Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Your Ultimate Competitive Advantage

What's the ultimate competitive advantage in business and in life? It's your ability to learn and (just as importantly) to quickly put what you have learned into action.

"Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune." -Jim Rohn


The first key is to understand that education is a lifelong process. Formal education may be finite and time-based, but self-education is ongoing and perpetual.

"Hard work spotlights the character of people; some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don't turn up at all." -Sam Ewing


The second key is to become a voracious student in your field. Mastering your field requires an investment of time in study and continual practice toward perfection. All the masters and top earners in any field have this attitude toward learning. Having this attitude allows you to thrive in situations where your knowledge gives you the competitive advantage over your competitors. You must be passionate enough about your profession that committing to mastery is a natural step.

"Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in." -Abraham Lincoln


Mastery can come from attending conferences, reading books, or working with advisers, coaches, and mentors. There is no shortage of knowledge sources. Training, development, and continuous education are the highest return investments you and your business can make. Top businesses and top industry professionals make learning a priority. No matter how busy they are, they make time for it.

Brian Tracy, noted author and speaker, stated that the highest paid people in America read an average of 2-3 hours per day. Developing a habit of learning and an appetite for information, both within your field and also outside your area of expertise, are the keys to a life of passion, purpose, and profits.

Citing a recent study of successful companies, syndicated columnist Verne Harnish wrote that training and development "out-return[ed] any other investment a business could make -- more than R&D, hard, or capital investment." According to Harnish, such investments resulted in:
  • 24% higher profit margins

  • 218% higher income per employee

  • 86% higher company value

  • 21% increase in productivity

  • 300% reduction in employee turnover

  • A return per dollar invested of $6.72

(Source: The Growth Guy)

"Don't be afraid to give up the good to go for the great." -John D. Rockefeller


Seek out the knowledge you need to be worthy of being a "trust agent" -- someone who is viewed as a trusted adviser, rather than simply a supplier of services and goods. Make the investment and commit to continuous learning. You can't win if you rely solely on keeping up with the status quo. Being a leader in your field means staying ahead by learning and becoming the known expert.

Friday, July 26, 2013

5 Keys to Getting Past the Gatekeeper

In business, the term "gatekeeper" refers to the person who has the authority to control access to the decision maker in the company. The gatekeeper guards and monitors traffic to the person in charge. In most companies, getting an appointment with the decision maker requires getting past the gatekeeper.

Selling to the decision maker requires learning the art and skill of gracefully getting past the gatekeeper. Here are five keys to help you get started:

Key #1: Speak with authority.
Whether you're the CEO of your company or not, you need to speak with confidence. You want to be perceived as a person of authority making the call. Speak with authority, assurance, and self-confidence. Gatekeepers are trained to keep salespeople out but are much more likely to let an authority figure through.

Key #2: The gatekeeper is your friend.
The gatekeeper can be your ally if you treat them with the utmost respect and courtesy. Remember that they have a job to do and that they may even have the power to make decisions on whether or not to buy. It's vital to recognize from your first contact that dealing with a gatekeeper can be a make or break proposition.

Key #3: Ask for help.
Everyone likes to feel useful and helpful. People like to help others, but few like to help a salesman. Put yourself in the position of a person needing help instead of a pushy salesperson. You can quickly disarm a gatekeeper by asking questions to help both of you. You want to speak with the correct person, and they don't want anyone wasting the time of the person they are protecting.

You can accomplish this by asking a simple question right at the beginning. For example, "I provide (your services) and believe that (decision maker's name) is the person that I should be speaking with. Is that correct?"

By asking for help in this way, you have gotten to the point quickly and have empowered the gatekeeper to either begin the conversation by asking you to set an appointment or by directing you to the right person.

Key #4: Referrals are a big help.
Obviously, having a name to use as a referral to the decision maker can help pave the way in getting past the gatekeeper. Another, less used referral method occurs when you make an initial call to a company and someone informs you that you should be speaking with someone else (and gives you that person's name). Using the name of the person you spoke with as a point of reference when calling the person they referred you to can help to break the ice and move you past the gatekeeper.

Key #5: Make it fun.
Very few people will admit that they actually enjoy making a cold call. You can help take the drudgery out of it by setting goals for yourself and building momentum from there. Begin by setting up a variety success metrics, such as finding the right decision maker's name, determining the best times to call, leaving your name and number for a call back, and making a small connection or bonding with the gatekeeper. Success can mean more than getting through to the decision maker and setting up an appointment. Celebrate the smaller victories along the way.

