Monday, July 29, 2013

When Uncovering Client Needs, Silence Is Golden

When I've asked technical professionals about their impressions of salespeople, I've usually heard that salespeople tend to talk too much and listen too little. Yet when I've accompanied many of these same technical professionals on sales calls, guess what I've often witnessed: Too much talking and too little listening.

I suppose we're accustomed to copying what salespeople do (and I'm not immune to this problem) because that's the example we've inherently learned from—even if we dislike it. But it goes deeper; most of us suffer from a strong self-orientation that naturally manifests itself in doing more talking than listening. Selling only makes matters worse because we assume that talking is the best way to persuade.

Yet one of the most powerful sales techniques is simply to listen more. When RainToday surveyed professional service buyers (including those who purchase A/E services), the number one complaint they made about sellers was their failure to listen enough. Of course, effective listening involves asking the right questions the right way, an issue I've addressed  in a couple of previous posts (Part 1, Part 2).

Don't overlook the value of being silent on occasion either. Years ago I learned one of the most effective techniques ever in encouraging buyers or clients (or anyone else) to share more information with you. It's called Golden Silence. It leverages our natural discomfort with prolonged silence in conversation with people we don't know intimately. 

How prolonged? It can be less than 5 seconds. Research shows that the average salesperson, after asking a question, will only wait 2-3 seconds before rephrasing the question, answering it himself, or moving on to another topic. That may sound extreme, but I've observed this myself in numerous sales calls. Apparently, only 2-3 seconds of silence is enough to subconsciously prompt salespeople to fill the gap.

You can use that tendency to your advantage. Ask a question, then pause 3-4 seconds before saying anything more. Some call that Golden Silence I. Then after the client responds to your question, pause another 3-4 seconds—Golden Silence II. This is where you'll really see the power of silence.

Waiting that additional second or two can have a remarkable impact on your sales conversations. Without realizing it, the client often senses a need to extend his or her answer because of your delay in responding. Therefore, the space just beyond Golden Silence II is where I often glean my best insights into what the client is really thinking.

It sounds gimmicky, I know, but it works. Give it a try, perhaps in conversations with others first. Let me suggest a couple of limitations, however: (1) Don't overuse it, because it can make the client consciously uneasy, even if he or she doesn't really understand why, and (2) It won't work as well (or maybe at all) with people you know well because they will be more comfortable with the extended periods of silence. Of course, you probably don't need to resort to Golden Silence to get such a person to share openly with you.

Practicing Golden Silence judiciously will help you with another important tactic in sales conversations—slowing things down. Many people, especially those uncomfortable with the sales role, have a tendency to rush the conversation. Perhaps they're trying to cover too much ground in one conversation (one reason it's crucial that you plan your sales calls). Often it's a result of trying to share too much information without giving enough attention to getting information.

So if you're struggling with making the sales pitch, don't. Emphasize helping rather than selling. Try asking more great questions and sometimes—strategically—saying nothing at all.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

The How and Why of Conducting an Employee Survey

No doubt you've heard of the substantial business benefits of having an engaged workforce. Let me give you some specifics, drawn from Gallup's recent study of 1.4 million employees in nearly 50,000 business units and almost 200 companies worldwide. Those business units in top quartile in engagement exhibited:
  • 22% higher profitability
  • 21% higher productivity 
  • 10% higher customer loyalty
  • 65% lower employee turnover
  • 37% lower absenteeism
  • 48% fewer employee safety incidents
  • 41% fewer quality incidents or defects
If you'd like to see that kind of improvement in your firm, the obvious question is: How engaged are your employees?

I find it puzzling that most A/E firms don't formally solicit feedback from either of their top two constituencies—clients and employees. Does it matter what both groups think of your firm? Of course it does! So why do so may firms neglect getting regular feedback from them?

If your firm is one of them, let me urge you to begin collecting feedback from both clients and employees. I provided guidance on getting feedback from clients in a previous post. This post focuses on the how and why of conducting an employee survey.

Define the purpose of your employee survey. There are at least two key reasons for clarifying why you're seeking employee feedback: (1) it helps you determine what questions to ask and (2) it enables you to better sell the value of doing the survey, thus increasing participation. If you've not done an employee survey before (or it's been a long time), employees will be justified in questioning your intent in doing it now.

So what should your purpose be? Looking at the numbers above, you could certainly make a case for gauging the degree of employee engagement. But that may suggest that company performance, rather than interest in your employees, is your primary motive. Be sure to frame the issue from your employees' perspective. You might also be interested in uncovering employee perceptions of your firm's culture, values, or leadership.

