March 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
This is a recording of a prank call a friend randomly sent me. On the surface it really has nothing to do with sales advice but if you’ve done sales for even a little while you’ll be able to sympathize with the guy on the receiving end of the call.
It’s a pretty extreme situation – the caller is in search of some made up piece of equipment, a “digital suppressor” or a “digital repressor” or something to that effect. The sales clerk, apparently working at a software store, mounts a feeble attempt at trying to explain that they don’t sell digital equipment, and then does something we’ve all done before. He spends the next minute tap dancing, trying to match something he sells (a “solution”) to something what the would-be customer wants (a “need”), even though there’s no possibility of a fit whatsoever. In the life science world it might be like someone calling up telling you they need a robot for DNA extraction, and you replying with “Well, we have great dessicators! Do you want one of those?”
After a minute and a half of getting nowhere the sales clerk on the receiving end of the call does something brave, something people just don’t do that often in sales and business in general: he’s asked another question he has no idea how to answer and just tells the guy “To tell you the truth I do not know.“
This situation is a useful parallel for anyone in sales, especially in the life sciences. One of our applications scientists said it best when he told me “The second they (a prospect) smell you bs’ing you’ve just lost their trust, and it’s so much harder to get it back than it is to just hold onto it in the first place.” We all have egos and our egos tell us that we should never be caught not knowing, that we should know as much as or more than the people we’re talking to… especially in a sales situation where we’re supposed to be the expert, right?
I don’t know how it is in enterprise sales but in the life sciences it just usually isn’t the case that you’re going to know more about the field than your customer is. You may know more about your products (in fact, you’d better!) but in terms of the science behind it your customers are probably going to have more knowledge. This isn’t your fault!
Most of our customers have studied their fields for 10 or 20 or 30 years. On the other hand most life science sales reps I’ve met have a biology or related background, and maybe even some bench experience, but for seasoned reps that was years ago and what’s left of what they learned at the bench is a fraction of what our customers know. Becoming a Professor is a 10+ year undertaking devoted to diving very, very deep into a specific domain. Again, by contrast, becoming a successful rep requires broader understanding of your entire customer base – you might deal with geneticists, microbiologists, biotech-, and ag researchers in a single day. It’s just not feasible to know as much as they do about their field.
But instead of trying to hide that fact, by dancing around questions with non-committal answers and best guesses, you should embrace it. It gives you a chance in every conversation to give your ego a rest and let your customers demonstrate what they know about their field, and in the process learn more about what matters to them and why your product may be important.
Another unique aspect of our industry is that in the life sciences our customers deal with precious samples that either cost tons of time & money to make, or are simply impossible to replace. If you get caught bs’ing in a sales call because you were just interested in closing the sale as soon as you can, you’re inviting your customers to ask “what else is he bs’ing about?” NOT what you want when every sample, and every bit of data your product generates, has implications for the researcher’s career.
This is why companies have field applications specialists… they speak your customers’ language so you don’t have to have a PhD level understanding of 5 different subject matters. Be brave, say “I don’t know,” and trust your applications specialists to fill in the gaps.
I had to learn to do this early on in my career because I’m a psychologist and linguist by background – it’s not hard to tell when I don’t know the answer to something biology-related, so I’d rather tell you straight up that I don’t know, instead of you catching me rambling about something I’m not qualified to ramble about!
Before your next phone call or sales visit commit yourself to answering at least one question with “I don’t know.”
January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment
Inside Sales has grown a lot as an industry/profession/role over the last decade. This is not surprising considering the advances made in communications technologies, which allow people to share vast amounts of information regardless of geography. But to some extent I believe “Inside Sales” has reached buzzword status and companies accept it as a given that an Inside Sales team will boost revenue without applying any critical thinking. In this post I want to examine what its benefits and limitations are in the Life Sciences.
To be sure, much of the growth of Inside Sales as an industry is warranted. The premise is that because most of what field reps do can now be done online or over the phone (ie with video conferencing, screen sharing software, emailing, and phone calls), your company can reduce the cost of a sales person by 1/3 or more because there’s no longer a need for extensive travel and face to face meetings. However, so much of what applies to the software companies of Silicon Valley does not map one-to-one for life science companies selling equipment and reagents. Software products and the markets for them are inherently different.
