Small is the new big, trust is the new competitive advantage

I came across this interesting article written by Peter Bregman on the Harvard Business publishing website.

It suggests that the concept of being big as a source of competitive advantage is on the wane. As more and more large organisations are laying people off, some of the decision making processes are being questioned by middle management. The climate of trust both inside and outside the organisation are impacting negatively on employees and customers alike.

We simply don’t trust companies anymore. We trust people. And in big companies, it’s hard to even find a person to trust as we scream “operator” into our telephones only to get transferred to another menu whose options have changed.

It makes for interesting reading. It raises the questions about leadership and trust at a time when most people are feeling insecure about their futures. If Bergman is right then small and responsive companies who can build strong relationships with their staff and customers could be in for a period of sustained growth despite the current economic situation.

I believe he has a valid point.

Link to the article


Identifying Needs: Asking the right questions

school-kids-0167Identifying client requirements is an essential component of being a good sales person/negotiator. There is only one way to find out what a client wants and that is to get them talking. Good salespeople and negotiators spend more time listening than talking and are adept at using questioning skills to uncover client needs. The best way to get a client to talk is by asking relevant questions to the situation. Using the right type of questions can make your job easier than you might think.

There are two types of questions (open and closed) and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Getting the balance right between open and closed questions can make dialogue much easier and consequently the flow of information is more readily exchanged.

Closed Questions

These questions require a client to answer yes or no. Closed questions can be used to control a dialogue. They can even be used to pre-condition a person into saying yes. Ask three closed questions one after the other where the answer is yes and the likelihood of the fourth answer to a question being yes is significantly increased since a habit of responding yes has been formed. The same applies if the response is no. Three closed questions with a no response means that subsequent closed questions are likely to be met with a no.

Whilst closed questions can be used to ascertain positive and negative responses and even hone in on specifics, closed questions do not encourage a client to open up and conversation can often be short, sweet and awkward. Closed questions begin with phrases such as;

• Are you?

• Do you?

• Could you?

• Would you?

• Will you?

• Can you?

Open Questions

Open questions simply encourage the client to open up and provide information relevant to the discussion. They can also help develop a feeling of mutual interest and trust. Open questions should be designed to help you gather information that will enable you to offer a solution to a customer need. Open questions should enable you to find out what products or services the customer currently uses and how he or she feels about them.

Open questions begin with;

• Who?

• What?



• When?


• How?

Open questions can be preceded with the TELL ME phrase. Tell me who? Tell me when? Tell me how? Tell me why? etc. This is a personal choice and should only be used when you feel the other person would be comfortable with such a lead. It can be deemed as an instruction and used inappropriately can lead to the other party clamming up and providing little or no information

Tactical and Strategic Open Questions

There are two distinct types of open questions:

Tactical Open Questions give you data

• What is your customer ref number?

• How many employees are there?

• What is your telephone number and address?

• What type of process do you use?

• How often do you tender?

Tactical open questions are excellent in gaining information that you might need at a later stage to prepare a clear and specific proposal.

For example;

Which airport do you want to fly from?

What dates for travel do you have in mind?

How many people will be travelling?

What level of budget are you looking to spend?

Strategic Open Questions tell you how the other party feels and reveals their buying motives.

• What is the reason?

• Why did you buy?

• What do you think?

• What would it mean to you if?

• How important is it to you that?

Asking strategic questions can be very powerful. This is where the real value is to be found. However strategic open questions can be felt intrusive and therefore requires an element of trust and empathy to be exhibited by the questioner. However, if one can master the skills of asking strategic open questions, one should be able to build trust and rapport with client’s enabling good value judgements to be made.

Building good rapport with the other party can only serve to strengthen your position when you make a proposal at a later stage. Be sincere and professional when asking any questions, but especially those that are strategic in nature. You are venturing into how people feel and that can be considered unwelcome in the business environment.

Build a database of open and closed questions (Tactical and Strategic) and regularly review them prior to any meeting with a client. This will serve to remind you ahead of the meeting a number of appropriate questions to ask. That way you can then build a proposal based on the things that are important to the client.