Most employee surveys focus on determining the level of employee satisfaction. Experts point out that employee engagement and employee satisfaction are not the same thing. Yet neither are they mutually exclusive objectives. So I advise combining elements of both, with the overall purpose of determining how to create a better place to work. That goal should help gain employee buy-in.

Determine what questions to ask. There's an art and science to asking the right questions in the right way when conducting a survey. I don't claim any special expertise in this area, but I've surveyed thousands of employees and clients over the years and have gotten useful results. The secret is following the lead of those who are the experts, adopting aspects of their approach and using their questions as appropriate for your survey.

In the A/E industry, a good resource to start with is the questionnaire that ZweigWhite uses in their annual Best Firms to Work For competition. Using their questions gives you the benefit of being able to benchmark the responses you get against those of other firms (the employee response summary starts on page 28 of the linked report). Which questions you borrow from this and other employee questionnaires will again depend on your stated purpose. For measuring employee satisfaction, you can refer to this sample questionnaire for additional ideas. 

If you want to gauge employee engagement, you want to ask questions that reveal employees' commitment and emotional connection to the firm. One expert suggests that six questions are particularly helpful in indicating employee engagement:
  • I am proud to work for my company
  • I intend to stay with my company for at least another 12 months
  • I would recommend my company as a great place to work
  • I understand how my job contributes to the company's success
  • My colleagues are passionate about providing exceptional client service
  • My colleagues are willing to go beyond that is expected to make the company successful
The third question above relates to what is often called the Net Promoter Score, which some consider the most important measure of all. It seeks to determine the relative proportions of "promoters," "passives," and "detractors" for your company, whether among employees or clients. Another take on this measure is the question, "I would recommend my firm's services to my friends or family."

Decide how many questions to ask. I've found no consensus in the literature on what's the right number, so I rely on common sense. One source indicated that a 50-question survey takes about 30-40 minutes to complete. Some surveys I've seen are over 100 questions. These lengthy questionnaires must get results, but I prefer high participation rates over an expansive set of questions. Could you expect 80% of your staff to spend 30-60 minutes on an employee survey? That's my minimum target participation rate.

Long questionnaires present another challenge—more things to analyze and more issues to respond to. Usually, responding to employee concerns made evident in a survey will involve further investigation, talking to people and asking more questions. So you don't need to cover all the bases in your questionnaire. In my experience, questionnaires are better at uncovering concerns than analyzing them. I suggest no more than about 25-30 questions.

Determine the type of questions. There are several types of questions that are used in questionnaires. You can read about them here. I tend to favor questions (actually statements) with a five-point rating scale. That's consistent with most of the employee survey questionnaires I've seen. The most recent version of ZweigWhite's questionnaire uses a combination of rating scale, dichotomous, and open-ended questions. You might want to consider a similar mix.

Make sure you adequately communicate to staff. You want to generate some enthusiasm for the survey by communicating your purpose and the expected result. Start this process well in advance and use appropriate frequency and multiple channels. I've seen firms undermine their employee survey by failing to do this, which can lead to widespread suspicion about the real intent or the company's commitment to follow through.

Make it easy for employees to respond, but don't give them too much time. These days, online survey tools like SurveyMonkey offer great advantages and will suffice to reach most of your staff. In some firms, though, there will be a handful of employees who don't have ready internet access or simply prefer a paper questionnaire. It's more work, but give them that option.

I usually advocate giving employees a week to respond, with a few additional days allowed to try to get stragglers involved. Giving them more time, in my experience, does little to improve participation. Be sure to give appropriate reminders; they make a big difference in response rates.

Carefully maintain anonymity for respondents. The one aspect of conducting employee surveys that has surprised me most is the degree of paranoia typically that exists, with some employees concerned that management will be trying to figure out who said what. Hopefully that doesn't reflect a breakdown in trust between leaders and staff. In most cases, however, I suspect that many of these people would remain suspicious no matter what firm leaders did.

Nonetheless, you can help the situation by taking steps to guard anonymity. One such step is to avoid asking for too much demographic information, which is obviously helpful in analyzing the results but may reveal too much in smaller offices and business units. Another step is to hire someone outside the firm to at least receive and compile the responses (but even this step will not assuage your most conspiratorial colleagues).

Above all, follow up appropriately! While I strongly recommend conducting periodic employee surveys, there is a risk: If you don't address significant employee concerns that are uncovered, you might be doing more harm than good. This is why many firms are reluctant to do employee surveys. But you don't become a great employer by avoiding asking employees how you're doing.

