Increasing Sales Leads: Thought Leadership with Marvin Miletsky

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In a down economy, what changes to lead generation can B2B sales and marketing professionals do to increase sales? Our next interview in the B2B Marketing thought leader interview series (a series covering the entire revenue cycle, from the earliest stages of demand generation and lead management to the pursuit of revenue and customer loyalty) seeks to find these answers with 35+ year sales veteran Marvin Miletsky, co-author of Perspectives on Increasing Sales (along with James Callander).

How did you get into sales and marketing, and what do you like most about it?

Before getting into sales I was in a career that was taking me nowhere, waiting for superiors to plan my daily activities, set goals and make judgments on my successes or failures. I was bored and couldn’t see myself doing what I was doing for the rest of my life.

I ended up getting a job with a small company that needed my skills in purchasing, estimating and budgeting, and as it happened, that company had a sales department that I would have to work with on a daily basis.

Looking back, I’m not sure if it was a conscious goal of mine to make my way into the sales department, but I distinctly remember an early instance in which I visited a customer to show them how to use one of our products. By the time I left his office, not only had I sold that product, but also sold him two other products he didn’t even know he wanted! I got the taste of sales and I haven’t looked back since.

What drew me to a career in sales and has kept me there is the independence the position provides. The rush that I get after targeting a prospect, addressing their needs and being awarded a purchase order is what keeps me going. I’m my own boss out there and in charge of my own destiny.

What are your top 3 tips for increasing sales leads in a down economy?

I’m a big fan of fully leveraging the inside sales or customer service departments of the company I’m selling for. These can be wonderful sources of information about existing and perspective clients, but are often staffed with individuals who don’t recognize that opportunities can be found in customer complaints or questions.

As such, I am in constant touch with these departments to listen to their war stories. For example, I once had an inside sales person tell me that a new customer would have placed an order with us, but decided not to because we didn’t have everything on their list and preferred to place their order with one vendor.

But where he was ready to give up, believing it was a lost cause, I was able to reach out to this prospect and make a sale. By pointing them toward other qualified vendors that could complete their order, I was able to gain their trust and convince them to purchase most of their needs through my company.

Alternatively, I offered to purchase the goods for them and include with my bill of material. I would have broken even on those items but satisfied the desire for my prospect to have a one-source supplier. Bottom line: train your inside sales/customer service departments well, talk with them often, and look for opportunity where it’s not always obvious.

Many companies are expert at marketing their products, and most sales reps are very successful once given an audience. However, their expertise might be in your product knowledge and not in finding new sales leads and establishing new appointments with those who are qualified. There are companies whose sole product is to teach you how to generate more sales leads and qualify them as well. Another idea is to seek out the services of telemarketers that can reach vast audiences in short periods of time to set up quality leads and even make appointments for your sales staff.

It wasn’t too long ago that most prospecting took place in a trade show or on the golf course (my personal favorite). But social networking has changed all of that.

While I’m woefully behind in this (fortunately, my 35 years in sales has afforded me the ability to lag behind the times, although you can find me on Twitter: @salesmanmarv), building online networks can be a powerful means of prospecting — especially for people at the start of their sales career.

The trick, however, is to sell without selling — get prospects to come to you by adding value. Find blogs in your industry that your audience is likely to read, and comment on their posts regularly, always making sure to add a link back to your site in your signature; tweet links to content your followers may be interested in; engage in LinkedIn conversations by helping rather than promoting. Over time, as you prove yourself to be knowledgeable, helpful and insightful, you’ll see your network — and your sales — grow.

Your book, Perspectives on Increasing Sales, examines concepts such as lead generation from the dual perspectives of the salesperson and customer. If salespeople could train themselves to consistently see through the eyes of their customers, what one thing would change about their lead generation efforts?

My knee jerk answer is that they should spend more time learning about the potential customer’s business before making contact. Get to know their needs, their competition, their products and services — at least enough to speak knowledgeably about it.

It doesn’t have to be much more than a Google search and a quick read of their Web site, but it’s still a step that’s all too often skipped by sales people in a rush to make a quick sale.