With modern technology a software sales rep can give a live demo of his product to an end user completely over the phone with the aid of tools like www.join.me (Join.me is a great tool for screen sharing by the way, and the free version works perfectly well!). You can also give a prospect a trial version of your software for a month at zero marginal cost. This is not so when you’re selling capital equipment or even reagents. Another aspect is that the markets themselves are fundamentally different. You just won’t find people in your typical software-consuming tech company that are as skeptical about new technologies and products as PhD scientists, who are essentially trained in the art of cautious and methodical questioning. I have talked with companies that sell Sales and/or Marketing automation software when looking at software platforms that might help expand the Inside Sales operation at companies I’ve worked for. When I raise the concern that a lot of what they say about their platforms seems like it’s perfectly applicable to software products, but not so much to my product and my market, their response is invariably something along the lines of “Of course it is. We have customers selling $2 million dollar software packages entirely over the phone.” Software is different, as are it’s customers. I don’t think it’s as simple as comparing prices of software packages vs. life science capital equipment purchases and calling it a day.
That said, whether or not your Inside Sales reps are going to carry $2 million dollar quotas or close $2 million dollar deals entirely over the phone I still think there is a definite role for an inside sales team in life science equipment and reagent companies. The main things an inside sales team can do are qualify leads, close deals (if your product has the right market acceptance and price range) and set up standing orders for reagents if your company sells equipment that has an ongoing need for reagents (NGS platforms are a perfect example). Which role you choose for your Inside Sales team will depend on the following:
- Company: is your company an upstart or a well established player? does your company’s name (brand) inspire comfort/confidence in the customer, or does it cause them to scratch their head and say “you’re with who?”
- Product: is the product the first one of it’s kind that your company has developed or do you have an established track record of successfully producing products like this one? are there others on the market that the customer can compare it to or is it a first of its kind?
- Technology: is the technology brand new in the field or is it well established? are there companies with similar technologies you can reference as competitors or is your technology first of its kind?
- Price: is the price within the ‘operating expenses’ range (under ~$100k) or is it a capital equipment purchase?
- Demo-ability: do you sell reagents that you can demo by shipping a prospect a small quantity for them to use, or do you sell capital equipment that requires you to tie up a large, fixed amount of resources every time you send out a demo unit? if you sell capital equipment can it be demo’d by the customer sending you a sample and you preparing a report for them with the results, or does the equipment have to be on site in the customer’s lab in order for them to demo it?
- Prevalence in the market: how many people are using your product currently in the field? Are there lots or just a few? if there are lots in the field then even if you have a difficult to demo product (ie requires that the prospect uses it with her own hands) your prospects will be able to demo it in a colleague’s lab instead of having to get a demo instrument in their own lab.
- Capital equipment, reagents, or both: are you selling razors, razorblades, or a combination of both?
For a new technology, from an unestablished company, producing a new product which sells at a capital equipment-level price, that requires an on site demo you better believe that an inside sales team is not going to be closing deals with no face-to-face customer interaction. You get the picture. No matter what Silicon Valley says it’s just not happening.
However that’s not to say that Inside Sales can’t play an active role in lead qualification, a topic I have written posts on before. This is consistent with the theme that Inside Sales can be a cost-saver to the sales operation as a whole. Lead discovery and qualification takes less experience than deal closing so it can be done by more junior people. And let’s face it: the graduating classes of 2010 to 2014 are much more phone/internet/telecommunications savvy than the graduating classes of ~1995 and earlier, the age group which tends to represent most life science field sales teams I have seen so far. I’m, not trying to be ageist or controversial here. We grew as these technologies were growing up, plain and simple. So, a more junior rep, who is less costly by nature, is probably your best bet for lead discovery and qualification initiatives which rely heavily on online research methods (Google, LinkedIn, Biomedexperts, Twitter, etc).
As a real world example, Illumina sells the MiSeq entirely on an Inside Sales model (ie online and over the phone). On the spectrum defined above, Illumina is the best known company in the NGS market, selling an established technology, which they’ve proven with past products that they’re capable of developing, at a price point that falls below the capital equipment expense level. The newer and more costly HiSeq is still sold by a field sales team.
Bonus: you’ll also notice that I put a 7th item on the list, which asks about whether your company sells capital equipment, reagents, or reagents that pair with your capital equipment. If the answer is both, you’ll probably have recognized by now that your field sales reps are not terribly fond of chasing up on relatively small reagent orders (several thousand dollars vs. tens to hundreds of thousands of revenue they book for each capital equipment sale). But that revenue stream still needs to be forecasted and paid attention to. Setting up standing orders for reagent kits is another excellent use of Inside Sales, as it frees the field reps up to do what they do best, hunt for new, large dollar customers.
