You don't sell stainless steel kitchen bowls.
Over the years, I have been privy to many sales masterminds, literature, strategies and sales processes. Well-crafted and thoroughly researched articles and books about the habits, actions and behaviors for effective selling are not hard to come by. I am the first to commend such authors for their efforts to help fellow business owners/leaders achieve prospecting success—
selling is a tough gig.
I'm sure you are familiar with the formula: validate your business concept, define your target, create your “unique selling proposition” and hit the streets with a streamlined message. Great. Good advice—especially when supported by information on how to effectively achieve and deliver such steps. Age-old wisdom suggests that you must have a very specific target and something of unique value to attribute the specific needs of this audience.
BUT what happens when you don't sell stainless steel kitchen bowls? What happens when the thing you’re selling isn’t specific to a particular target audience? What happens when you're not alone in what you sell (saturated market)? What if you sell all kinds of services (multiple targets)? Or— how about this one—what happens if you’re trying to sell something that is (or is practically) a commodity? For scenarios such as these, theory and practice may seem like worlds apart. But there is good news: you don’t need to find a ‘niche’ to be successful.
As a business owner, you may not have the luxury of selling to a highly defined, specific target audience i.e. stainless steel kitchen bowls to high-end executive chefs. You may even struggle with which part of your business you should be selling, where you should be selling it and to whom you should be selling it, altogether. In many cases, you are likely selling exactly the same thing as the owner down the road or across the street—quite literally. A chiropractor fixes spines, a dentist cleans teeth an architect designs, a physiotherapist provides rehabilitation, and a graphic designer creates digital masterpieces. Sure, each may have a different spin on service, process, people and technology (and each would likely cringe at such a dumbed-down description of their service offering), but, ultimately, they are selling the same thing as numerous competitors and it's really hard to differentiate true value for something that has limited options for variability.
So how do you do it?
How do you sell a common service in a saturated market and still be successful?
Well, of course, it depends. It depends on your business, it depends on your objectives, it depends on your culture, it depends on your location, it depends on your target(s’) behavior(s), etc. To get you started, however, here are a few common thoughts which transcend all companies’ sales strategies—regardless of what you’re trying to sell and to whom you’re trying to sell it:
1. stop trying to be unique and/or better: focus on improvement
Not every business can claim itself to be unique. Often times, in response to the typical question “what makes your business different”, owners squeamishly force a response. For example, “we are local”, is one of my personal favorites (note sarcasm). Being local is not unique—it’s not even a differentiator—it’s a fact. Although many patrons may seek to find a locally originated provider to service their needs, there is a multitude of companies claiming the same ‘unique’ attribute. Likewise, claims of being ‘better’ are often unsubstantiated, falsified, or worse, perceived as ‘trying too hard’. Instead of forcing originality or comparison, try focusing on company improvement. Most clients/patients prefer to hear about positive experiences and declarations about how the company strives to become better for those it serves. Bigger, faster, smarter, better than the competition statements are irrelevant—clients/patients care about what you can do for them—not about what your competitors can’t do.
2. find new models and/or channels to deliver your services
Step 1: open the doors. Step 2: deliver the service. Traditionally, owners stop at this point but there are many other avenues to explore beyond the typical business model/channels. I’m not talking about moving your services online—digital channels are no longer ‘options’, they are table stakes for playing in the game. Stop and appraise your business model: are there innovative ways to sell your expertise that extend beyond the typical approach? Can you package your expertise into a product (i.e. author a book, program, system, etc.) to complement your daily service delivery? Is there a way to sell your common service in an uncommon way? Map the journey of your customer and map the typical steps in the process of delivering your service. Then, ask the question “why?” If you find that the answer resembles, “because it’s always been like that”, then it’s time to get creative.
3. be a commodity snob
Too often, owners take advice from their personal life and use it as an actionable item for their business. This is not always recommended. Specifically, the advice which suggests that it is wise for one to step outside of one’s comfort zone isn’t always a good idea in business. Owners need to run a business based upon a particular expertise. If you are good at something, stick to doing just that—regardless of whether or not other companies do it (and more). Don’t try to be a jack of all trades if you’re a jack of one. Stick to what you do well and don’t be afraid to snub those who seek something that falls outside your comfort zone. It's better to be an extraordinary commodity snob than an ambiguously mediocre generalist.
4. be there. be there often. be real.
You cannot (and will not) grow your business or differentiate your business from the competition if people don’t equate you with positivity. If you are truly interested in running a successful business, you need other people. You need to contribute to their well-being. You need to be nice. You need to be helpful. I’m not talking about taking a people skills workshop, I’m talking about being a regular, caring Jane/John Doe.
Proof: my lawyer took me out to lunch a few weeks ago—not because I’m his most profitable client (I can assure you, I’m not), not because we have current business on the go (we do not), not because I know someone with whom he is attempting to be connected (I don’t), and not because he was honing his ‘relationship management’ skills (although I’m sure that may have been a wee part of it—but that’s ok!) No, he took me out for a hot bowl of seafood chowder to talk about nothing—and it was fantastic (both chowder and discussion). There are a lot of lawyers—A LOT—and it is a very common service. All else being equal, people will choose to do business with people they genuinely like. Period. Too busy to be around people? Make time or start hiring more people to share the load of running your business.
5. have a pricing strategy
Often the biggest (though limited) opportunity to differentiate your, otherwise, common service is to establish a pricing strategy.
The best pricing strategy: have one.
Find out who your most profitable clients are. Determine which services/products give you the best profit margin. Do a google search on “consumer lifetime value”—learn it and apply the concept. Consider how loyalty fits in with the price you charge. Far too often, business owners glaze over pricing, which, when you think about it, is the most important part of business’ survival. Don’t just research your competitors’ prices and/or apply a blind, across-the-board markup on your services. Invest some time into your pricing strategy—the result of which can add tremendous perceived value in the eyes of your clients/patients—and it will pay dividends.
Selling is hard. Selling something for which a limitless array of service providers exists is even harder. This is perfect competition—you just need to take the boring out of ordinary and the mundane out of common.
The “RedFlag Series” aims to inspire professional service providers to ‘up their game’ with respect to business performance. By providing practical ‘food for thought’ regarding common ‘red flags’ which often hinder business success, our hope is to help owners/management mitigate complacency, stay on their toes and excel as savvy business owners.