Here are a few example questions to get you started;

How have you been since we last met?

What do you do when you are not working?

How have things changed since your new marketing campaign?

What do you see as your competitors strengths?

What do you need to be better than your competitiors?

What would happen if………?

Why is that important to you?

What is your reasoning behind your statement?

How do you decide on which supplier to choose?

What is your decision making process?

What time scales are you working to?

What is your level of interest in our proposal?

In which areas are our competitors stronger than us?

Where do we need to improve to get your approval?

What deadlines do we need to be aware of?

I look at my database of questions frequently. This prompts me to think of the type and relevancy of questions I need to ask before I go into a meeting.  Choose the right questions and increase your chances of making a proposal that will win the business.

Sales Objections – The best way to handle them


As a sales trainer the questions I am most often asked to provide answers to are;

I find closing the sale difficult. Please show me some techniques on how to close a sale?

I hate handling objections. Could you teach me how to handle objections?

What this tells me is that the individual in question is failing at the first sales hurdle. They seem to be living under the misconception that making sales is about handling objections and closing the sale – even though this is an important part of the sales process.

Objections often occur because a salesperson tries to close far too early. Sales professionals invest time in asking a range of good quality questions to really qualify and identify customer needs so that they can build this into the presentation stage of the sales process prior to attempting any closing statements. If this stage is done well many objections can be avoided.

For me the best way to handle objections is to pre-empt them as early as possible in the sales process.

One of the most frequent objections to surface is;

That is more expensive that I thought it was going to be.

Many sales people actually like this objection as it suggests that your client is ready to buy providing that you can agree a price that the client is willing to pay. What this does demonstrate however, is that the sales person has failed to establish the level of investment the client is willing to pay, to resolve their purchase requirement in the qualification stage.

Consequently we are now having to enter into negotiation or find a way to handle the objection to get the meeting back on track. Having a discussion on budget allocation up front can prevent this objection from occurring.

What level of budget have you allocated to this project?

What level of investment would you be comfortable in making in order to satisfy your needs?

There are many other objections that occur. Most objections can be prevented by covering them in the sales presentation.

Our product has been shown to reduce rejects by 25% per annum the benefit to you is estimated at £150k per annum. The cost of provision of our service is £50k per annum (within your agreed budget) giving you an return on investment of £100k per annum.

At this point the customer may actually ask when can you start? Alternatively you have the option to move to a close or simply ask;

Do you have any questions? When would you like to start? What is the next stage? Have we done enough to secure your business?

Spend more time on qualification and identification stages of the sales process and you will encounter less objections. You might even find the customer closing by themselves!

The Art of Listening


Communication Skills: Listening

Listening is a very under rated skill. Early in life we were taught to Listen and learn at school but still many of us in our fast paced life have not mastered this concept. Listening is essential if we are to demonstrate good communication skills. Listening is a vital component of communication: what is the message that our opposite person is trying to communicate.

In order to listen effectively we are obliged to concentrate on what the other person has to say. This is extremely difficult because we are also taught that we should have the right to express our own opinions and are often so focussed on our message that we totally miss the other persons point. We should also disconnect as much as possible our natural filters that inhibit our ability to listen and understand.

What are the causes of poor listening?

1.    Over talkative

A person who feels the need to talk will always be concentrating on what they need to say next and miss potentially valuable information.

2.    Self Interest/Interruptions

Many people simply are waiting for key words that trigger their response. There is something of interest here. Now is my chance to say my piece. At this point all listening has evaporated essentially ignoring the other persons content.

3.    Intolerance

Someone does not share the same values as you and therefore you switch off. Or worse you try and explain/impose your values on them. However it is vital that you tune into how these values have come to pass. Seek clarification with an open mind. Only then can you make a considered judgement. Avoid intolerance of others views.

