By Brian J Majeska

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

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The definition of success in commercialization is market acceptance of the product (preferably customers falling in love with the product), and ultimately, profitable sales for the business. Going into the arena of the marketplace with a new product can be invigorating or it can be scary.  Why can it be scary?

I believe that humans are fundamentally social animals.  Often I joke that being Irish means that I am tribal. You know, paint my face and go fight the battles.  Win or lose, always protect the tribe or the clan. In many ways, this can be incredibly powerful, because each person is working for something greater than themselves.  They are caring about the welfare of others, and this is part of their identity (However, the tribal mentality can also bring forth some of our worst behavior — think about parents at youth sporting events, for example.  I haven’t gone to Grace’s tennis matches wearing battle paint for weeks.)

When people have moments of inconsistency in being of service to their friends, family, or tribe, it can cause  some of the greatest pain, even in wonderful people’s lives.  Think about a time when you did not reach out or make a difference for someone you cared about.  For me, those moments stay in my mind for a long time.  On the other hand, when you reach out and help your friends, they remember you forever. Interesting, isn’t it?  When you help someone, they remember it forever, and when you don’t help a friend, you remember it forever.

Okay, thanks for my moment of introspection, and if any of you get follow-up calls of apology, you understand why… But what does this have to do with the final step in customer success?

In this week’s blog, I am going to discuss the process for overcoming customer objections or dealing with customer disagreements.  The three areas we will cover are:

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  • Customer targeting in the commercialization process (Validation & Growth in Diagram 1: Commercialization Process)
  • The strategic way to handle objections and disagreements
  • The tactics of overcoming objections in a customer meeting or engagement

Customer Targeting in the Commercialization Process

When a new product has been created, sometimes the initial feedback to your sales team is objections or skepticism about the product.  Going back to the social nature of people, this makes sense in terms of protecting the tribe from potential threats.  New products are often viewed as a threat, and the new thing might be uncomfortable to rational people.

The status quo is understood and can be managed.  Something new could cause problems to the customer’s tribe.  It brings uncertainty into the team; the pay-offs need to be high, and there needs to be a risk management strategy to limit the downside.

It is the sales representative’s responsibility to facilitate defining the upside benefit while also assisting the customer in taking the new product from uncertainty to risk (please refer to last week’s blog for further insights on uncertainty and risk: Developing Products that Customers Love to Buy).  The sales representative is the needed guide who can help his customer’s tribe navigate the stream to a better camp.

Consider this from the perspectives of both the sales representative and the customer.  Both parties are either putting a relationship at risk or they are protecting their team from future risk.  Its ironic that change to something better can be fraught with uncertainty for the customer.

The sales tribe have been given a great opportunity, and ideally, they have been educated on the product’s features and benefits. Their management team has invested in the new technology, and everyone inside the company says it’s great.  So the sales representative is a citizen of two tribes:

  • His customer tribe. He has worked very hard to become a member of this society.
  • His company, who needs new product sales and growth.

Being a member of two tribes brings a lot of conflict prior to the first sales call, as well as a boatload of expectations.

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When the commercialization process (Diagram 1) is considered within the context of the Selling Cycle and the Buying Cycle (Diagram 2), it may add a bit of initial complexity for the commercialization tribe (Commercialization is the management practice of creating and marketing new products, and the tribe is the team that does this work for your business).  Ultimately, managing the Commercialization Cycle and the Buying Cycle is the root requirement of the commercialization tribe in the validation and growth phase.  This provides greater clarity to the entire business team.
Mistake Alert for Tribal Leaders. Business leaders will often ask the reasonable questions:

  • “Which customers of yours will buy this product?” or
  • “Boy, this technology should be great for this account,. Why don’t you pitch it to them?”

The problem with these innocent questions (unfortunately, I have used these questions with commercialization and sales teams) is that there is no context or rationale for these suggestions.  The first question puts the sales tribe on the spot, and the second question is a closed-ended question that can only be answered three ways: yes, no, or I don’t know.