There's truth in the adage that cold calling is a numbers game. The more calls you can make, the more chances you'll have of getting appointments and closing sales. Likewise, the more positive contacts you can make with a gatekeeper, the better your odds of turning that person into an ally who will let you through to the decision maker you're hoping to reach.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What is Your Sales Process?

You may have the greatest service or product in the world, but if you can't sell it, how much good will that do?

The good news is that small improvements in your selling can have exponential effects on your bottom line. Focusing on the factors that can increase your selling efficiency or selling effectiveness will have a far greater impact than changing prices or reducing overhead.

The path to selling efficiency and effectiveness starts with proper planning. Begin by focusing on the factors you have the most control over:
  • The quality of your prospects

  • The quality of your sales pitch

  • The cost of the sales process itself

  • How you use your time

  • Your sales process
The quality of your prospects depends on how well you qualify them. This is one of the most important factors in improving your selling effectiveness. You have complete control over this part of your process. Begin by asking if the prospect truly is a good fit for what you sell.

When determining the quality of your sales pitch, remember that your prospects are too busy to pay attention to generic sales speak. Find a way to quickly show them how your product or service has delivered measurable results for people just like them. You need to prove that you know your stuff and that you can help them solve their problems.

The cost of the sales process is another area where you have control. Tracking expenses in both hard costs and time spent provides benchmarks that will help you determine just how much it costs to acquire a customer. You can't improve what you don't measure.

Effective time management skills separate the top sales superstars from everyone else. Finding the right customer acquisition techniques and tools is essential... and well within your control. Nothing is more valuable than your time. Learn to use it wisely.

Do you have a sales process in place, or do you handle sales in a piecemeal and patchwork manner? A strong, systematic sales process can take much of the mystery, magic, and waste out of selling. Track it, measure it, and tweak it until you have a dynamic process that can be replicated by every new salesperson.

There is one last item that binds all of these together, without which none of them will work. That is productive activity. Nothing can replace the actual work it takes to generate a sale. Phone calls, direct mail, networking events, emails, and in-person sales calls are all productive sales activities. They all work when they're part of an overall strategy and plan that leads a prospect to a sale.

Sometimes it only takes small improvements to get big results. Take a closer look at how you're currently selling. Shorten your sales cycle by improving your process, and watch your sales grow.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Optimism, Poetry, and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Optimism is not a trait born necessarily out of good fortune. Edgar Guest was 11 years old in 1893 when his father lost his job. Barely a year earlier, the family had emigrated from Birmingham, England, to Detroit, Michigan. Now, young Edgar had to take on odd jobs in a still unfamiliar land to help support the family.

In 1895, at age 14, he went to work as a copy boy for the Detroit Free Press. This would prove the beginning of a career that would span more than six decades.

At first, Edgar was able to attend school while working. However, in 1898, when Edgar was 17, his father died. Edgar dropped out of high school and began working full-time to support the family. Later that year, his first poem was published in the paper.

Over the next half century, Edgar Guest would become one of the most prolific writers of his time, publishing more than 11,000 poems, syndicated in more than 300 newspapers and compiled into 20+ volumes. He also hosted a popular radio show in Detroit and later appeared nationally on the NBC-TV show A Guest in Your Home.

In spite of his rough start, Edgar Guest was known for the optimistic outlook captured in his verse. One of his better-known works, "It Couldn't Be Done," is a good case in point -- and a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit we all share as business leaders. It reads in part:

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That "cannot be done," and you'll do it.


"How Do You Tackle Your Work?" is another of Guest's poems that sings the praises of optimism, hard work, and dedication -- traits we as entrepreneurs hold dear. Here's a passage:

You can do as much as you think you can,
But you'll never accomplish more;
If you're afraid of yourself, young man,
There's little for you in store.
For failure comes from the inside first,
It's there if we only knew it,
And you can win, though you face the worst,
If you feel that you're going to do it.


The full text of each of these poems is available online, and I encourage you to read both of them. They're a good reminder -- especially when the grind gets tough -- of just why we chose this crazy life in the first place.

It Couldn't Be Done - PoetryFoundation.org
How Do You Tackle Your Work? - Google Books

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Are You a High-Margin Business?

Achieving profit is the real goal of being in business. Profits are what allows a business to invest and grow. Some businesses have higher profit margins than others. That can be due to the type of industry, the competitive landscape, and economic conditions.

