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You’re Selling Too Much, and It’s Killing Your Business

As it turns out, pleasing some people (vs. all) is your best sales strategy. Here’s a three-part plan for transforming your generalist sales model into a specialist solution machine.
American Felling Axe
photo courtesy of Best Made Company

When the New York Times profiled designer turned craftsman Peter Buchanan-Smith in June 2010, the “authenticity” trend was new. Weeks earlier, his Best Made Company had sold its entire inventory in the Father’s Day rush — and all it offered were hand-painted axes. Best Made has since become a celebrity darling and the poster child for artisanal products with a purpose.

Best Made now makes roughly 50 items, which range from a small first-aid kit ($45) and Kevlar shears ($66) to a “big jug” of organic maple syrup ($68) and a Lumberlander camp blanket ($180). The company is dedicated to making quality tools that last a lifetime and selling goods that encourage people to appreciate the outdoors.

Best Made is an extreme example of what a recent Bain & Co. study suggests more companies should be doing: selling less stuff to the right people. According to Bain, the typical sales model is becoming so large and complex that it is unable to deliver the very targeted expertise that customers demand. “Generalist” companies that are accustomed to solving every problem for every client are now struggling to deliver the types of “specialist” solutions that earn customer loyalty.

“Account managers may realize too late that they need additional expertise, and they frantically call specialists to join a sales effort at the last minute,” write four Bain partners in the brief “Is Complexity Killing Your Business Model?” “In other cases, companies deploy specialists before thorough qualification of a prospect, or to help with contract negotiations. Each situation results in overused, misapplied sales resources or missed business opportunities.”

So how do you devise specialist solutions without reinventing the wheel with each RFP? It’s simple: Build up your expertise in the areas that your most loyal customers will find invaluable. Here’s a three-part execution strategy from Bain.

1. Identify key customer “sweet spots” using two criteria — segments with highest lifetime value and those in which your company’s distinct expertise consistently wins. Talk to these companies, learn what they need, and define appropriate offering. Recruit any additional experts needed to deliver it.

2. Don’t waste your experts’ time by sending them out on every sales call. Instead, get them in front of clients when customer input and attention will help most: during new product development. Once a solution is in place, your experts should train the team and move on.

3. Reward meaningful sales goals, not “last year plus 10 percent.” Is your company’s strategic goal the penetration of a new market? If so, tie your largest incentive to that stake in the ground. What you did last year is irrelevant.


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