Responding to employee concerns does not necessarily require solving the problem. For example, when my former employer conducted its first employee survey, the number one concern was a sense that staff was not adequately compensated. In response, we compiled industry compensation data and compared it to our salaries. We found that less than 10% of our employees were paid slightly below industry median ranges and adjusted their salaries accordingly. 

When we surveyed employees the following year, the issue had gone away, although 90% of them had received no adjustment. That's because their concern had been a perception—as such concerns often are—that was appropriately addressed and corrected by the firm. In other cases, the firm was not able to correct a problem raised by employees. But simply listening to them and communicating why the problem existed largely alleviated the concern.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Navigating the Complex Sale

City staff selected our team for their largest contract ever, but after some behind-the-scenes political maneuvering by a competitor, City Council stunningly overrode their decision.

The oil company's environmental director, a strong ally, told us he was the primary decision maker. But after another firm was selected for the job, we learned that he had only 3 of the total 10 votes. His boss, who we had not met, had 5.

Three members of the selection committee ranked our proposal first; another member picked us third. But the fifth member, unhappy about a perceived slight, gave us a last-place ranking, causing us to finish a narrow second.

These are three of many examples I could offer where the dynamics of what is known as the complex sale prevented me and my colleagues from winning an important contract. If you're not familiar with the term, a complex sale is one in which their are multiple decision makers involved. This, of course, is the norm in the A/E industry.

Yet despite its prevalence, we continue to mishandle the nuances of the complex sale. Over the years, I've worked with many firms on critical sales opportunities. Most of the time, there have been obvious gaps in how well the firm understood or was positioned with key client decision makers. In many cases, the firm didn't even know who the decision makers were.

There's a common tendency to focus the sales effort on one or two individuals within the client organization. These may be people who we've worked with, who seem to like us, who simply are more accessible, or who we happened meet somewhere. Often, we draw conclusions about our chances of success based on interactions with these one or two people, only to learn later that we overlooked or underestimated the role of other key decision makers. I've made that mistake many times myself. 

It's helpful to keep in mind that in a complex sale:
  • The different decision makers have different roles within the buying process.
  • Each has a different perspective on what's most important.
  • There are often relational dynamics that play a large part, whether between you and certain decision makers or among the decision makers themselves.
Recognizing Different Buying Roles

There are four principal roles among the decision makers (or "buyers") you encounter. I like consultant Laura Ricci's acronym BUGS to help remember those roles:
  • Bosses. These are the ones who control the purse strings and have approval (or veto) authority. A Boss may be a single individual (e.g., an executive VP) or a group (e.g., City Council). Bosses are often in the background, without an active role in the buying process—until they weigh in on the selection decision. One of the most common mistakes that A/E firms make relative to the complex sale is failing to identify and engage the Boss.
  • Users. These are the individuals most directly affected by the buying decision, those who you are likely to work with most and often have a similar technical background. Users typically are the focus of your sales efforts, the buyers you know best and are most comfortable interacting with. You're also more likely to overestimate their role in the buying decision, paying too little attention to other key buyers.
  • Gatekeepers. These people monitor whether the process is being followed and determine whether your proposal meets minimum requirements. Examples include purchasing managers and contracting officers. Like bosses, they usually have veto power, but only shared approval authority. The importance of Gatekeepers varies widely among clients: With federal agencies, they may be your primary point of contact during the sales process; with municipalities, they may have only a minimal role. It's important that you understand how much weight they carry in the buying decision.
  • Supporters. These are individuals within the client organization who want to see your firm win. They may or may not have a direct role in the selection process, but are at least in a position to influence it to some degree. Of course, having a Supporter can be extremely valuable, but beware of overplaying your hand. Be realistic about the magnitude of this person's influence, and don't take his or her perspective as the final word on what the other buyers are looking for—better to ask them yourself.
Identify and talk to all the key decision makers. If you did nothing more than this, you would place your firm in rare company. Most of the time, your competitors will not have "covered the bases" with the different buying roles.

Uncovering Individual Win-Results

To borrow Miller Heiman's term, win-results are the anticipated results of a sales transaction that constitute a personal win for each individual buyer. In business-to-business sales, we often focus on corporate-level needs and results, giving too little attention to what the people involved want. Uncovering personal win-results adds another level of complexity, of course, because they differ for each buyer involved. A few keys to identifying win-results:

Don't assume win-results based on an individual's job responsibilities. It's easy to conclude that, for example, the purchasing manager cares primarily about saving money and the operations manager is most concerned about performance. But such global assumptions are often misguided. Here's my rule: If you haven't asked, don't assume.

