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So . . . You Want to Sell Me Something at ERE?

by
Dr. Michael Kannisto
Mar 23, 2011, 4:38 am ET

Those of a certain age will remember a very famous print advertisement that McGraw-Hill used to run. It was called “The Man in the Chair,” and featured an imposing looking gentleman sitting in a chair, staring intently at the reader, while the ad copy to the left of his picture read: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know your company. I don’t know your company’s product. I don’t know what your company stands for. I don’t know your company’s customers. I don’t know your company’s record. I don’t know your company’s reputation. Now what was it you wanted to sell me?”

The moral at the bottom of the page was “Sales start before your salesman calls.” The message was straightforward: developing trust based vendor/customer relationships takes much more than a sales call, and the more you know about your customer up front the more likely you will be successful.

As requisition loads increase to frightening new levels, and because the ERE Expo in San Diego was approaching, I received dozens of inquiries from vendors eager to talk about their new product offerings. And while I love hearing about the latest and greatest tools and services, more often than not I feel a lot like the stern old man in the chair.

I know that the era of Mad Men is long gone, but I believe using some of those old-fashioned approaches to doing business could be a positive differentiator in today’s blur of virtual, real-time, mobile, digital, 3.0 engagement. Many of my colleagues have also noted the change in the way sales calls occur; today customers feel like there is much less emphasis on relationship-building. If you’re selling something, or plan to sell something, here are some tips that may give you an edge in today’s crowded marketplace.

Don’t Let Our First Contact Ever Be an Electronic Meeting Invitation

I suppose the availability of contact information makes this incredibly tempting, but nearly everyone I spoke with while researching this article agreed that it makes a really poor first impression. I receive meeting invitations almost every day from perfect strangers, and I find it frustrating to try and figure out who is sending them.

Don’t Reach Out if You Don’t Know a Single Thing About My Business

People frequently call me asking me to review their approach to social media. I find that almost none of them have ever been to my careers website, reviewed my current social media platform, or even know what product my company makes or sells. The same technology that makes it so easy for these people to find my phone number and e-mail address could also be used to learn a lot about my organization and my business needs. I always wonder why people didn’t take a few extra seconds to look at my company web page before dialing the phone.

Don’t Read Me a Script

Or at least read it with some feeling! Many salespeople hardly even bother to say “Hello” before launching into a sales pitch. It’s obvious they are reading it, and words like “exciting,” “new,” and “amazing” are pronounced with the same lack of intensity as the rest of the script. I know cold-calling is an important way of establishing new business relationships, but that first impression is so important, and I often wonder if the company’s management has ever listened in on some of these conversations.

Tell Me What You’re Selling Right Away

As I’ve said all along, I like getting calls from people who have cool new things to sell me. But sometimes I’m not the person who is in the best position to make a decision about a particular category of product. The faster I can determine what it is you’re selling, the faster I can get you to the person you should be talking to. “Why don’t we just meet for 30 minutes and I can tell you about our unique approach” is not an efficient use of anyone’s time.

I Can’t Be Bought

Many people I know began their careers in an era where gift-giving was commonplace. I remember one company in particular that would send my former boss and his family into New York City for all-expense-paid weekends when trying to get additional business. Perhaps in direct response to what many of us saw in those days, most of the people I know who now run corporate recruiting functions have a completely different mindset, and gifts of any kind or value are given away or are simply refused. Many of us saw where being up for sale inevitably leads you, and are committed to doing things differently under our watch. If you don’t know your prospect, you might be unknowingly offending someone by offering gifts.

If I Don’t Choose to Engage on the First Go-around, Don’t Demand an Explanation

I try to get back to everyone who calls me, and close the loop. Sometimes people are selling a very expensive product I just don’t need. In these cases I send a nice note thanking them, and indicating that I don’t have any interest at the moment, but if my needs change I will certainly keep them in mind. After all, if I just purchased an applicant tracking system, I don’t need another one. Surprisingly, many salespeople respond with another request for my time, and demand a detailed explanation for why I made the decision I did. I find this awkward, and many others do as well.

I Don’t Want to Steal Your Idea

I once worked with the kind of vendor I genuinely love — one that had a great idea, a small group of committed employees, and was busily trying to grow the company. I was eager to help, and had even provided some customer insights that I thought would help make the product even more attractive to buyers. Just when things were getting really exciting, I received a note asking me to sign a pile of paperwork prepared by a lawyer that basically prohibited me from ever discussing anything I ever said, heard, or thought about this product. I understood the concern: protecting intellectual property is very important to a new business. But I would have preferred establishing the rules of engagement up front. I had no intention of stealing their idea, and most customers don’t plan to take ideas and start their own competing businesses.

Don’t Have Someone Reach Out to Me on Your Behalf

I find it amazing how many e-mails I get that start off “I’d like to schedule 30 minutes of your time to meet with our VP of Business Development.” I know many people you will never, ever do business with a company that employs this practice. Funnily enough, in my personal experience, it’s RPO providers who are guilty of this most frequently. If you can’t be bothered to reach out to me yourself when you’re trying to get my business, how accessible will you be when you already have my business and I have a problem? Working in this field has provided me with some thrilling opportunities to talk with some amazing people — business leaders, noted authors, and even genuine celebrities (when I’m selecting a keynote speaker for an event). Almost without exception they have interacted with me directly, and that personal touch always makes a positive impression.