Hopefully this lays out a helpful framework for deciding what role Inside Sales can play in your Life Sciences company. What combination of Inside and Field Sales does your company use, and what tasks are each of the teams best suited for in your environment?
August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
In life science research, a collaboration is somewhere between giving product away for free and giving a discount on it in order to receive something in return. Discounts are a common negotiating piece – ie if you order NOW (so I can hit my quota this quarter) you’ll get a 10% discount off the list price. In order for discounts to be effective in the long term, though, they have to be used as part of a negotiation, that is, you have to get something in return for the discount you offer.
This is where collaborations come in. You can always close a sale by offering a large discount. But if you do this frequently enough, without taking something in return, you’ll earn a reputation among your customers of being a pushover, and you’ll have a harder and harder time of closing sales near your list price.
Life science professionals are used to collaborating, and the idea of a collaborative discount just makes intuitive sense, without a whole lot of explanation. If you’re ever working on a sale where your price point is just too high, but the prospect is someone whose business you really want, try offering a collaborative discount instead of a plain old discount.
The propsect should be someone who has the power to help you make more sales in the future. They might be a big pharma company. They might be a key opinion leader on the academic side. They might be a famous clinical reference lab. Or they might even be a “smaller fish.” If you’re trying to get your product accepted by industry researchers, you might want to initiate a collaboration with your first few biotech company customers, even if they’re smaller operations. Getting those early customers to ‘evangelize’ on your behalf will give you credibility that you’ll need to tackle the larger customers later on, who are often slower moving and more cautious (because they have more at stake).
The important thing is that individual reps understand the strategic direction the company is trying to move in, so they can identify potential collaborators when the opportunity arises. In other words, if you’re pursuing pharma companies, your reps should know to offer collaborative discounts to pharma company customers, and not customers in the agricultural research market.
The deliverable of your collaboration might be one of the following:
- an application note that you put up on your website and use as a sales tool when prospects ask about a specific application of your product
- a press release that you and the collaborative customer coauthor together
- the customer’s agreement to ac as a reference lab for future prospects
- the customer helping you organize an informational / educational seminar at their campus to spread the word about your product
- coauthoring a paper or a conference abstract
If you’re saying to yourself that all of these suggestions embody some form of social proof, you’re correct. As a startup, especially in the life sciences where your customers are trained to be skeptical about anything new, establishing your credibility is one of the biggest barriers to widespread acceptance in the market. Every form of customer collaboration should be designed to help you achieve that, and if you have to give a discount in return it’s a small price to pay.
In the next post(s) I’ll go into more detail about how to execute on the above.
July 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
High Probability Selling is the best sales book I’ve read so far. SPIN Selling, Solution Selling, Conceptual Selling, etc. are great books. They give someone who’s new to sales a solid road map for getting from prospect to $$ in the bank.
High Probability Selling (HPS) is different though. It’s less about conveying a road map (though it does this too) and more about teaching an attitude (which I’ll talk more about after this paragraph). I like this because in adopting a new attitude towards sales you can put it to work right away – it’s a blanket that covers everything you do. When all you’ve got is a road map, on the other hand, it’s easier to “do it wrong” and get lost / flustered / thrown off your game. For young salespeople learning an attitude over a road map is especially helpful – because mastering an attitude gives you confidence and presence that takes years to get otherwise.
The approach of the high probability seller is to 1) accept the world for what it is, 2) be straightforward and honest, and 3) give your customer the option to opt out of the sales process at any time. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re thinking – being realistic & being honest is part of every sales philosophy. But HPS approaches these differently, in a concrete way that’s easy to adopt into your own style, I promise. Let’s look at the 3 points above in more detail to see why.
1) Accept the world for what it is: call a spade a spade. A prospect who’s interested in your product is interested in your product. A person who’s not interested is not interested. Who do you think is more likely to buy? A prospect who can afford your offering at this time can afford it. A person who can’t afford it can’t. Unless you know how to make money materialize in your lead’s bank account you’re wasting your time if you’re trying to talk someone who has no money into buying.
