Show customers how you are remarkable
By Jeremy Miller

Have you ever lost a deal because your company wasn't big enough, old enough or specialized enough? Losing deals for these reasons is the worst. It's not fair that customers evaluate your services based on the size of your firm, the number of offices you have, or how long you have been in business. These are not good indicators of quality or stability. Actually, they have no bearing on the value of the services at all. Just look at the events of the past year. Industry giants like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Chrysler declared bankruptcy. Size does not matter. Age does not matter.

It's not the customer's fault they are asking these comparative questions. It's the sales person's fault. Customers ask these questions, because they don't know how to differentiate your firm from the big guys. They don't know what makes you remarkable or unique. They zero in on size and age as signs of a better service, because they don't have anything else to compare your services to.

The challenge in these comparative sales cycles is you can't win. You are competing on the wrong playing field. You are the small guy facing off against the thousand pound gorilla. They are going to crush you in an even fight. Rather than going toe-to-toe, change the game. Instead of selling, demonstrate your unique abilities. Don't let them ask, "What makes you different?" Show them. Show them early, and show them at every opportunity.

Experiential selling is a powerful tool to differentiate your company from the big guys. Each sales call is an opportunity to give exceptional value to your clients. You can help them uncover their pains, share insights into their problems and bring them resources and answers to solve their problems. Rather than explaining to them what makes you different, you show them. Experiential selling encompasses two key components: questions and stories. Well placed questions are extremely powerful. They give perspective, they provide insight, they motivate thinking, and they demonstrate expertise.

It's like going to the doctor. You recognize their expertise as they ask questions to diagnose the problem. If the questions don't have a clear purpose, or just seem to come out of left field, you would doubt the doctor's capabilities. On the other hand, when the questions drive to the root of the problem, your trust and respect for the doctor increases dramatically. Well placed questions demonstrate you understand your client's situation, and that is a clear differentiator.

Customers appreciate sales people who know how to ask effective questions. It changes the relationship from sales person and customer, to two people trying to solve a problem. When you are in the sales person mold you are selling, which is trying to persuade someone to change their behaviors. Nobody likes to be persuaded. It feels like you are giving up control, and letting someone impose their will on you. Questioning on the other hand is a subtle form of selling. Rather than telling the customer what they should do and why, you ask them questions. A question lets the customer feel in control, and lets them come to their own decisions.

Questions on their own are not enough. You need stories. Stories take on many roles in experiential selling. They can be anecdotes, case studies or examples. The purpose of the story is to share information in a method that is easily digestible and accessible for the customer.

Humans have told stories since the beginning of time. Our parents told us stories when we were kids to teach us lifelong lessons. Fairytales taught us morals, while books like Everybody Poops taught us about our bodily functions. Stories are powerful tools to communicate complex ideas, and to share experiences. They work because for a moment in time we put ourselves into the story and learn from the experience.

Stories are very powerful sales tools. A well told story draws the customer in, and helps them to experience your expertise and problem solving abilities vicariously. Sales people tell stories about similar problems they have faced, and how they have helped other customers overcome these situations. Stories relate the pains, the difficulties, the emotions and the players. They craft a situation that allows the customer to put themselves into the story, and take away lessons that they can use in their own situation.

Questions and stories allow customers to experience what it's like to work with your firm. It takes you out of a selling relationship into a problem solving one. That is a game changing play. When you are selling, you are trying to craft arguments and explanations that justify why you are better than the competition. You talk about features and benefits, but you don't actually solve problems. Questions and stories allow you to change the relationship to become a problem solver, or a trusted adviser.

The customer begins to lean on you for advice, suggestions and guidance, because they know they can rely on you. Your questions demonstrate competence, and your stories demonstrate credibility. They won't have to ask you comparative questions about the size or age of your firm, because they clearly know how you will deliver value to them. Inserting experiences into the sales cycle will tip the scales, and let you stand head and shoulders above the big guys.

Courtesy of
Alex Povolotski, MBA
Corporate Finance