There's often a direct correlation between the margins a business can charge and the amount of pain their products and services help to ease in the minds of the customers who buy them. Increasing this real and perceived value will directly impact profit margins.

Most businesses have a mixture of customers. To become a high-margin business, your goal must be to move the needle from lower-value customers to higher-value ones. The first step is to identify the types of customers your business attracts and pursues. Here are a few general characteristics to consider.

Low-Value Clients:
  • A large number are required in order to sustain profitability

  • Typically cause the most headaches

  • Want you to lower your prices

  • Make you feel like a commodity

  • Position you as the lower-value provider

  • Can and will leave you for a lower price at any time
High-Value Clients:
  • Provide greater profitability, so fewer are needed to help you reach your financial goals

  • Generate higher value with fewer headache

  • Help position you as an authority and valuable partner vendor

  • Give you higher credibility in the eyes of your other prospects
So how can you increase your perceived value?
  • Educate - Sell by teaching and sharing your expertise. Nothing is more powerful in positioning you as a business that is worthy of higher fees than actually showing how your products and services solve problems for your customers.


  • Show Results - Include testimonials and success stories from your past customers to help prospects understand what kind of real-world value you provide. Third-party validation works much better and is more believable than the same information stated as your own.


  • Offer a Powerful Guarantee - Guarantees not only help remove some of the doubts your prospects may have but also show that you believe in your products and services enough to stand behind them. Strong guarantees and warranties allow you to justify charging higher margins.


  • Get Endorsed - When possible, get an endorsement from a well-respected and known personality who can verify the quality and value you bring to the table. Your prospects will know that such a person would not vouch for a shoddy business or service. This increases the perceived value of your business in their eyes.


  • Promote - Promote your awards, achievements, membership associations, charitable contributions, and any other resources that will speak to your involvement in the community and the values you bring. Each of these builds further trust in the eyes of your audience. Each bit of added trust allows you to charge higher fees and margins in your business.
By increasing both the real value for your customers and the perceived value seen by your prospects, you will be able to increase your profit margins. Lots of companies can solve problems for their customers. Those that are able to tell the story of what, how, and why they solved those problems -- and to do so in a way that resonates with prospects -- are the ones that achieve higher margins.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How Far Would You Go For a Customer?

There's a story told of a middle-aged man and a teenage boy who checked into a hotel together while traveling. The staff noticed that both seemed quiet and somber and that the boy appeared pale. That evening, the two had dinner at the hotel restaurant. Again, they seemed unusually quiet, and the boy barely touched his food, before excusing himself and returning to his room.

After finishing his meal, the man asked to see the hotel manager in private. Concerned that he was dissatisfied with the service he had received, the manager obliged his request.

Once alone, the man explained that he was spending the night with his son, who was set to begin chemotherapy treatments at a nearby hospital the next day. Instead of waiting for his hair to fall out on its own, the son planned to shave his head that night, and the father was doing the same. He wanted the staff to be aware of their situation, so they wouldn't be alarmed when the two showed up for breakfast with clean-shaven heads. The manager said he would let the staff know and that the man need not worry.

The next morning, the man and his son (now with shaved heads) came down for breakfast. As they walked into the restaurant, they looked around and saw the staff busy at work taking orders, clearing tables, and seating guests. But something was different than the night before. You see, while each staff member was going about their business just as they would on any day, several had taken it upon themselves to shave their own heads that morning, too.

This story (whether true or not) provides a good reminder for how each of us should treat the people we encounter throughout our day. Whether customers, coworkers, or strangers on the street, it's easy sometimes to forget that the people we meet are just that -- people -- with individual challenges and struggles we may never know or understand. How we choose to interact with them can go a long way in determining how they will interact with us (and our companies) in the future.

So, while you may never shave your head for a customer like the staff members in our story did, going out of your way to treat the people around you with kindness, dignity, and respect is more than just good manners. It's good business.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Are You Strategic or Are You Tactical?

Strategic planning and thinking are critical to success in business -- and in sales. Strategic thought focuses on the big picture. It looks at building sustainable, long-term relationships with clients who can benefit from what you have to provide. Tactical thinking, however, focuses on the here and now. It cares only for making the quick sale and staying afloat. Without a strategy behind it, tactical thinking can often lead to reactionary planning that provides little or no long-term viability.

If you find yourself in any of these positions, you may be too tactical:
  • Prospects are taking too long to make a decision and stringing you along to get lower pricing.

  • You're unclear on exactly who you are selling to.