It doesn’t work that way, at least not for long-term success. Only after doing some due diligence should a sales person make their initial contact, loaded with all the ammunition they can muster to immediately give their prospect a reason to keep listening.

Instead of asking the prospect what they could do for them, they should tell the client what they can do for them. Lead generation efforts would then result in less numbers of possibilities, but more in the quality of the prospects.

After sales ready leads are generated, what are the top 3 missteps companies should avoid when trying to close sales in a down economy?

The biggest mistake sales people make is not identifying the real reason they’ve been given an opportunity to present the company to a prospective client. Are they in need of a new vendor as a result of a failure of another? Is pricing the issue? Are they just using you as a threat against their normal supplier? Are they in need of a better mousetrap? Knowing these issues allows you to focus on the real needs of the client. Listen to their story — don’t tell them yours.

Another mistake is trying to take the express train to the sale. You’ve really got to test the water before jumping in. Take the time to really understand the product or service they require and make sure that you present yours in such a fashion that they want what you’ve got and the pricing becomes a secondary issue. In a down economy like the one we’re experiencing now, the sales cycle is going to be stretched out – everyone will be a little gun shy about making a final decision. Take this time to do some research, and don’t expect prospects to rush – they’re time frame is probably not as aggressive as yours. When recessions hit and people are worried about losing their jobs, the only thing they’ll care about more than getting a low price is making sure that the vendors they do spend money on are safe bets. The more you know, the safer you’ll seem to be.

Finally, remember that the loss of a single order is not the end of the road. One of your main purposes in dealing with any client is establishing relationships that can grow for years to come. I’m never afraid of losing an order to learn a lesson for the next one.

If you could identify the single biggest opportunity available to companies who are striving to close bigger sales, what would it be?

I’m afraid I can’t provide any magic potion answer to this one. My total life experience in sales has been built upon one success leading to another, and one smaller order setting the groundwork for the next and larger ones to come.

There’s a trust thing that’s got to be established between you and your prospect or client. Even if you were selling commodity types of products, a client would have to be kind of foolhardy to take a chance on your company with no prior history of working together.

Still, there are things that you can do to expedite the trust factor — it just takes a bit of creativity, some nerve and the fortitude to take some calculated risk (elements no salespeople should be without!).

For example, I’ve recently been talking with a client that needs to finish a project by the end of the year. The problem is that the mountain of paperwork between him and his client is taking a long time to finish, so a legal contract (between their company and my company) cannot even be considered at present. But contract or not, the work still has to get done by the end of the year.

I’ve got two competitors who are also striving to get this order — both of whom have said they will meet with the client as soon as the client’s paperwork has been settled and they have been given a clear go-ahead. Knowing that this could take several more weeks, I proposed to the prospect that my company would start the design work ahead of having an order. By the time my prospect gets his own order and the go-ahead, we will have completed our design work. The client can then immediately award us our order and we can start immediately on production. We’ll have picked up valuable time in the process that would enable us to deliver on the tight schedule required. The prospect was so impressed that we would start without an official order that he gave us a "letter of intent" which confirms that an award will be made to us as soon as they get their award.

Be creative! Do what you need to do to close those orders.

Bonus question: Anything else you’d like to discuss?

The economy stinks: that’s the bad news! The good news is that there will be an end to this, it will hit bottom and the cycle will continue on to the positive side.

It’s during times like these that opportunities for your future abound. You might not have the same number of inquiries or even the same customer base, but keep yourself busy. Make a list of those companies who have been on your "B or C" list, you know, the ones you really don’t have the time to see when you’re extremely busy. Go see them now.

Go back to the companies you’ve been doing most of your business with and put on new sales meetings and presentations; over the years they might have settled into thinking they know all about you and haven’t learned about some new products or forgotten some of what you do.

I make it a habit of going to see clients and prospects that are not busy at the moment. I go there with the belief that they will survive the downturn and pick up some work in the future. They’ll remember that I was there in these lien times. In discussing things with them, I’ve actually been able to suggest some areas for them to look into for business that they might not have heard of or considered and have been rewarded for my input.

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