Saturday, May 27, 2006

Sales Technique: Admit Your Flaws

Sales Technique: Admit Your Flaws
A lively debate broke out this week at my office. We're working on a major sales opportunity, and were fortunate enough (thanks to our quick-thinking VP Sales) to get an advance copy of the criteria the customer is planning to put in their RFP. Our thought was to send over a pre-emptive presentation detailing why they should choose us before things even get to the RFP stage.

As it turns out, we fulfill every single item on their laundry list except one.

Here's where the debate began:
My advice to the salesperson on the account was to explicitly list all the requirements we fulfill, state that we fulfill them, and, here's the kicker, add one final paragraph explaining the requirement that we don't fulfill, and how the customer could work around it.

However, while the salesperson agreed, the sales engineer did not, arguing that we shouldn't say anything that could be construed as negative. Thus did the debate rage.

My philosophy in persuasion has always been to be very explicit about what I and my product *cannot* do, to reveal any obvious flaws we might have, rather than waiting for the customer to discover them.

It's my belief that in any sales or persuasion situation, the person you're trying to convince is always looking for "the catch" in your offer, and that displaying your honesty by revealing the catch is the best way to build trust and credibility.

I've done a number of reference calls for various vendors I use, and one of the main reasons I'm so persuasive with their potential customers is that I emphasize the weaknesses of their offerings, and then explain why the other strengths are enough to outweigh the weaknesses.

The key is in making sure that you don't disappoint. Far better to set expectations lower, then exceed them, than it is to oversell what you can do.

Of course, you must use this technique carefully. Your goal is to present a positive image of a trustworthy and honest person who is still confident in his offering. If you simply go around bashing yourself and saying how much you suck, you're unlikely to convince anyone. The formulation I generally use is:

1. Here's why you should do this
2. Here's the potential catch
3. Here's why the catch may be less critical than you might think
4. Only you can tell whether the benefits outweigh the catch. What do you think?

This technique applies to any persuasion situation, ranging from classic sales, to a VC pitch, to convincing your child to do something.

So how about you? How do you approach sales? Do you conceal or reveal your potential flaws?


Zoli Erdos said...

This should not be a question at all, you're so obvious right.

If the sales engineer actually thought a few steps ahead, he'd realize the customer will discover the "weakness" anyway (especially since they already developed formal criteria for the bid). When that happens, you lose credibility big time, and the prospect/customer will start questioning the validity of the "good fit" criteria, too.

I'm curious as to what the VP Sales decided?

Zoli Erdos said...

obviuos > obviously :-)

It never pays to skip preview ...

Ben Casnocha said...

Yep. I agree with you and Zoli. It's a balancing act, but assuming this is a market where credibility and trust through the whole relationship is critical, you gotta disclose.

assaf said...

You'll get much more out of a sale if, instead of separating the customer from their money, you'll turn them into reference for future projects/customers. And you can only do that if you under-promise and over-deliver.

When I buy something, I always look first for the pro/con. The only products that are absolutely perfect in features, price and delivery are available on eBay, you just need to send a money order. That's my personal bias (if I was customer) into the debate.

But what is the customer looking for? They may be looking for a perfect fit for the RFP, and damn anything else. If you can't match the RFP, you're out. In my experience, they won't be your best reference story or successful project, so you might want to reconsider having them.

You can actually use this to pre-qualify your customers, and set the right level of expectations. When customers don't expect you to over-sell, you have a better chance of success with them.


Justin K said...

When I was working in GE, I had considered going into pre-sales... so I approached a lady who did major account sales (F100 companies) and asked her for her tips for someone coming from the engineering side.

Her one comment was: "Don't learn too much about the product".

Basically she said that if you knew too much about the product you would be familiar with its warts and thus make you less effective in selling it.

Now I'm not sure how prevalent this attitude is among sales people in general but I think a lot of sales people are more concerned about getting the sale than making a referrence customer.

That's why they say when you start a company, you don't want to hire a VP of Sales first, but hire the VP of Business Development... as the Biz Dev guy will be more focused on developing the relationships to help you create a great product and loyal customers.