Selling: the Unacknowledged Ingredient of Innovation

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by: John Caddell

You never read about selling in books about innovation. But, for B2B products, the first sales of a new product or service are crucial lifelines. Let’s be clear about this: no matter how cool, fast, inventive, or buzzworthy your product is, if you can’t bring paying customers on board, it’s not worth anything to your business–in fact, it’s a drain.

I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s come to the forefront of my thinking yet again. First, because the word that innovation is the key to thriving in a down economy is everywhere (for example, here here and here). Second, because I work with companies developing new products and offerings–and these days they’re not looking for help in strategy, packaging or marketing.

They’re looking for sales.

Think about some of the obstacles to selling a new product:

– no reference customers
– immature (at best) marketing materials
– no operational/support experience
– no customer negotiating experience
– untested value propositions
– the perception of risk
– oh yeah, that down economy thing

So selling new products is not for the faint of heart. What does it take to move these difficult deals across the finish line?

A sense for customers. Many business customers cannot or will not be the first on board with a new product. Others are willing to jump on board first (and usually value the perks, such as reduced price or enhanced support) that go along with being a pilot customer. Your salesperson must be able to sniff out these good prospects quickly, and move past the late adopters.

Creativity. A new product won’t fit perfectly into the prospect’s business. The functionality, delivery terms, the pricing, legal terms will need to be adjusted as you engage customers.

Learning as you go. The process of probing the market with a new product is a rich learning environment. Your old sales models probably won’t work. Your salesperson must parse customer reactions for insight to improve the product and sales approach. The ability to reflect, while in the heat of the pursuit, and adjust course frequently, is essential.

Patience. Salespeople won’t be able to explain things using proven words, graphics or models. Demos will miss the mark. Customers will be slow to grasp the unique value of your new offering. The great new-product salesperson keeps on an even keel and focuses on what the offering can deliver to the prospect.

Persistence. The product will take longer to sell than salespeople think it should. They can’t give up.

Ability to communicate internally. Salespeople are the first proxy for the marketplace. They will receive intimate, detailed feedback from prospects that your marketing and product groups will need to improve the product for this and future sales. It’s not enough to be great with the customer. When I ran a new-business group, I talked to our salesperson every day, and our entire group met weekly to discuss what prospects were saying about our products, competitors and marketplace.

Problem-solving. The sale isn’t complete when the contract is signed. Referenceability is the goal. And that means shepherding the customer through the implementation process with minimum agony. This is difficult because the support processes are immature, the product is certain to have defects, and the customer doesn’t know how to use it yet. It doesn’t matter. It’s the salesperson’s job to make sure the customer receives the value expected when the product is put in service.

Not an easy job. Not surprisingly, it comes with a high failure rate.

Think about that the next time you grumble that you’re still paying a commission to someone who brought in that first or second sale of your product. Without her, your business would be quite different, wouldn’t it?

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