Why do I bother to point this out? Because sometimes we invent wildly elaborate explanations for why the world is different than it actually is. Have you ever explained to your sales manager, or heard one of your reps say: “This opportunity is going really well, this guy seems interested” or “This one is almost closed – next I just have to check to make sure they have $$ to buy and then the deal’s closed.” Chances are you have. And chances are you’ve been let down if you’ve been equating interest in your product with interest in BUYING or capacity to buy.
Just accept that some (many) people don’t give a crap about you, your product, or your company. Also accept that some prospects who you thought were a sure thing, because they were super interested, are going to fall out of your forecasted pipeline when you talk price and realize they don’t have the money to buy what you’ve got. Just accept these things. They’re part of selling. If you’re a top performer who doesn’t experience these as part of selling, please, teach me your secrets.
Instead, focus on people who want to buy (not merely interested) and can afford your gear, ie people you have a high probability of selling to. I’ll talk about that in #3, and you’ll find that #2 is a tool you’ll use often in the process.
2) Be honest and straightforward: again, this should be a big-time “no shit.” Let’s narrow the scope a bit. By honesty I don’t mean “not lying” – if you’re a salesperson who lies in order to sell you should be in jail not sales.
By ‘honesty’ I mean honesty of intention. In a sales dialogue you establish trust by keeping your prospect about why you’re asking what you’re asking. You lose trust in trying to get information in a sneaky way. Money, for example, is something that people feel uncomfortable asking prospects about. But talking about money in a sales dialogue is not only natural but 100% necessary. Just come out and ask, with explanation:
This is what our product costs. Is this within the ballpark of what you can do, or not? If it’s not, then we’re both better off if we figure that out now rather than after you’ve put resources towards an evaluation and gotten your colleagues involved and whatnot.
The subtext of what you’re saying here is “I don’t mind if you’re not someone I can sell to, so if you’re not just go ahead and let me know. My time is valuable and so is yours so lets just make sure we don’t waste it.”
By ‘being straightforward’ I mean never, ever, trying to conceal the reason behind asking your question ( same as above, more or less). Looking at the example of introducing yourself to a prospect that you’ve just cold called, after doing some research on them to make sure there’s a potential fit (I sell medical researchers in academia & industry):
This is what I used to do: I’m calling because I saw a paper you wrote on xyz and I wanted to learn more about your research. (By the way I’m a salesperson – that’s OK, right?)
This is what I do now: My name is Kevin Bebak with IntegenX. I’m calling because I noticed a paper you wrote on xyz. We sell reagents for room temperature stabilization of DNA & RNA. Does that sound like something you might want for your research, nor not? (note the absence of bullshit in this way of introducing & asking)
1) You can get people to say yes to just about anything if you ask correctly. But that doesn’t mean that their true intention is yes, it just means they’ve said yes. When you get a “Yes, that sounds interesting” from someone to whom you’ve presented yourself straightforwardly, then you know it’s a meaningful yes. The result, in the long haul, is that the people in your sales pipeline are in your pipeline because they want to be, not because you want them to be. Big difference.
2) You lose respect by being snake-like, even from the people who has every reason to be interested in your product. Trust is a funny thing. It’s easy to gain someone’s trust and also very easy to lose it. If you start your first conversation with someone by leading them unknowingly into opening up about their work or business, you plant a seed in the back of their mind that says “I’m in this for me more than I’m in it for you.”
Present yourself honestly and you’ll improve your focus and maintain respect.
3) Always (always, always) give them the option to opt out: whenever you are inviting your prospect to take another step forward in the sales process, let them know they dont have to. This is my favorite part of High Probability Selling – it narrows your focus, it allows you to discover concerns before they become problems, it differentiates you, and ultimately, it IS (not conveys) confidence. It’s the polar opposite of the sales doctrines that give the field it’s shite reputation (“ABC: Always be closing,” or “Never let the prospect take control.”)
These doctrines are misguided. What do I mean by giving them the option to opt out?
- In the introductory phase, you ask “Is this something you would be interested in, or not? Either way is fine.”
- In the demo phase, you ask “Is this a high enough priority that you would want to demo our product now, or is it not a priority at this time? Either way is fine.”
- In the ‘rally support’ phase, you say “I’ll need to talk with your colleagues about the budget and technical evaluation parameters if we are going to move this forward. Are you comfortable making those introductions, or not? Either way is fine.”
- When you’re getting ready to collect the order, you ask “Are you sure you want to move forward with placing the order now, or not? I want you to own the decision, either way.”
