November 23, 2009

Why Sales People Need to Look Differently at Thier Contacts

Why Nurturing Contacts Beats Generating Leads

When we tell sales organizations that they must focus on nurturing contacts as opposed to generating leads, it makes immediate sense. That is because the issue of leads is fraught with all types of problems, not least of which is the fact that returns from most traditional methods of lead generation are falling through the floor.

However, after the initial burst of enthusiasm for this exciting new way to look at the problem of lead generation, most sales people and in particular their managers, need a little reassurance that it conforms with their traditional word view. ‘That is sales contacts isn’t it?’ they ask. To their surprise we answer ‘No’ adding that ‘it is buyer contacts not sales contacts that are important!’

To work through the confusion that this Zen-like response often generates, we typically ask salespeople which they would rather have – their organizations sales contacts, or the contacts of the buyer? Which ones would enable them to access and influence those to whom they want to sell?

Focusing on the Buyer’s Network
Then we ask them to imagine if they were given the buyer’s black book of! What would it look like? Whose details would it contain? How would the web of buyer contacts entangle with your own?
The contacts of relevance to the salesperson are not just buyers, but all those that can influence, or access them. Also it is not just today’s buyers, but also the potential buyers of tomorrow that the salesperson must nurture as contacts. Thus the sellers focus must be buyers and their wider community. That is how can you develop more contacts in common with buyers and the buying organizations you want to target?

Don’t Just Focus on ‘Sales Contacts’
When people think ‘sales contacts’ they tend to focus narrowly in terms of those who conform to the target profile provided by marketing, or the prequalification criteria set by sales. However, premature prequalification can be dangerous. This tends to cut the list down considerably with the sales manager, for example, arguing that ‘there is no point wasting time with people who cannot, or will not buy from us.’ In times past this was a logical approach. However, in the new reality, sellers cannot simply focus on those who have a budget and are ready to buy their solution – it simply narrows their potential market too much.

So, while we subscribe to the ideas of precision marketing and targeted sales activity, both must be relaxed somewhat at the contact stage. We all know that sales costs are rising and most of us can quickly calculate the cost of sending a sales person out to meet ‘a potential customer’ for example. We also know the cost of getting into a sales cycle and the investment that is required in order to prepare a bid. This provides a clear rational for strict prequalification.
However, if it is only a conversation, why are sellers applying the same level of prequalification as if it was a sales opportunity?

Pre-qualification must be tailored to each stage of the sales process – with a different level of screening being applied to contacts, than to sales cycles, for example.

Many Conversations Will be Required
Sellers must allow some latitude in terms of the scope of contacts to be nurtured. They must be prepared to have conversations that may never go anywhere. They must be prepared to talk too many in order to get to the vital few that will eventually buy their solutions.

Sales Contacts: Named individuals in Potential Customer organizations. That is those meeting targeting and prequalification criteria.

Buyer Contacts: The list is bigger, including:

  • All those who make, or influence purchase decisions
  • All those who can provide access to those who make, or influence purchase decisions
  • All those who could in the future make or influence buying decision (e.g. a junior person who gets promoted, or moves to another company)
  • All those sources of information, advice and expertise employed by buyers
  • Named individuals in the above groups can come from a wide range of sources:
    • Other suppliers
    • Industry counterparts
    • Partners and competitors
    • Consultants, or advisors
    • Sources of Information / Referral
    • Past colleagues/employees
    • Industry experts / analysts
    • Industry bodies, or professional associations

Sellers have to start and then maintain lots of conversations if they are to result in a sufficient number of sales cycles. They have to nurture many contacts if they are to end up talking to enough of the right people.

What Contacts Do You Want to Nurture?
Contacts are not just potential customers, but part of the larger community that plays a role in the buyer – seller relationship. So, it not only includes potential customers (present and future), but also those contacts who may represent sources of information, reference or introduction for example.

Contacts are individuals, not organizations. This is important because for each organization there is a diversity of contacts that are important to the seller – reflective of larger buying groups and greater stakeholder involvement in buying decisions. It is also important because contacts are fluid. For example, the contact that today is a senior engineer could be the COO tomorrow, if not in the same organization, then perhaps another.

Contacts are not just leads. They have a value, or relevance beyond this quarter, or the next. Lead generation is focused on identifying potential customers and making the sale, nurturing contacts is aimed at sustaining a conversation, generating demand and building a relationship over time. Leads are generated, but contacts are nurtured.

Sellers cannot only talk to those that are ready to buy their solutions. That means applying the same prequalification criteria to contacts, as to sales opportunities simply makes no sense. If prequalification criteria (e.g. budget, authority, timing and need) are applied too early there is the risk that the majority of potential customers could be isolated. That is because:

  • Customers reveal themselves slowly – many months can elapse in a buying process before a customer appears on the vendors radar, with buyers increasingly defining requirements, building (or at last scoping) the business case and so on before engaging a vendor.
  • The potential market for a sellers solution includes a majority of potential customers that either do not have a budget, or perhaps even do not recognize a need for; the solution.
  • For newer companies in particular some experimentation may be required before the exact target market profile becomes clear – that is before it becomes clear which market is the most attractive and most amenable.

The nurturing of contacts involves a longer term view, one that looks beyond this quarter and the next. For this reason it can present a challenge to salespeople who are focused on meeting this quarter’s target.

Contacts are not just nurtured by sales people, but by the entire organization. However, the sales person’s black book represents only a fraction of the network of contact that an organization must nurture. In an age where buyers are shunning seller’s unsolicited advances and there in effect is no such thing as a good list to be purchased, organizations have an untapped resource in terms of the contacts of all its managers and staff.

Contacts define the relationship between an organization and its marketplace – its industry ecosystem as it were - from suppliers to competitors.

The nurturing of contacts is motivated not just by winning the next customer, but by growing existing customers and successfully delivering present projects.

Contacts are a potent sales tool. They can open doors, accelerate sales cycles and increase conversion rates beyond what is possible from traditional lead generation. That is because they leverage established relationships and good will. Compared to discredited seller marketing, introductions, referrals and contacts confer the advantage of credibility.

The Value of Conversations.
Conversations can lead anywhere and so here are some examples of how nurturing contacts can produce unexpected, yet welcome results.

  • The contact in a competitor’s business who was rated as being of little value to the organization’s sales team suddenly leaves that competitor to take up a position with a buying organization in a new international market.
  • The buyer who leaves the target customer with little advance warning, only to reappear in a more senior role in another even larger potential customer organization. Having failed to access this organization to date, the door is now open.
  • The contact within a supplier organization through his contact with both the seller’s competitors and customers is able to advise the seller that a customer is about to make a purchase decision before it becomes generally known.
  • Because the contact with past employee is nurtured, when he, or she joins a large potential customer in a senior management position the seller has an ally on the inside.


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Alexander said...

Thank you, found the info very useful.