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  • Christopher Ahearn

Selling Through the "In Box"

If you let them, the customer will outline the process and willingly give you a step by step playbook for how to win their business.



I know I'm not the only chief sales and marketing executive that's "sat on the other side of the table" and experienced both excellent, and not so good sales and marketing pitches.  My hope has always been that my own sales and marketing teams were aligned with the former, but the chill in my bones tells me otherwise.

Excellent or needing improvement, one nuance many sales people  miss is how to get their proposal to the top of the customer's "in box."  For example, I remember calling on a major financial institution with one of our company's sales people just after the economy went into a free fall.  I recall the customer vividly as she pointed out her dilemma.  "Look" she said, "I used to be responsible for leading the department.  I've now also taken responsibility for managing some suppliers directly.  It's been tragic here, we've had to lay off 25% of our department; so we're all pitching in and just holding things together thankful to still have a job."


"While I love the ideas in your proposal; and believe they're a great fit, I just don't have the time to build the business case. Instead, I'd like to talk to you about how you can reduce your price so I don't have to take you out to bid."

Suddenly our company's sales person went from pitching an idea to grow the business to defending the current program and price.  Naturally, the sales person began to panic and list all the benefits of our current program with the customer, all the progress that had been made, etc.

When the rep came up for air, I politely inserted myself and began to ask the customer some questions about how she was feeling and coping with all the change.  The customer shared a lot about how stressed she was and how on edge her department was, and how all she knew was that she wanted to find a way to meet the company's objectives to cut costs and save jobs.  I then shared my experience sitting on her side of the table. I told the customer I totally understood her perspective.  I told her I to had an in box full of all the things my boss wanted done, the staff wanted done, customers wanted done, vendors wanted done, and that somewhere in there were some good ideas that I wanted to pursue.   The customer interrupted me and said, "You forgot about my husband, my kid's sports team, the school, etc."  At which point we all started laughing.

Then I told her that I thought we could help.  I asked her to take us through the processes being created and monitored by the company to save money.  I asked her what was expected, by when and how initiatives were being tracked.  The customer outlined the process and told us what needed to be done every step of the way. The customer willingly gave us a step by step playbook for how to win the business.

When she was done, I told her that I was certain we could do >90% of the work for her.  I asked her how she planned to reduce costs form the various suppliers being that she'd lost most of here team.  Her response, "Good question!"  I told her that's where we could help.  I told her to think of us as an extension of her team.  We'll do the analysis, we'll build the implementation plan, we'll even craft a draft email to your boss.  And of course, we promised to get her feedback every step of the way.

Within about sixty days the customer's in box was reduced in size along with some of her anxiety we won the business.

Looking back it became obvious to me why so many sales people miss this opportunity.   I believe it's largely because they've not been on the "other side of the desk" dealing with all the issues that go along with implementing a new idea and/or changing a program or supplier.  It take's a lot of work and is one reasons why 60% of RFP's are won by the incumbent.

I now regularly coach sales people to be conscious of the challenges the customer faces.  Because no matter how good or lucrative your proposal may be it must to get to the top of your customer's in box before it will be considered. Do you know where your proposals are in the in box?

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