If you run a small services business, you spend a lot of time thinking about where your next customer will come from. Given the time you invest in building a sales pipeline, you might be surprised to learn that almost everything you have been told about the sales process is wrong. Traditional sales thinking puts all the emphasis on stuffing the funnel with prospects. If you cast your net wide and slowly percolate your prospects, you’ll ultimately distill fully fledged customers—or so the thinking goes. This could not be further from the truth.
Fortunately, there is a better way. Working with our friends at Fresh Tilled Soil, we have discovered a strategy that will work for almost any service business. The catch is that it requires patience and flexibility. This is not a quick fix. It’s based on the understanding that saying no to the wrong clients can do as much for your business as getting the right clients. We call this strategy “The Sales Lens” and, executed correctly, it is more powerful than any other strategy we have discovered from driving and sustaining profitable business.
Defining the Lens
The Sales Lens, as the name implies, is a way to focus all your sales and marketing efforts. The most successful organizations are not those chasing multiple customer audiences. They focus on only one audience, the one that delivers the most profit with the least aggravation. They whittle down the distractions so that the definition of the customer can be drawn through the eye of a needle. Creating your Sales Lens starts with analyzing who your ideal clients already are. If you are a new company and don’t have any existing clients, then create a profile of the ideal client and be prepared to modify it once you have real data. As an example, ask yourself:
• Is our ideal customer new to the market or an established business? Which do you prefer?
• Who will be making the decisions? Do you want to deal directly with the founder or CEO? Or, would you rather work with big brands and deal with line managers and mid-level decision makers?
• How much experience does this client have in your field? Are you more comfortable with novices or a client who’s an old hat at the game?
• What communication style do you prefer? Are you a quiet introvert who likes mild-mannered clients, or do you prefer fast-talking extroverts? Is email or phone better for you?
Go back and look at your best engagements and figure out what the successful projects/clients had in common. Also analyze what happened with the projects that did not work out well. Use this data to further focus your Sales Lens. Also, make sure you are aware of what economic drivers keep you profitable. You should communicate your payment terms clearly and seek clients who respect and agree to these terms without haggling.
Putting the Sales Lens To Use
An example of the lens that we use to determine whether to take on a client or project is divided into three parts: client qualities, sales process, and other considerations.
Desirable Client/Project Qualities
• Client has worked with another service firm successfully or values an outsourced relationship
• Client knows what they don’t know
• Client agrees with our methodologies/philosophies (in areas where you have strong opinions, get those out early in the relationship as a litmus test)
• Communication style mimics our own (i.e. online and fast)
• Our deliverables are not tied to people that we can’t control
In addition, if a major operational effort is going to be required from our company, the project needs to have a high mandate from client management, and the implementation team needs to understand what we are doing and be able to keep up.
Ideal Sales Process
• Client values our time and demonstrates this in the proposal process
• The sale proceeds quickly (an endless back and forth is a big red flag)
• Client signs contract on time and makes timely deposit (we have found this to be a high predictor of future payment issues)
• The project meets our financial criteria
• A repeat client is worth much more than a new one
• A referral from a trusted person usually makes for a better client.
Your Sales Lens will have to be adjusted over time to remain effective. After a disaster, figure out what went wrong and adjust the lens. Take a project that worked out flawlessly and add those qualities as well. Keep in mind that the outliers—the best and worst potential clients—are usually easy to identify. What will really make a difference is if you can learn to discern the pros and cons of companies that are on the fringe. Although your gut will often tell you that something is not going to work out, unless you get comfortable with the borders of your lens, the inclination is often to move forward. Our biggest regrets have coming from engagements where we overlooked or ignored the warning signs or decided that we could live with one or two qualities that were outside our lens because we didn’t want to turn down work. Most of those engagements were regrettable and unprofitable.
Saying no to prospective clients and projects outside your lens is what will make your business more successful. In the pharmaceutical business, the most profitable companies aren’t those with the publicized blockbusters, they are the ones with the best yield, spending the fewest resources on the drugs prospects that never make it to market. Said more simply, they are quick to kill what’s likely to be a loser. Difficult clients and bad projects offset more profitable jobs and waste energy. Using the Sales Lens will ensure you spend more time doing what you do best.