If you’ve managed to shift your perspective to “Sales is about convincing a person NOT to buy from me” then you’re doing a good job. After all, if they still want to talk to you, then they must really be a high probability prospect.
March 19, 2012 § 3 Comments
Sometimes it feels uncomfortable to ask a prospect straight-up when they’re going to put their order in for your equipment. You’re afraid of coming off as saying “I would like to close this sale so can you please tell me when I’m going to get my commission?” But it’s generally more uncomfortable to try to get that information from your customer in a roundabout, “tactical” sort of way. So do your customer and yourself a favor and just ask the question.
“We’re putting in an order for parts at the end of the week, so can you tell me when your order is going to come in, so I can order parts to include your system in the next manufacturing run?” Or how about: “The price is going up after the weekend, so can you tell me when your order is going to come in so we can lock in at this price?” Or even better: “We’re almost out of inventory so can you tell me when you’re going to place your order so I can reserve the last of our inventory for you?” Almost without exception, these questions make you sound like a late night TV ad screaming:
When late night TV ads are running (not that you ever watch late night TV ads…) and the ShamWow ad comes on and tells you “Order RIGHT NOW and we’ll double your order for FREE. That’s an additional FOUR ShamWowS!” do you really think to yourself “WoW! I’m getting $40 worth of these things for only 20 bucks!!” or do you think something more along the lines of “I guess 20 bucks is what eight ShamWows is going for these days”??
Now imagine you’re a researcher with an MD / PhD / DDS / DVM / MS or some combination of the above, and ask yourself how you’ll interpret the salesperson asking you when your order is coming in because they’re running out of parts and they really want to get you a system. Would you think “Wow! This person really wants to help me get my system as soon as possible!” or would you think “This guy wants to know when he’s getting his commission to pay for that trip to Hawaii“??
If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the second one.
I am not condemning any and all tactics used to create a sense of urgency with your buyer. You have to in order to get them to buy. However, if you pull tricks like this out of your hat when you’re making it up for your convenience, it won’t serve you well in the long run. Why?
- Because your customers have likely been in the game for a while. This means they’ve purchased a lot of scientific research equipment, which means they’ve talked with enough salespeople to know every trick in the book.
- Because making up self-serving circumstances shows a lack of mutual respect. If you’ve gotten to this point in the sale (ie you’re asking them when their order is going to come in), then you’ve put in plenty of work to earn your customer’s trust, and you’d be foolish to piss it away. Being straightforward shows and reconfirms respect.
- Because, in three words, the three golden rules of sales are “Qualify, qualify, qualify.“ When you’re nearing the end of the sales cycle, asking your prospect for a straight-up answer about when they’re going to make their purchase will tell you how committed to the purchase they are. If they give you a straight answer, great. If they’re unable or unwilling to give you a straight answer, you learn right then and there that one of the sales you’ve been counting on might not be as close to “closed” as you thought it was. It gives you an opportunity to make a recovery instead of trucking forward with false assumptions about your prospect’s intentions.
- Academic markets tend to be small and very networked. If you tell every single customer you ever deal with that you’re running out of parts, just when you need to close the sale, your customers will learn your ways over time.
A good (and simple) alternative:
These words almost never fail me: “Bob, last we spoke you mentioned you were getting close to putting an order in for our equipment (our reagents, our services, etc). I know there’s no crystal ball for this sort of thing, but I’m trying to do some forecasting of how much business we’re going to do over the next 3 months, so can you give me an estimate of when you’re expecting to place the order?“
You let them know they’re giving you their best estimate, not signing a contract in blood, and it puts them at ease to make an estimate. You give them an honest reason for why you are asking so they have no reason to doubt your intentions behind the question. Do these to things and you’ll almost always get what you’re looking for. If they say that they can’t give you any kind of estimate, then take this opportunity to probe and figure out why. More on this in another post.
Extra: IFF (= “if and only if” in statistics speak) one of the circumstances that I opened the post with is true (ie you really ARE running out of inventory, or you really ARE doing a manufacturing run at the end of the week and you need to order parts), now is the time to make that known. ” (continuing from above…) so can you give me an estimate of when you’re expecting to place the order? And now that I mention it, we’re ordering parts for more systems this week, so if you want to get yours set up in the next month like we talked about, the sooner the better.“
Please let me know about your own approaches and how this approach works for you in the comments section below.