  • Your sales efforts are not focused on a specific product or service you should be selling.

  • You're selling almost exclusively to the type of customers who buy one-time projects.

  • You're selling to the type of customers who will switch to lower-priced competitors at the drop of a hat (or price).
Being overly tactical can force you to become desperate for work. That desperation shows through to prospects, who are either scared off by it or use it to force a much lower-price sale.

Being overly tactical forces you to be reactive to the marketplace around you, rather than proactive in growing sales. This can also lead to taking on clients at unsustainable prices -- often clients you really should have declined in the first place.

Most owners and executives who find themselves in this position will try:
  • Hiring a new salesperson who knows what they are doing

  • Creating an incredible new offer or service package

  • Offering a brand new capability

  • Lowering prices to increase volume
While these tactics can work, they often won't unless you first learn to start selling strategically in your business.

Strategic selling means creating a sales process that is based on:
  • Positioning your company as the expert for what you sell

  • Creating real relationships with prospects who truly value what you offer

  • Attracting prospects who can afford to pay for what you sell

  • Working with prospects and customers on their business goals and challenges, so you're not seen as a commodity vendor
This is what it means to change from a tactical business to a strategic business.

Broke companies look for the cheapest, while successful companies are looking for value and strategic partners. Being tactical means having commodity conversations about commodity services and products. This leads to attracting customers who view you as a commodity and end up paying you commodity prices. On the other hand, having strategic conversations with strategically minded businesses means that you attract higher-quality clients who value and pay for the services they seek.

As a strategic business, you'll begin to have conversations with prospects who truly value what you bring to the table. You'll talk about not just the tactical things but also how your services can help them grow. This type of client doesn't leave quickly and will gladly pay you for the work you do. This in turn will lead to a much higher client value and will allow you to provide better service to attract more clients just like them.

So how do you move to having strategic conversations? Start by asking the type of questions that generate the answers you're looking for.
  • What are your biggest challenges?

  • Is your business growing as fast as you'd like?

  • What's working for you?

  • What's not working for you?

  • What are your biggest challenges?

  • What are you currently doing to market and grow your business?
The beauty is in the simplicity. No magic needed. Ask questions that are designed to let your prospects open up and share their challenges.

Moving from a tactical business to a strategic one starts with a mindset shift. It takes time and effort to change the culture of a tactical business. It starts with being clear that you need to seek clients who value and can pay for what you sell. Then you must have strategic conversations to prove the worth of what you bring to the table. Having strategic conversations separates you from your competition. Being strategic is one way to command and get higher prices.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Is Your Business Sellable?

One of the goals of every business owner should be to build a company that is worth selling. Whether it is actually put on the market or not is another matter.

A business that is worth selling is growing, vibrant, and healthy. That's why it's in the best interest of everyone involved in the company to continually work toward building a sellable business.

Many metrics are used to measure the worth of a sellable business. One of the key metrics is the ability of the business to generate recurring revenue.

There are several ways to achieve a consistent, recurring revenue stream. Not all will work for every type of business, product, or service. Here are a few ideas to consider, depending on the types of services and products you provide.

Long-Term Sales Contracts

One method of building recurring revenue is to offer contracts that tie a client to a long-term engagement. A customer could be enticed to sign a contract if they are offered preferred pricing and services. An example of this can be seen with most cell phone contracts. The multi-year contracts are offered as a way to get a free or discounted cell phone in exchange for signing a two or three year contract. The buyer gets the cell phone quicker, and the cell phone provider locks in a guaranteed, predictable revenue stream.

Service and Maintenance Contracts

Some businesses can offer service contracts for after-sale support. For example, an IT company will charge for installing and setting up a network in a business but could also charge a yearly support fee to keep the network up and running free of viruses. Maintenance contracts can be a great source of additional revenue throughout the year. In many automotive dealerships, the service bays bring in much higher profits than the car sales departments.

Product and Service Training Fees

If your product or service involves a learning curve, customers would get more value from their purchase if you also offer training and certification after the sale. Product training becomes a true win-win, as the customer gets better use of their purchase, while you get additional revenue from an existing client. Many software companies offer training for their products to help their buyers understand and use the software to its potential.

When your business can generate sales from multiple revenue streams that support each other, the risk to a potential buyer is reduced dramatically. The business becomes a much more attractive candidate.

Predictable, recurring, multiple income streams make a business seem less risky to a potential buyer. So the sooner you start building recurring revenue streams in your business, the better your position will be if and when the time comes to sell.