For this article we reached out to sales professionals working in a number of different sectors to get their feedback on sales strategies that have worked for them.
- Target accurately – When MD Paul Wilson carried out a strategic review of generator hire business Power4 in 2005, he wanted to do something about what he saw as the company’s ‘scattergun approach’ to marketing.
‘We were spending a lot on advertising in all the telephone directories and my question was: is this really reaching our target audience?’ says Wilson. ‘I decided to tailor our marketing to focus specifically on the sectors we thought were the best bets.’
Wilson broke down Power4’s customer database into key areas: petrochemicals, the rail industry, infrastructure and communications. ‘Rather than having sales and marketing people going off in different directions, we focused all our efforts on one specific sector at a time.
‘We positioned ourselves by speaking to the relevant trade publications in the sector we were targeting, which was tremendously successful in establishing ourselves as experts in that sector,’ he reveals. ‘People thought, “We’ll speak to these guys.”’
- Say you can deliver (and wonder how later) – Why sensibly manage expectations, when you can start to have real fun with your business by telling a client: “Of course we can do that.” Even when you have no idea how you’ll be able to come up with the goods.
Colin Crooks jumped in at the deep end in the early days of his not-for-profit office furniture recycling company, Green Works. ‘We were offered this ludicrous task by HSBC,’ he says. ‘They wanted us to get rid of 7,000 desks, and I had six months to do it.’
The bank altered its standard procurement contract and wrote a new one, asking Crooks what he needed. ‘Effectively, we had to get a lease on the back of this contract. We had no money, so we had to convince the landlord we were big enough for the money.’
It’s a classic case of making your own luck. ‘We were really breaking all the rules, and it was fabulous and very exciting,’ he reflects.
- Manage expectations – Promising the world is all well and good, but you’ll burn goodwill in no time if you fail to deliver. Makarand Teje, CEO of software testing concern AppLabs, says it’s important to know your limits.
That isn’t easy when a company is looking for fast growth. Having been set up in 2001, AppLabs now generates revenues of around £50 million and is seeking annual organic growth of around 35 per cent over the next three years.
‘Sales growth becomes the key strategic issue for any small or medium-sized business,’ he says. ‘For both your existing clients and the ones you are going to add, you must be consistent with your message and your ability to meet expectations.
‘The model we have created takes into account all the requirements a client has when they sign up. Many times we get a request that we feel we aren’t suited to perform, and so we will refer the work elsewhere.’
- Conquer new territories – If you’re serious about growth then you’ll want to sell overseas. Dan McGuire, MD of job advertising specialist Broadbean Technology, is trying to crack the US. ‘We’ve won business there,’ he says. ‘To begin with, we’ve had to give some good deals away, so we charge a lot less than we would normally. But we look at it as a kind of expansive move and we’re telling companies: “If you want to be in our first batch of five clients, you’ll get a really great deal.”’
Testimonials and recommendations are essential for McGuire. ‘If you sign up at this lower price, that helps to get us started – we see this as a partnership – so we’d modify our service around your requirements much more than we would further down the line. But in return, when we try to win new business, you tell people that we’ve done a good job.’
- Locate powerful partners – Nasstar, which provides its clients with desktop computing facilities over the internet, gets regular calls from companies looking to resell its services.
CEO Charles Black states: ‘It’s better to focus on a smaller number of high-quality strategic partners, each with a substantial client base. So we might work with a web hosting company that has traditionally only offered web hosting services but is now looking to generate new revenues from its existing customers.’
Black adds that such arrangements work best when there is serious commitment on both sides. ‘If we’re working with a partner that has ten salespeople, we’ll arrange days of seminars and training to help them upsell their customers to our product.’
- Don’t give it away – With turnover of around £50 million, Rightmove is one of the most recognised brands in online house sales. According to commercial director Miles Shipside, its success didn’t come without taking a big risk.
‘We were one of the first property websites to announce that we were charging estate agents for our services,’ says Shipside.
It takes a fair amount of brass to declare that you are going to start charging for something that was formerly free (and that your competitors are still giving away). ‘We spent a lot of time setting up automated data feeds from estate agents’ own software. That meant we offered a higher quality of data [than our competitors],’ Shipside explains.
- Show confidence – A silky sales pitch may not always be enough to persuade a client to sign on the dotted line. Broadbean’s McGuire says: ‘We offer peace of mind and money-back guarantees, committing to much more [than our competitors]. If we mess things up, you’ll get your money back.’
For McGuire, such promises make a difference. ‘You always have to justify your price, but you don’t have to justify it by hard selling. You try and meet needs that other people can’t meet. I’d hate to be one of those companies that tries to be the cheapest. Who wants to go around saying “we’re the cheapest”?’
- Hire a telemarketing company – Nasstar’s Black has benefited from employing a telemarketing company to generate what he calls ‘high-level leads’. ‘It’s not a call centre full of inexperienced people, it’s grey-haired salesmen phoning MDs, FDs and CEOs,’ he says. ‘We define to them the kind of company we’re targeting, they go out and find it, and we pay for the leads they generate. We can stop using them any time: there’s no risk and no overhead.’
- Keep prices healthy – In a downturn there’s more pressure than ever to cut costs. Power4’s Wilson is familiar with that pressure, but says he has done everything he can to resist it.
