Using IT to Your Advantage During the Sales Process

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Believe it or not, businesses evaluate your company during the sales process and you may be eliminated without knowing it before you submit your final proposal. While this seems obvious, most businesses are moving at 100 miles per hour and don't take the time to analyze how they interact with potential customers during the sales process.

A couple of years ago, I did a consulting project for a client and interviewed several of their customers as well as companies that took their business elsewhere. There was a common theme among all companies - during the sales process they evaluated potential vendors based on the following criteria:

  • Response time
  • Quality of their response
  • Company reputation
  • Price

I was surprised how important the first two points were for these companies. But when they explained their reasoning, it made perfect sense. If a vendor takes a long time to get back to us during the sales process, what will it be like when they have a signed contract? I experienced this hand when I was looking for a telesales firm. I reached out to several firms via e-mail and phone. Only 1 firm actually got back to me and it took them over a week. These are telesales firms specializing in sales! It blew my mind. Needless to say I went elsewhere.

What are the common causes for a slow response? For the sake of argument, let's eliminate laziness because I'm not sure there is a cure for that. The main problems I've encountered are poor communication and no proposal management processes.

Let's talk about communication first. The Internet and PDAs (Blackberry, Smart Phones, iPhone) phones have significantly changed customer expectations. It is rarely ok to wait even a day to respond to requests from potential customers. Most businesses expect an initial response from potential suppliers within a few hours. Companies that wait a day or more to acknowledge a potential customer are usually out of the running before the race even starts.

If your initial response is quick, the next hurdle is quickly understanding the customer's requirements and providing a quality proposal in a reasonable time frame. Most sales people either use one of their past proposals as a starting point or send out an e-mail to their colleagues requesting a proposal that closely meets the customer's requirements. If a sales person's past proposal is solid, no problem. The problem arises when they send out an e-mail asking a colleague if they have a proposal that meets the requirements. Their colleagues are busy managing their own opportunities/customers and typically don't respond for a day or more. Even if another rep does respond in a reasonable timeframe, it usually takes several e-mails to get the right information. As a result, it takes much longer to produce a quality proposal than it should.  If your competitor responded in half the time, guess who'll win.

Techniques for quick response with more professionalism
Let's talk about tools and processes that can help you improve your win/loss ration. If e-mail is a critical communication tool with your customers, make sure your sales people can access their e-mail from any computer (i.e. work computer, home computer, etc.) as well as their mobile phone (i.e. Blackberry, Palm, Windows Mobile.

Most companies use POP mail which is included as part of a web site plan and is generally viewed as a free service. There is a reason POP e-mail is free - it has many limitations. I'm most familiar Microsoft's Exchange/Outlook premium e-mail service which allows you to access new as well as past e-mail from any computer or a mobile device. You can also share calendars allowing your team to efficiently schedule meetings. You can buy the software and hardware and install it in your building or buy it as a service. The latter method is usually priced per person per month and is typically less than $15/person/month.

A tool such as Microsoft Exchange helps you stay in the game, the next step is too quickly put your best foot forward. I suggest implementing the following processes/tools

  • Typically a handful of proposals cover 80% or more of your sales opportunities. Track success rates for your proposals and identify the most successful proposals.
  • Educate your sales people on your "proposal" library explaining when each proposal is appropriate
  • Store the proposals on a secure Intranet (click on the following link if you aren't familiar with Intranets - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intranets ) so you're sales people can access these documents whether their in the office, at home or on the road. Using e-mail as a proposal distribution mechanism is not effective for the reasons described above.
  • Intranets give your sales team easy access to the proposal they need and quickly get it to your potential customer.
  • You can buy the software and hardware to implement an Intranet (which takes weeks or months) or you can buy it as a service and be up and running within a day or two.

Intranets sold as a service are typically less than $50/month. Web Ex's WebOffice, Microsoft's SharePoint and SMBLive (SharePoint on steroids) are three services I've used in the past.

If you have an alternative process that works well, please let me know. I'm always interested in hearing about new ideas.

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