A better leadership approach that allows the commercialization tribe to identify the ideal customer target would be the following, using an asphalt technology market segment as an example:

  1. Ask a broad question. For example, what accounts are presently not satisfied with their road maintenance options?
  2. Be an empowering leader. Support (or coach) the team’s decision to not focus on accounts that are in the Uninterested to Low Interest in the buying cycle.

In this phase in the commercialization stage, the objective is primarily validation. Leaders empower their employees to focus on the best customer targets.  This is crucial in gaining early success.

Giving authority to the sales tribe to identify the target customers is crucial for early sales success.  Giving the context of expectations and focus areas makes the process easier for all the team members.  The technical and marketing team has identified the right initial markets to penetrate based on large trends, local requirements, and specifications.  Leading the sales organization in the qualification process of prospects allows for a better pool of motivated buyers.

By determining your target market and then going a step further and identifying your customer target, your have aligned your team for success.  And this is done in a manner that balances the logical with the social requirements.  Targeting customers is not solely about which tribe is most willing to embrace the new product; it’s also about acknowledging the customer’s business requirements and the underlying causes of his objections.  In essence, you skip the low interest customers who are using objections as a tactic for your team to go away and not upset the status quo (See Diagram 2).

Now that we have targeted the right market and accounts, let’s now consider the process of strategically managing the target accounts’ potential objections.

The Strategic Method to Overcoming Objections

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records” – William Ward

One of the best examples of overcoming objections both strategically and tactically was a mastics project (this is an asphalt emulsion-based pavement sealer for roadways) that Tyler Francis (General Manager of Commercial Accounts for Majeska & Associates Kansas market) and Brian Gehring (Vice President of Sales) led for our tribe.

[If you read last week’s blog, dear reader, you have clarity on the difference between a technology versus a product.  A product is something that your customers can buy and in whose reliability they have confidence; a technology is something new that has not yet been packaged so that a customer can use it.  The missing components may be in specifications, reliability, or application.]

In 2011 Tyler and Brian (along with Ryan Brown, Jon Wingo, and a number of great team members) had secured a mastic job, and we were applying our technology on the road.  We needed the product to perform and really hoped this project would be the gateway for significant volume and revenue.

Unfortunately, the application equipment was having difficulties spraying the material.  We fought the application process for a couple of days, and the agency customer ultimately went to our tribe and said the road could not be shut down any longer.  The customer loved the product’s performance on the pavement and valued the price point; the objection was the poor application rates.

Brian and Tyler talked with the district engineer on the project and were able to produce a powerful result that allowed the agency and Majeska and Associates to have a successful outcome.  How did they do that?  Before the problem arose, they had created a business environment that allowed them to manage any potential objections.

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Consider the seven steps they used:

  1. Build a relationship based on value and character.  Building relationships is often misused in sales.  People want to work with professionals who care about the customer’s business.  Care more about the customer versus the product, and good things happen.  Tyler and Brian had spent time building rapport, but it wasn’t “Big Drinks & Big Steaks” with the account, in which low value conversations and entertainment were the focus.  Tyler spent time understanding the needs and issues the district engineer was dealing with, and he spent time getting to understand the real concerns the agency was facing.
  2. Research.  Do research on your account’s business, the market, and the industry segment.  Also, understand the alternatives and the economics.  Knowledge allows you to be a “mind reader,” because you have a shared understanding with the customer.  You begin to objectively see the potential issues or concerns the customer may face.  Learn how to evaluate your product from your customer’s paradigm.
  3. Sincerity.  If you are sincere, your customer will trust your product because he trusts you.  Doing what is in the best interests of your customer’s tribe gains the greatest results.  Sometimes this is pushing the client to move on to the new and better technology.  Occasionally it is about not pushing the technology.  Great sales leadership is about consistently doing the right thing for the client’s tribe.  This can be hard during the validation and growth phase of commercialization, but don’t put your own interests above those of your client.  Find effective risk management strategies for your client’s tribe as you secure new product sales.
  4. Understand limitations and incentives.  Understanding your customer’s limits that keep him from maximizing his profitability allows you to tailor the proposal to overcome these limitations.  And understanding how your customer’s tribe’s incentives work allow for the best potential outcome.
  5. Fear management.  Understand the customer’s fears, and have the courage to discuss them in advance.  What are the downside risks and issues for his tribe?  For him?  The client is going to assess these issues anyway; it is better if you facilitate this dialog with your customer.
  6. Solve the customer’s need.  Focus on the highly leveraged activities of customer problem solving.  This is what Tyler did in taking mastics to this account, and the engineer helped out our tribe when a performance drawback appeared on the project.  A big need for the agency was developing a product that met their price point and also performed well.
  7. Have fun in the process.