4.    Prejudgement

Human beings generally prejudge most situations and people. This can be a disaster where listening is involved. Once you have prejudged a situation you put up barriers and filters to stop any information reaching you that you have already discounted. Worse still your prejudgement may actually be unwarranted and you have therefore missed an opportunity to build a rapport and empathy with the other party and learn something new.

5.    Disruptions/Noise

Meetings are often disrupted by noise, other conversations, and phones ringing. Climate (light, temperature, ergonomics) can also divert attention away from listening. Try to minimise disruptions to meetings so active listening can take place.

6.    Personal problems/stress

External distractions from personal life (fears, uncertainty, anxiety, financial problems etc) can disrupt your attention. In this situation you will need to double your concentration levels to ensure that the little voice inside us all does not compete for the voice that we should be listening to.

7.    Deficiencies in speech and expression

In some cases it is difficult to listen attentively when the other party is not expressing themselves clearly. They are using words or terminology that you are unfamiliar with. They do not speak in a clear or logical manner. Seek clarification. This alone will reinforce that you are listening and demonstrate your desire to understand the other party’s point of view

Paraphrasing takes place when someone repeats something written or spoken using different words, or in a simpler and shorter form that makes the original meaning clearer. A great way to demonstrate to the other party that you are listening effectively is to paraphrase what you have just heard.

So if I have understood you correctly you would like……………

Taking your comments into account you want me/us to…………….

Looking at it from your point of view you see it like………………….

Is that right?

Paraphrasing what the other party has said shows that you have listened and understood to the point that you can articulate this back to the other person. It also has the added advantage of being able to check your level of understanding and therefore minimising any potential misunderstandings later in the discussion.

Avoid misunderstandings by asking for repetition

If you are uncertain about something that has just been said it is perfectly acceptable to seek clarification by asking for a repetition.

Can you just run that by me again? I did not quite follow/understand it the first time.

Would it be possible for you to repeat that last segment so I can fully understand your point?

Always remember that communication is a two way process. Without listening there is no communication. Attempt to remove all your barriers and filters so that when you are listening you are getting the raw data for you to process.

Try to forget what it is that you came to say and spend more time listening. If what you have to say is important your brain will remind you at some stage in the dialogue and your chance to speak will come.

Remember to paraphrase to show interest in what the other person has to say. This should build trust and empathy and demonstrate that you have good listening and communication skills.

In a selling situation a good way of building rapport is to actively listen to what the other party has to say. Only when you have fully understood what the other party is saying can you look to build an offer that will match their communicated needs.

Writing Winning Proposals

Writing winning proposals is essential if you are to be successful in today’s competitive environment. Competition increases by the day; especially so in a tender situation. Clients can and often do receive many formal offers in response to their requirements. Faced with volume and time pressures, how many proposals actually get more than a cursory glance? Which ones are going to catch ones eye? Some may never actually be fully read. Getting a proposal read and actioned upon is therefore a top priority.

You may even lose out with clients with whom you have an existing and established relationship simply because you are too close to the situation. This can lead to complacency, resulting in writing an ineffective proposal. Thinking you are on the same wavelength you simply send in a brief quote only to find out the competition have nailed their proposal and you are left out in the cold.

It therefore makes sense to respond to client requirements and deliver a compelling proposal that will win the business.

Here are my top tips when writing a proposal.

