so is agreed to upfront and is documented in its contract with the client. In fact, some advertising agencies work purely on commission as their fee model.

So how does a business ensure the agency it selects does not engage in double dipping on costly long-term campaigns? Here are a few tips:

  1. While negotiating with an agency ask if they receive discounts from ad reps. If so, have a discussion of how that is factored into in the fees the agency will charge you. Will they pass 100 percent of the discount on to you? Will they work for a lower retainer fee in light of the volume of advertising you intend to buy?
  2. Asked to be introduced to the ad rep and to be cc’d on all email correspondences. Have negotiations take place at your facility in your presence. Although participating in these meetings will require some of your time, it will be worth doing so when engaging in a costly long-term campaign.
  3. Get it in writing. Be sure to confirm language about advertising discounts in your contract with the agency. Insist upon receiving original copies of all documentation from the ad rep.
  4. Ask your agency to work on a month-to-month arrangement. Assure your agent that you are in it for the long haul, but that you believe an agency should earn your business on merit, not through a long-term contract. Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations only offers month-to-month contracts. A job done well and done honestly will keep an agency retained for years. An agency that insists on a long-term contract probably has a good reason for doing so — a reason that is probably not in your best interest.

Advertising agencies, public relations firms, and marketing companies sit in a very crowded field. The field  has an abundance of characters wearing funny eyeglasses and putting on dramatic acts to win business. There are also plenty of honest people in the industry who will put your best interests before their own. Knowing the right questions to ask will help you sort out the good from the bad, and get you the best bang for your advertising buck.