Wanna be heard by your customers? Provoke them.

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In an economic downturn, traditional b-to-b solution selling techniques don’t resonate—budgets are tight, sale cycles are longer and people are reluctant to bring in change. This is not about casting a wide net. Businesses have to use a more targeted approach, more compelling messaging, and more senior-level involvement upfront in order to be heard. So what’s a smart marketer to do? Be provocative.

Don’t ask your prospects what keeps them up at night, tell them what should keep them up at night—you have to be provocative in order to get your message across. Discretionary budgets have all but vanished, and your traditional decision-maker has lost all his purchasing power. So forget about your traditional lead-generation methods. As TCG Advisors Managing Directors Geoffrey Moore, Todd Hewlin and Jeffrey Lay point out in the March issue cover story of Harvard Business Review, you need to use referrals-based marketing to get in front of the people who are empowered to reallocate funds. You’ll also have to beef up your research competencies in both your sales and marketing teams. Once you’ve identified your prospect, do your research and prepare, prepare, prepare. You only get one chance at making the right first impression with the decision-maker.

“Provocation-based selling differs dramatically from the most common approach still in use—product-based selling—which pushes features, functionality and benefits, usually in a generic manner,” said Moore. “Provocation-based selling helps customers see their competitive challenges in a new light that makes addressing specific painful problems unmistakably urgent.”

There are three essential steps to adopt a provocation methodology. First, identify a big problem—focus on a serious threat to the bottom line to make it worthwhile for an executive to meet with you. Second, develop a provocative point of view on the problem—usually the customer’s current approach has some basis in logic, but it may be conventional wisdom that is due for a challenge. Third, lodge your provocations with a decision-maker—the unfortunate truth is that in a downturn, buying decisions are escalated to executives you don’t normally call on.

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