Are you selling products or providing solutions to your clients? This seems like a simple question, yet it is asked over and over again. Logic in our industry would lead us to believe that the products are the solutions for our clients—but that’s not really true. For example, your client is launching a new product at a large trade show and would like to reach every possible prospect with their message. Naturally we reach into our proverbial “bag of tricks” and pull out the perfect promotional product. Often times, falling back on the comfort zone of our product knowledge and price, we present that quick solution to make an immediate sale.
Now this may work 50 percent of the time and you can walk away with a decent sale. The client has a handout, you and the supplier have a sale and everyone is happy. You have just completed the standard transactional sale with ease and you are ready to move on to the next contact.
The problem in this scenario is there is no long-term fix, just another Band-Aid that solves a short-term need. Have you ever asked the client what he or she is really trying to do from a branding and positioning strategy? If our industry is going to survive we must move from commodity order takers to promotional consultants. When selling solutions, and not just products, we increase our value to the client—and not just for the short-term. This is what I call outcome selling.
Let me break down the process of outcome selling and explain why these steps give me results:
- Probe to determine your customer’s needs. In order to get to the root of the client’s needs you must ask the questions that will help you build lasting solutions. By understating their desires you will know how to manage their expectations. Ask questions that give you the ammunition to build a program. For example: How does this new product or service affect the company in terms of growth, profit and brand position? Make sure you are talking to the economic buyer—the person who is responsible for the outcome and has the authority to buy.
- Ask the right questions. Ask questions that will reveal your client’s pain points and lead to an outcome statement or position. At this point, you need to ask about the budget available in order for you to accomplish this project. Without a defined amount, you are just working in a vacuum. Avoid accepting this answer from your client, “Tell me what it costs and I’ll tell you if I can afford it.” This will not help you manage your client’s expectations. Here’s a good way to ask about the budget: What can you invest in this project immediately and over the next 12 months?
- Offer a campaign or continuity program to deliver the outcome. First, be sure you are developing a plan or campaign that will consistently promote and support the expected outcome. Be careful not to build a program that is full of many deliverables but has no effect on the outcome. Try to build in some form of measurement to justify and confirm the results. Increased sales are often a desired outcome from the client but can backfire when the results are heavily dependent on sales efforts. Remember, you are not hired to sell for your clients. You must learn their expectations first so you and the client are both on the same page. For example: The client is promoting a new product and has a defined timeline by which the product must get into the marketplace. Your solution might be to develop several roll-outs during this period and continue to measure and narrow down the potential customer contacts. Using several marketing disciplines, such as print, web, trade show, direct mail and publicity, and multiple touches can increase your success and separate your company from a “product-only” sales organization. The promotional products selected may fit all or part of the campaign. This approach also increases the value-added appeal allowing you to charge for other services beyond the promotional products.
- Build the program or campaign. When building a campaign, the first thing you have to ask yourself, and ultimately convey to the client, is the answer to this question: Is this achievable? Items to consider include event dates, creative and production deadlines, and availability of products. Also, in a multiple-touch campaign you may have to coordinate with other players such as public relations and ad agencies, and coordinate media deadlines and shipping times.
You will also need a theme for the campaign. If one does not exist, then you have to offer up creative concepts that will carry over with the entire program. The duration of some campaigns is short while others can be as long as several years. An example of a short campaign can be wrapped around a new product’s roll-out date or a trade-show event. A long-term deadline could be a sports theme where you introduce sub-themes such as baseball, football, basketball and soccer at intervals throughout the year under the master theme.
Keep in mind that you are the general contractor and need to assign roles to your outside contractors and any media partners. I always recommend that clients also have designated roles in the campaign. This way they are also responsible for the outcome and will work for the success of the campaign. When brainstorming with your team, try to include the clients at some point as this also cements the relationship and gives them ownership in the plan.
Working with the budget is a crucial step of any campaign and neither you nor your client should take it lightly. If you don’t have enough money in the budget to accomplish the tasks decided upon, discuss it with the client at the beginning and re-purpose your plans if necessary.
- Consider price, bidding and competition. When pricing out these projects don’t treat them like you would a transaction or product sale. For example, don’t price the campaign per item. Instead, the value-added approach would be to price it by the total amount needed to achieve the outcome and align it with the client’s budget. This is especially important if your client is working within a bid situation. One way to work the budget so the client can easily understand it is to express the cost in terms of cost per contact. The contact is who your client is trying to educate, inform, sell or influence. Clients should always know what it costs to reach their prospects or customers, and you can work from the same perspective. By changing your mindset on how you present pricing before you start any work on the project, you will elevate your company to a higher level and will help your client respect the process.
If you are working with an existing client to whom you have previously sold only products, have a conversation early on as to all the services and talent you are bringing to the table. If it’s a true bid situation, you can change the rules of the bid as long as you illustrate why those changes will benefit the client. Also, be aware that the bid process is usually handled by someone other than the person who has responsibility for the outcome. And, if you have sold this client only products before, remember to keep your product ideas new and fresh.
- Bill for your time. This is the most important step in crafting the proposal and the way to do it right is to bill for your time and creativity. If you don’t respect what you and your company have put into the program, the client won’t either. Several ways to do this are to bill for your consulting time (research, ideas and strategy), bill just for creativity or bill for your coordination of the project. The best way is usually to figure the cost based on the project itself or on a cost-per-contact, as the traditional agency models based on time only have been poorly received the past 10 to 15 years. Just make sure you have all of your expenses covered and included in the proposal as it is hard to go back and ask for more money. However, it is perfectly correct to ask for an increase if the scope of the project changes or increases to a higher level. Confront those situations at the beginning of the process and even state it in your proposal, if you like. No one likes surprises.
- Protect your ideas. In my seminars, I am always asked for ways distributors can protect their ideas. The best way is to state up-front to the client that your concepts and designs are your property and are not be used without your permission. Let them know also that you will work hard for them with concepts, recommended products, designs and any outside media.
In our industry we are often faced with showing a client a product or idea and conducting hours of research on products. Unfortunately, we only make money when the product is sold. In this case, you should always get paid for your time and creativity, and consulting should be part of the proposal. Many times a client will ask you to sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect their trade secrets and product information. A good practice is to ask for the NDA up-front as this illustrates your professionalism and shows how you will protect your client. Even if your client doesn’t need the NDA, just asking shows your credibility.
In summary, protect your creativity, leverage your product knowledge and skillfully manage your client’s brand and budget. The first few times you handle a value-added project may be difficult but, believe me, it will get better and will become second nature. Best of all, you get paid for these additional services.
Bruce Felber, MAS, is director of marketing and sales support for Holland, Ohio-based distributor The Image Group (UPIC: IMAGEGRP). You may reach him at 216-661-1011 x 2208 or at email@example.com.