Using these principles, Tyler and Brian had developed a relationship with the engineer who was dissatisfied with the application of the mastic.  Because of this relationship, the engineer searched for a solution to the problem that would benefit both his tribe and Majeska & Associates.  He was willing to repurpose the material for a shoulder sealing project if we promised to not give up on the product, which the district needed for road maintenance.

Let’s turn our attention to the basic management of objections during a customer meeting.

the Tactics of overcoming Objections

I have had the opportunity to teach a number of sales training courses during my career, and overcoming objections is one of the most intense segments of these sessions.  This is so because, as mentioned before, the sales representative is a member of two societies: the customer’s tribe and his own business tribe.

Managing objections for most salespeople is a stressful activity.  The sales rep does not want to harm either tribe, because if he loses his membership in either one, his value goes down significantly.

There are four principal categories of objections customers may have with your product.

  1. Misconception: The customer has a flawed or incorrect perception about the performance of the product or the terms of a deal.
  2. Skepticism: The customer doubts the truth about the product or the deal you are presenting. Look at skepticism as a misconception with an attitude.  You customer does not believe what you are saying.
  3. Real Drawback: Your product or deal has a legitimate disadvantage relative to one of its features.
  4. Real Complaint: Whatever you are providing is unsatisfactory for the customer.

These four categories of objections have simplified the millions of potential objections into a manageable number.  The next step is simplifying how to respond to an objection.

When someone expresses an objection to your product, you might let your pride in your product get in the way, and become defensive.  You may think the person does not understand the value and quality of your product.  However, overcoming an objection is the art of first seeking to understand BEFORE being understood.  The steps to first understand someone is to act from a basis of sincerity, and then consider these steps.

  1. Encourage: Allow your customer to discuss the issue or objection.
  2. Question: What questions can you ask that will help you have a shared understanding of the issue?  Do not use the questions as a set-up for proving you are right.  Seek to understand through your questions.
  3. Confirm: Upon gaining understanding, tell the customer what you now understand the issue to be.
  4. Provide: Provide a framework for resolution to the customer’s objection.  Be thoughtful about this step in the process.  Often the quick comeback allows you to win the argument rather than come together with a better solution.
  5. Check: Ensure you are aligned with your customer and close out the issue.

Let’s go back to that blessedly hot day in the middle of the U.S. with our protagonists Brian and Tyler working with a customer.  I love this example of overcoming objections because they nailed the strategic and the tactical aspects of overcoming a customer objection.  Recall, the product was not spraying consistently, and the district engineer was unhappy about the pace of construction.

Tyler and Brian encouraged the customer to voice his concern, and they understood that this s not one of those easy misconception variety of objections.  They were dealing with a legitimate complaint.  They went through all five steps with the engineer, and confirmed the issue was solely focused on speed of application.  Then they collaborated with the customer to find a solution during the “provide” step.  The result was the relationship between Tyler, Brian, and the engineer was strengthened, and the team gained more confidence in the validity of mastics.

Conclusion

“Business, more than any occupation, is a continual dealing with the future; it is a continual calculation, an instinctive exercise in foresight.” – Henry Luce

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Disagreements are often the realm where significant success can be achieved.  There are several perspectives to think about in overcoming objections.

  • Consider the social or tribal aspects of commercialization. Your sales team must be members of two tribes. Give them the chance to do what is in the best interest of your customer’s tribe while advancing the commercialization process.
  • Customer targeting is a powerful tool that increases the chances of commercial success.
  • Planning in advance for objections by using the seven steps allows for a higher success rate.
  • The tactics of handling objections is the art of supportive and thoughtful listening.

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