‘Our market is price driven, but certain sectors are more so than others,’ he explains. ‘For example, the construction sector is fiercely competitive. You get people saying, “Ah, but I can go to Joe Bloggs round the corner who’ll do this £20 a week cheaper.” We won’t compete on those terms – instead we’ll talk about what people are getting for their money in comparison to Joe Bloggs.’
Though Wilson adds that he occasionally has to ‘get down and dirty’ to secure a key deal, he maintains that price-cutting can be a costly tactic in the long run: ‘You can reduce prices at the drop of a hat, but recouping them going forward is a very difficult task indeed.’
- Don’t rest on your laurels – Sure, the regular staff will complain they’re overworked and have enough on their plate, but innovation is what keeps clients coming back for more. Green Works’ Crooks says that even his not-for-profit organisation has to devise new propositions.
‘You have to constantly innovate,’ he explains. ‘When you go back to see clients for a review meeting, it’s really nice to tell them something new, but you can’t go overboard and increase your costs.’
In the case of Green Works, it’s branched out into manufacturing furniture from old desks. Last year, the company also started working with charities in Africa, supplying them with furniture free of charge.
‘Our motive is to find a home for the furniture, but the clients love it too. It’s another way of keeping the interest alive and engaging with them.’
- Hire real salespeople – ‘One thing that amazes me is how many companies don’t have salespeople,’ says Rob Chapman, CEO of Firebrand Training, a provider of intensive IT courses. ‘Several relatively successful businesses I know would be even more successful if they actually hired a salesperson that knew how to sell.’
Chapman, whose company’s turnover has grown 35 per cent a year since its launch in 2001, defines a good salesperson as proactive, tenacious and target driven. A sales team should be ‘the engine that fuels a company’s growth’, he adds.
Candidates for Firebrand are put through a rigorous three- or four-hour interview process involving a peer, a boss and a company director. Chapman adds that he is not simply looking for old-fashioned sales skills, but a good fit with the company’s culture.
‘When times are tough, the right group of people will bond with and support each other; but if you have people who can do the job but have little in common, they may end up fighting each other,’ he argues.
- Freshen up your branding – After stepping up from FD to MD in 2005, Power4’s Wilson decided on a radical rebranding exercise.
The company changed its name from Fox & Cooper to Power4, a name that ‘was punchy, bold and said a little bit about what we did’. Hand-in-hand with renewed marketing, sales and PR efforts, the change helped communicate what the business stood for to new customers, and also ‘rejuvenated’ those inside the company, Wilson says.
Sales doubled in the last financial year from £2.9 million to £5.8 million, and the company recently won a local business award, further increasing its profile.
- Help others grow – Assisting others in your network to gain business can be the best way of helping yourself. So says Penny Power, founder of networking organisation Ecademy, who claims she has used this method to build her own business and is now an enthusiastic exponent of what she calls ‘winning by sharing’.
This can take many forms, says Power, such as referring a potential customer to a competitor when you can’t meet their demands or winning business for one of your clients or suppliers. ‘People always look at trying to compete, but if you hunt alone rather than in a pack, you won’t survive,’ she concludes.
- Plan from the top down – ‘With many businesses, everyone has an idea about what you should or could be doing. If you tried to do everything, you’d end up doing nothing well and hundreds of things poorly,’ says Firebrand’s Chapman.
Turnover has grown by an annualised 35 per cent since the company’s launch in 2001 and now stands at around £10 million.
‘We set milestones for how big we wanted to grow over what period,’ Chapman explains. ‘We then worked backwards from those top-line revenue numbers, calculating how many students we’d need to achieve that, how much they’d need to pay and how many different courses we’d have to run. Finally, we worked out who our target customers were and how to reach them.’
The chief benefit of this top-down approach was to offer clarity and focus to Firebrand’s sales efforts, says Chapman.
He remains ambitious, targeting revenues of £100 million by 2017 on the back of planned international expansion.
- Educate your sales team – The best salespeople understand what it is they are selling and are actively aware of what the customer requires. Green Works’ CEO, Colin Crooks, says this has been essential for his sales team.
‘We really believe in what we’re doing and have a genuine passion about what we do. You can’t get people to sell for you if they don’t believe in what you’re doing.’
Since establishing the company in 2005, he’s won contracts with Barclays, Shell and Exxon Mobil and seen turnover grow to £2.5 million. ‘We spend a lot of time making sure we’re doing exactly what we promise. I take [staff] through the environmental aspect, telling them why landfill is so devastating.’
- Get out there
The worst salespeople are passionate about projects in the office. The best lack a taste for meetings and brainstorming – they get out there and make it happen.
Broadbean’s McGuire says: ‘In the early days it was just about getting sales. We joined an IT recruitment trade association and that worked really well as you’d go for a beer with the chief execs afterwards. You wouldn’t even sell to them – you get to know them. Networking is really important and I still do that to this day.’
- Mix up revenue streams – Don’t be afraid to ask for more. Phillip Blundell, CEO of financial software specialist Intelligent Environments Group, notes that the company’s clients had traditionally been on five-year contracts.
During the past 18 months royalty fees have been introduced to complement the recurring source of revenue. ‘Instead of charging an upfront licence fees, we share the volumes and receive a usage fee,’ he says.
This has been achieved by partnering with organisations such as First Data and Unisys. Blundell says: ‘When global companies like these come on board, they always sell on a usage basis, and that’s how we’ve managed to introduce a change in how we receive payments. They sell on our behalf and impose this pricing on their customers.’