Closing deals means convincing many

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Whether it’s a well-known brand or a small start-up, a b-to-b company often needs to make multiple pitches to several individuals in different departments in order to close a single sale. Managing this process effectively can spell the difference between success and failure.

For example, Daniel Tardif, president of Cyberpro Technologies, Montreal, sells loyalty programs managed through smart cards. In his business, he needs to convince three departments—marketing, operations and finance—before he closes a sale. "If I don’t have everyone agree, I won’t have a sale," Tardif said.

But because three departments need to sign off on the loyalty marketing program and smart card platform, Cyberpro has developed finesse appropriate to each audience.

Typically, Cyberpro approaches the prospect at the top. "Mostly we get into the company through the top executive or president because this will change the way they do things," Tardif said. "If we start with someone afraid of change, we won’t make the sale."

Champion of culture change

The president or CEO of a company needs to champion the culture change required by his loyalty program. "By and large, top executives aren’t afraid of change," he continued. "They just want to know the investment will improve the P&L, so the sales staff does a lot to prove ROI before going in to sell." Once the top dog is satisfied and enlisted as an internal champion, Cyberpro sends in a team to present its business case to a team of the other internal influencers.

After securing the executive suite, Tardif targets the marketing department—typically an easy sell because it recognizes the appeal of loyalty programs. Next comes IT, a critical "operations" category, which must be assured that the new technology associated with the customer incentive plan won’t interfere with operations and will merge easily with the company’s current IT infrastructure.

Cyberpro also must convince the finance department about return on investment projections. To do this, Cyberpro’s sales reps prepare reports on several models specific to the proposed application.

Finance is by far the hardest function to sell "because what we do is not a one-time offer, a short-term promotion," Tardif said. "It has long-term implications, and finance knows it will have a cost. It wants to make sure it has pay out."

Risks of failure too great

Tardif is clear about the risks of not selling properly to one of these three audiences. "If we don’t have buy-in from everybody, the chance of failure is too high. We’d rather be patient and say we’ll wait until everyone’s ready to make it work," he said. "I’ve seen projects solely based on the marketing department buying something and the operations department saying, ‘We won’t have the time to implement this,’ and the program failed."

Cyberpro’s sales staff doesn’t go it alone, however. The staff uses other marketing channels, including third parties such as advertising firms or direct mail vendors, that have an existing relationship with the prospect and with Cyberpro.

The common vendor makes introductions, and Cyberpro assembles a team—sales, marketing, finance, training—to make the play.

"Usually when you use the team approach you have many departments in a single meeting," Tardif said. "We try to play it by ear as to how the client wants to work."

Like Cyberpro’s approach, the strategy at WorldCom Inc., Clinton, Miss., is to reach key decision-makers first. However, in WorldCom’s case, the top influencer typically is in the prospect’s IT organization. This IT person will introduce the WorldCom sales team to department leaders, whose needs appear in request for proposals.

"The key to our selling is to become a virtual part of the customer’s or prospective customer’s IT organization," said WorldCom spokesman Jamison Gosselin. "Throughout this process, our account people will consult with marketing, particularly marketing people who may be focused on certain markets, or with product development." The goal? Creating specialized pitches.

WorldCom account professionals evaluate each opportunity individually to determine who will be pitched to and at what time. After a relationship is established with an organization’s IT department—or HR, customer service, finance or R&D—future contact is tailored to special communications needs of that individual or group, Gosselin said.

During the sales process, WorldCom’s reps receive steady support from marketing, which provides product development and technical information, communication messages and sales staff training.

"Marketing is the backbone from which our sales force operates," Gosselin said. Marketing executives often attend customer meetings to highlight product innovations and benefits specific to the prospect’s needs.

WorldCom recently rolled out tools that allow each account team to develop Web sites specifically for individual customers, where unique and tailored presentations can be posted.

Enticing the marketers

Meredith Corp.’s Integrated Marketing division, New York, sells its custom corporate communications—magazines, newsletters, Web sites—to companies such as Home Depot, Kraft and Nestle USA. Because the programs engage the responsibilities of a client’s different internal groups, Meredith Integrated Marketing uses e-mail newsletters and other Web tools to entice a prospect’s marketing department.

If this department agrees to champion Meredith’s offerings, Meredith relies on it to make the decision to buy. However, if the targeted marketers don’t have the power to purchase products, Meredith may have to approach a Webmaster, a database manager, public relations or corporate communications staffer.

Choosing the right approach

Picking an appropriate sales approach in situations where there are multiple influencers will depend on where the product or service is in its lifecycle and how it is necessary to the prospect and the marketplace, said Guy Smith, founder of Silicon Strategies Marketing, Alameda, Calif.

Smith believes sellers of products that have reached maturity and marketplace prevalence need not reach as high for an initial contact or champion. By contrast, products that have strategic value because they aren’t yet employed by competitors will need to be sold to top executives, Smith said.

Smith defines three types of internal influencers:

• Strategic Thinker â€" the highest-level buyer who worries more about the business decision than any other;

• Economic Thinker â€" responsible for the buy;

• Gatekeeper â€" lower-level buyer that has veto power and may keep vendors away from decision-makers.

When a sale hits the rough, Smith suggests sellers evaluate the motivations of the various types.

He applauds the team-to-team approach used by both WorldCom and Cyberpro. "If a company had the resources and they’re smart, once they get past the first gatekeeper"—the RFP in WorldCom’s case or the company president in Cyberpro’s—"they should be able to get the contact information of all decision-makers and try to sell all at once," he said.

Beating a single horse

Unfortunately, some companies do not follow this advice. "They try to keep selling to the primary decision-maker and keep beating him up while ignoring other buyers," Smith said. "They will end up losing."

Smith believes a good marketing team will educate its salespeople about the types of buyers to expect, how they generally behave and which marketing messages to use.

"But then they have to disconnect," he said. "Good salespeople have to take care and mold [these messages]."

Working with multiple client functions during the sale may prolong the process, but it builds ties between the seller and buyer.

"Once a functional department sees how its requirements can be met with our solutions, it opens their eyes to the business problems we can work with them to solve," said WorldCom’s Gosselin.

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