Explore the personal consequences of organizational needs and problems. As I've written in this space before, there is added value in addressing not just technical issues, but the associated human consequences. You'll find that personal win-results are often related to how client problems impact individual buyers. Don't stop short of asking about such personal implications (e.g., "So how does that problem impact your job?").

Addressing Relational Dynamics

The complex sale involves the challenge of not only having to build multiple relationships with each client organization, but having to navigate the sometimes tricky relational dynamics among the buyers. Some buyers run interference for others, especially Bosses. Others want you to believe that they're leading the process when they aren't. Still others simply don't work all that well with their colleagues. So how do you deal with these dilemmas? A few tips:

Work through other buyers to reach the Boss. As noted above, Bosses can be difficult to engage in the sales conversation, and other buyers are sometimes part of the problem. It's usually a good idea to solicit the help of your primary contacts to get access to the Boss. What if they're resistant for whatever reason? Try to make a compelling case for why it's in their interests—and the Boss's—to facilitate that discussion. For example, say a User or Supporter obviously likes your proposed solution. Ask, "Who else in your organization would we need to persuade to make this happen? Can you help get me an audience with them?"

At some point, seek a meeting with the group. Working through conversations with individual buyers has its limitations since ultimately they will make a joint decision. Group dynamics come into play at that point. Better to witness those interactions in person before submitting your proposal. If you can convince the group, you're in a stronger position than trying to accomplish the same through individual conversations. Plus it gives you a chance to observe how the group responds collectively, including interpersonal dynamics, and to help guide them to a consensus.

Don't avoid the buyer who's not your fan. Whether this individual has another favorite firm or has something against yours, you don't want to simply ignore him or her as firms often do. If the buyer prefers a competitor, consider my suggestions for displacing an incumbent. If there's a problem, try to resolve it (directly or indirectly, depending on whether the buyer is willing to acknowledge it). Outline what steps your firm will be taking to shore up any perceived weakness or avoid repeating any perceived past offense.

Make your Supporters look good. Don't settle for simply winning their favor; help them succeed in the eyes of their colleagues. Ask the right questions to expose these opportunities and then respond appropriately. Enthusiastic Supporters can help you navigate many of the relational hurdles you'll encounter among those making the buying decision.

Monday, July 8, 2013

How to Create Effective Marketing Content

When it comes to developing new business, you can tell prospective clients why they should hire your firm, or you can show them. Which do you think is more effective? Consultant Charles Green refers to the latter approach as "sample selling," a long-time practice in product sales but less popular in professional services. The key difference is a focus on helping rather than selling, which gives the client an opportunity to experience what it's like to work with your firm before making a buying decision.

In marketing, this approach is embodied in what is known as content marketing. In contrast to the traditional self-congratulatory, show-and-tell method of "getting the word out," content marketing involves sharing information and insights of value to clients. This can be accomplished through multiple channels such as articles, white papers, presentations, webinars, blogs, podcasts, newsletters, and social media.

The effectiveness of content marketing is well established. But many A/E firms have been slow to commit to it in large part because of concerns about how to produce all the content necessary to make it work. No doubt there's a significant effort required to succeed at content marketing, but it may not be as daunting as you think. In my previous role as marketing director for a national environmental firm, our content marketing generated leads resulting in millions of dollars in revenue from new clients who contacted us. This effort was led by a full-time marketing staff of...two people.

From that experience, and working with other firms on content marketing strategy, let me share some tips for creating effective marketing content—regardless of your firm's size:

Define your goals. Marketing at most A/E firms lacks clear goals in terms of output and outcomes. Like any endeavor, you'll have more success if you determine specifically what you're trying to accomplish. What type of content do you need to produce? How will you distribute it? How often? How will you measure results? What kind of response do you expect? How many sales leads?

Identify what topics your clients are most interested in. Effective marketing content is that which is most valued by your target audience—existing and prospective clients. Your firm's client managers should already know what issues matter most to clients, but it's a good idea to informally survey a sample of clients to confirm your hunches. You might be surprised what topics they think are most in demand.

Appoint an editorial advisory board. You need a representative group to help define your content marketing priorities, keep the marketing staff informed of hot topics, and provide some level of review. The group should consist of experts who collectively are familiar with your target markets. I'd suggest having the group meet in person or via conference call on at least a quarterly basis, and to be available to marketing staff as needed.

Commit the time required to accomplish your goals. In many A/E firms, marketing staff spend most of their time working on proposals, which means their availability to focus on marketing can vary substantially. You'll never succeed at marketing as long as it is performed with leftover time. Instead, you should commit a certain number of hours to your content marketing effort, much as you would allocate time for client projects. Create availability by being more judicious in which proposals you pursue. 