  1. Imagine each proposal is for a new client. You need to put yourself in their shoes. Establish their needs as accurately as possible. Ask yourself what’s in it for them? Build the proposal around their needs and not yours.
  2. Ensure that your proposal has a clear selling point which addresses client need.
  3. Include a table of contents so that client can easily find relevant information without any fuss or bother. Like an effective website, a proposal needs to be easy to navigate. Finding information quickly and easily should be a key point in developing your structure.
  4. The first page should be an executive summary and include salient points including headline financials and return on investment data.
  5. Avoid using the proposal to show off your knowledge and skills by including everything you know and throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure. A major reason for proposals not being read is too much information! The devil is in the detail, makes for boring reading. Short and to the point is better than long and laborious. If you must include detail use appendices.
  6. Check the numbers. If you they do not add up, then the client will discount all other data and information in the offer. Summarise totals.
  7. Ensure that you have included your full contact information including out of hours contact, emergency numbers etc. Include who in your organization will be responsible for the management of the contract.
  8. Avoid using technical jargon. Use words and pictures that your prospect can easily identify with. Do not use acronyms. Include a vocabulary list if appropriate.
  9. Go to some lengths to make the proposal look smart. Use spine binders or ring binders to give a professional look to the proposal.
  10. Consider the visual impact of the front page. Include prospects logo into the design if available.
  11. Use tables to make masses of numbers easier to read and follow.
  12. Take the user through a logical sequence of pages that demonstrates competence and capability to deliver the solution; Executive Summary, Client brief, Our Solution, Testimonials/Credentials, Terms and conditions, appendices.
  13. Keep the terms and conditions as simple as possible. Nobody likes hidden surprises. The less complicated you make details like payments and delivery terms, the better your chances of winning the bid.
  14. Include independent testimonials of similar work which can be verified. Testimonials are really important in creating a can do image.
  15. Ask someone who has not been involved in creating or putting the proposal together to proof read it. This way you can get some independent constructive feedback on how the document reads.
  16. Use quality paper to stop any text bleed through (minimum 90gsm coated paper).
  17. Do not cut and paste client brief. Demonstrate understanding of client requirements by paraphrasing. Avoid using “as specified” to lighten your work load. This is simply lazy and can get you into hot water should you win the bid and you have not included vital components of the bid in your costing.
  18. Include copyright statement and protect intellectual property where appropriate by asking client to sign a prior disclosure agreement.

Whilst there are no guarantees on what constitutes a well structured and written proposal, if you take into account these proposal writing guidelines, I am confident you will improve your chances of getting the proposal read and ultimately improve those all important  bid to win ratios.

Good Luck.


The Link Between Sales Growth and Customer Service

Profit and growth are in principle driven by customer loyalty.

It costs around five times more to sell to a new prospect than to sell to an existing customer who previously enjoyed the buying experience. Add to that, the benefit of word of mouth referrals from satisfied customers, it is really quite surprising that some organisations pay little attention to delivering high levels of customer service.

Loyalty is a direct result of delivering customer satisfaction. Satisfaction is largely influenced by the delivery of value to customers. So how do we deliver customer satisfaction?

Value is, aside from the physical product itself, largely delivered by human to human interaction. It is essential that employees demonstrate the right attitude, skills and behaviours in dealing with customers. These attitudes, skills and behaviours are often a reflection of company attitudes, beliefs, policies and procedures. Therefore company policies and procedures should be written with the principle aim to enable employees to deliver outstanding customer services. I have come across so many company policies that inhibit employees from delivering customer satisfaction and the result on sales growth and repeat business is catastrophic.

Let us not forget that without customers there is no business.

Three positive effects of customer loyalty

  1. Revenue increases due to repeat purchases and referrals
  2. Costs decline as less is spent on new customer acquisition
  3. Employee retention increases because job pride and satisfaction increases; resulting in improved customer satisfaction, further loyalty, lower staff recruitment costs and a corresponding increase in sales.

Sales and pride

What clients want from customer facing staff

  1. Ability to deliver service consistently and accurately
  2. Willingness to deliver prompt attention
  3. Expertise and courtesy
  4. Empathy and personal attention – not treated like a commodity
  5. Professional appearance of the facility, equipment and staff

In summary customers simply need help and assistance in a professional and courteous manner.


What can I do to deliver customer satisfaction?

  1. Take a close look at internal procedures. Are they customer driven or efficiency driven? Make sure your customer policies enable staff to satisfy customers.
  2. Have well trained (customer relations) and motivated staff .
  3. Deliver on your promises
  4. Welcome complaints as a way to resolve customer issues and create brand loyalty
  5. Treat customers with respect

Deliver customer satisfaction, gain customer loyalty and watch your sales sky rocket.