Sales Training Article: Death of Product Differentiators

By John Holland, Chief Content Officer, CustomerCentric Selling® – The Sales Training Company

Rita Gunther McGrath is a professor at the Columbia Business School. A few years ago her book The End of Competitive Advantage espoused the thought that shrinking product development times and shorter product life cycles make it unreasonable for vendors to enjoy long-term product advantages. I agree with her premise and feel it is a continuing trend. The concept was unsettling for people in Product Development, Product Marketing, Marketing and Sales.

I remember in my first sales position with IBM that when competing with a vendor I wasn’t familiar with, I’d contact the regional competitive analysis support staff to explain the situation. They’d provide “knock-offs” (perceived strengths of our offering or weaknesses of the competing vendor). I’m not sure it helped sellers as they made calls with a rigid idea of where they wanted to take buyers. There certainly were instances where selling against competitors took precedent over selling our own offerings.

Years ago a phrase I often used was: Given price and product are relatively equal, the better seller will win most of the time. By that I meant that the way somebody sold could provide the Holy Grail: a sustainable competitive advantage. For the last 10 years or so I’ve amended my thought to:

The company that provides a superior buying experience will win most of the time.

This change reflects the fact that most buying experiences now begin electronically, and it’s important for Sales and Marketing to coordinate efforts and agree to the steps needed to nurture visitors to develop them into leads.

That said, opportunities begin in one of two (2) ways:

1. Inbound – Which for many complex B2B offerings means that mid to low level staff are evaluating products with or without sponsorship (budget?) from executives. To Rita McGrath’s point, the buying experience (how to handle visitors) will change quickly as companies frequently research what their competitors are doing and making changes accordingly to their websites and strategies.

Some of the major challenges with inbound are that:

  • Visitors evaluate several vendors in parallel (there usually is no “Column A vendor”)
  • Entry points are low and gaining access to higher levels may be difficult
  • Vendors don’t have the ability to target companies they feel most likely fit the profile of an ideal prospect

2. Outbound – Key Players are difficult to contact, but proactive outbound efforts to take them from latent to active need to achieve specific business outcomes provides huge benefits to vendors that are successful in doing so:

  • Higher entry points make qualification easier
  • Taking Key Players from latent to active need allow sellers to start as Column A
  • Average transaction sizes are likely to be larger because budget constraints aren’t as much in play
  • Buying cycles will usually be shorter
  • Win rates will likely be higher
  • Ideal profiles can be targeted

Googling “cold calling is dead” recently yielded 3,750,000 hits. Traditional cold calling will yield disappointing results. Two findings from an American Marketing Association survey provide insight as to why:

1. On average it takes 7.2 contacts before reaching executives

2. An overwhelming majority of sellers give up after making 1-3 contact attempts

Vendors that realize bus dev should be a process rather than a random activity and design a series of touches will have the ability to proactively build pipelines that start at executive levels. If it were easy everyone would be doing it. Those that do it well have a reward waiting:

A sustainable competitive advantage.

Take a look at the sales training workshops available to you.