Steven's Blog

Who’s Eating Your Lunch?

I can often sell my clients’ businesses better than they can sell themselves. Some have little sense of the magnitude of strategic value they are capable of providing their customers, whereas others have sales staff who rarely communicate such value, much less understand it.

As a result, they undercharge their customers or otherwise find themselves merely pushing product to low-level buyers.

What do I mean by a low-level buyer? The kind of buyer who has a checklist of requirements, and is tasked with collecting quotes and proposals to submit to someone else. They are empowered only to say ‘no’ and never empowered to say ‘yes’ to any proposal. They rarely understand the business’ needs, so even if your sales staff could communicate value, it would fall on deaf ears.

Value is always about what makes the customer’s business successful, not about the product or service you provide. Click To Tweet

If your buyer can only talk about product or service requirements, specs, price, and delivery time, then you should forget about trying to have a conversation about value. It’s likely that value doesn’t matter to him or her, only what is on the “checklist”. All offers are reduced to a commodity, including yours, whether it’s a commodity or not.

My most successful clients always sell to high-level buyers. What do I mean by a high-level buyer? A business leader who is individually accountable for generating profit, if not also increasing market share with the business he or she oversees. High-level buyers don’t have to ask for permission from anyone else to decide to purchase something that will help achieve those ends. They are only interested in how you can improve their business, not in what products and services you have. High-level buyers never care about cost, just ROI. They make a budget for unplanned opportunities by transferring some of that budget away from purposes with lower ROI. You can talk about value with a high-level buyer if you know how.

If your company does not routinely sell to high-level buyers, then you are likely someone’s subcontractor.

In the 1990s, consulting companies began to eat the lunch of IT systems integration companies, only because the IT companies had no sales force capable of having business conversations with high-level buyers, just low-level IT people. They ended up being subcontractors to consulting firms whose account managers did know how to talk about value compellingly with the right buyers. If you don’t believe me, why do you think IBM ultimately acquired PwC? Why do you think NTT Data acquired Cap Gemini Japan?

Of course, none of this has anything to with the advertising and PR industries, or with marketing professionals in general. After all, marketing professionals are experts at marketing, so they know how to market themselves. If you are a marketing professional, you can stop reading here. You don’t have anything left to learn.

Or have you?

I recently heard that Accenture has been moving into advertising and PR. And why shouldn’t they? Their sales force is accustomed to discussing value with higher-level buyers. It does not matter whether value is generated by IT, advertising, marketing, PR, or something else. The principles around how to conduct the business conversation with a high-level buyer are the same and transferable from one industry to another. Delivery expertise in marketing or anything else doesn’t matter when you can subcontract cheaply to a company for delivery that does know how to market to high-level buyers. The company that can acquire high-level buyers as clients own the lion’s share of the value. It is client acquisition capability that counts, not delivery.

Is your business an advertising, PR, or creative business? Are you the equivalent of a systems integrator in your industry? Even though your business is profitable, do you feel that your margins are not as high as they ought to be, that your competition is intense, and that you can only increase your business by increasing your staff numbers proportionally?

Are your account managers fielding inquiries from low-level factotums who are collecting quotes and proposals for someone else, or are they talking with executives who have ownership over the business they lead? Can your account managers consistently hold a provocative and compelling conversation with such business leaders as opposed to just talking about marketing options? When a buyer asks your account managers for television advertising time, do they ask how much the buyer wants as opposed to asking what makes them think it is television ad time that he or she needs?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, I have one more for you.

Who do you think is eating your lunch, or is about to?

 A version of this article has been featured in Campaign.


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