Inventory your internal content. Start your content collection by identifying whatever articles, papers, presentations, etc., your firm has created in recent years. Compile these in a central location (e.g., a database on your server) where they can be organized and searched by topic. In many cases, these won't be that useful in their current form. But they can serve as source material for future content items in various formats.

Find the best online content you can find. One of the great benefits of online content is how easily it can be shared. In the old days, if you found an article or news item that you thought would be of interest to a client, you had to copy or fax it, which thrust you into a gray area of copyright law. Now you can readily include links to online material in your email, blog, email newsletter, or online article or white paper. This opens up an extensive amount of content to be included in your marketing arsenal.

Of course, finding this content can be time-consuming. Here are some tricks I've incorporated into my content marketing to save time:
  • Identify top sources of ongoing, high-quality content. These are active websites or blogs you can continue to return to when looking for something interesting and helpful to share with clients.
  • Use Twitter as a ready source of content. This requires identifying and following groups or individuals who regularly post links to useful articles or other resources. You can also use Twitter's search features.
  • Subscribe to email newsletters that link to free online content. There are many choices, and most likely some will fall within the topic areas you're interested in. These offer the convenience of having content sent to your inbox.
Commit to spending 5-10 minutes a day scanning for online content. Of course, more time is better, but the point is that using sources such as listed above will enable you to find a good amount of useful content with minimal effort. Set up bookmark folders in your browser to quickly collect and organize links by subject matter or publish dates. This responsibility can be easily shared among coworkers, including those who are temporarily light on billable work.

Hire cheap labor to help. One of the ways we managed to have a robust content marketing effort at my previous firm was by supplementing our two-person staff with relatively inexpensive part-time help. We used a couple of college interns to support development and upkeep of our popular resource website for corporate EHS managers. We outsourced a few activities to affordable but capable local service providers. I even hired my 16-year-old daughter to help keep our database in order (and she thought she was making a killing at $8 an hour).

Don't rely on your technical experts to do most of the writing. This is one of the quickest ways to hamper your content marketing effort. Very few firms produce enough internal content by expecting their technical experts to do most of the work. A better way is to interview them and draft articles for their review and revision. Likewise, you may need to help them develop that conference presentation or webinar that they just can't seem to find time to do.

But promote the value of building one's personal brand. If you want to be known as a thought leader in your field, you need to publish and present. This is a goal that some technical professionals desire, and it's to the marketer's advantage to help them pursue it. The benefits are accrued both to the individual and the firm. So seek out those who are willing to commit their time to your content marketing effort because it helps them build their personal brand (thus enhancing your firm's brand).

Consider hiring a contract writer. If you don't have the time or talent to do the writing in house, you might find a part-time contract writer an attractive option. Many are both quite capable and affordable. With the downturn in the newspaper industry, you might find a former reporter who is experienced in researching and writing about a wide variety of topics. In my last marketing role, we used a contract writer who was very efficient and a good value for the output. She enabled us to vastly enhance our visibility through the many articles she ghostwrote and had published in various magazines, journals, and newsletters—not to mention the internal publications she supported.

Recycle content to the extent you can. That blog post that attracted so much attention? Why not rewrite it for inclusion in a third-party publication? Or develop a webinar based on it? Perhaps it can serve as inspiration for an upcoming conference presentation. Given my limited time for marketing as a sole proprietor, I routinely recycle content—greatly expanding the audience for my best insights and advice. You should too.

Distribute content through multiple channels. This suggestion naturally follows the previous one. Every time you circulate a link to your latest blog posting, for example, you reach a wider audience. Social media has potential to substantially multiply the reach of your content. Consider sharing your best presentations on SlideShare. Post your internally-produced webinar on your website. Videotape your seminar and post excerpts on YouTube.

Use content to support your sales efforts. With your substantial library of content, you have a invaluable resource to supplement your sales meetings and phone calls. Follow up that discussion about design alternatives with an email that has links to additional information. Stay in front of the client without becoming a pest by periodically sending content that's relevant to the client's needs. Show you're thinking about the client (existing and prospective) by forwarding an interesting article you recently discovered.

Stop worrying about sharing your content with competitors. One of the most common (and spurious) reasons I've heard for not committing to content marketing is the fear of giving valuable information away to competitors. Despite the prevalence of this excuse, I have yet to hear of an example where this happened to the detriment of the firm sharing it. And even if this occurred on rare occasion, does it negate the benefits of a strong content marketing effort?