If I’ve Had a Bad Experience With your Company in the Past, Telling Me “That Guy Is Gone Now” Does Not Instantly Fix Things

After years in recruiting I’ve seen it all: companies not delivering work that was already paid for, auto-renewal clauses hidden in contracts that then are whipped out triumphantly … after they expire, confidential information making it’s way to my competitors, etc. Since people and relationships are at the core of what we all do, it really stings when people violate our trust. Business relationships can be re-built, but that takes time, and empathy, and a genuine acknowledgement that something really wrong happened and won’t happen again. Simply glossing over something that compromised my business or cost me money in the past makes it difficult for me to believe things will be different in the future.

So, vendors: requisition volumes are up, the pool of top talent is shrinking, people are retiring, millennials are shaking up the workplace, and everyone is relying upon you to bring solutions to market that will help us sort it all out. We love the things you develop, adore bringing them into our organizations, and are proud when we partner with you and deliver a victory. Hopefully these suggestions will help you avoid encountering that “Man in the Chair” on your next sales call.

(Also, this isn’t a one-way-street. Let’s hear from the vendors out there about how we can be better partners with you.)

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Derek Christenson

    Great article. I am glad to hear that you “close the loop” with someone when you don’t have a need. It can be very frustrating to speak with someone one time and never reach them again or hear from them. I always appreciate someone that does take the time to give me a real reason why they are not interested in my product.

  2. Ernie Graham

    Hi Michael, I love your transparency!

    I founded a tech startup in Denver called SocialBios about a year ago. We’ve been developing “social search” technology and just completed an alpha product for employee referrals. Basically, it’s the “six degree” power of LinkedIn discovery without the social pressure on employees. Company branded, massively sensitive to employee AND job seeker privacy, and extensible to all job posting syndication networks.

    I don’t have anything to “sell” you right now but I would love your comments/insights about how we are developing the product for your industry. I’m flying in from Colorado today and staying at the Hyatt. If you’re interested, you can reach me at: 720.235.8075 or ernie@socialbios.com or @egraham2. Or, I’ll see you tonight at the poker tournament final table.

    Cheers,

    Ernie Graham
    founder/ceo – SocialBios

  3. Angela Strohkirch

    I couldn’t agree more! Why is it so difficult to be honest about why you’re not interested. Very simply, I already have and ATS or we don’t have the budget this year for such a thing. Any honest answer would be great….save both parties time!

  4. Martin Snyder

    Well written piece here. My only comment would be that these rules all apply to stuff you MIGHT want, but if there is something you REALLY want, well…..it’s a whole other story.

    There is a certain deli in our town. The service is horrible- rude, slow, half-assed, and maybe even a little e coli to go with it. Yet the line is out the door at lunch every day of the week. When you WANT something, its amazing what you will put up with.

    As to not being “able to be bought”, actual bribery has not fully established itself in American business as it has elsewhere (cultrual norms- although this seems to be changing, sadly, along with a lot of other rot), but reciprocity is a strong human drive, easy to trick, and that’s why people try to trigger those feelings in sales situations.

    Free gifts ? An oxymoron.

  5. Phil McCutchen

    Great article Michael! I’m of the age that I DO remember that McGraw-Hill B2B ad — at least from the awards it has garnered over the years ;-).

    The advice you give here is applicable to any vendor (including recruiters) attempting to establish a relationship with anyone in order to do business with them. The relationship has to be earned. However, in today’s world it often seems that the time necessary to cultivate a business relationship is a premium many are unwilling to pay.

    The point of the ad message you spoke of was to tell potential advertisers that they must aid in cultivating a relationship by giving the prospect solid, credible information on which to base an opinion of the vendor before the sales person ever called. That takes time, effort and resources.

    Thanks for the reminder of how we SHOULD approach you and earn your trust and, potentially, your business!

  6. Luke Toland

    Michael, this was a truly refreshing article. I do have to wonder though, if I’m prospecting for leads, especially for recruiters who can be hard to track down, sometimes email is the first point of contact. As start ups go, for example, they don’t have relationships for the most part. If they’re trying to sell you something, how else should they do so?

  7. serge bronstein

    your best point was: tell me what u r selling right away. so so true. so many times sales ppl start: oh hi how r u? blah blah blah … i personally am very impatient, usually don’t have much time just get to the point and tell me what it is …

    especially true for recruiters as well … usually it starts with. my name is john. i am calling from acme tech staffing. we are the largest tech staffing … etc etc

    do i care if u r the largest tech staffing? no. for one, if you were the largest, i probably would’ve heard about u. just tell me the short summary of the position you are calling about, or better yet, send an email first.

  8. Sylvia Dahlby

    This is one of those articles that I wish I had written. It reads like a list of my pet peeves when I take a sales call, my number one would be don’t bother calling me without knowing a single thing about me or my business. In the age of the internet, any sales person who does not do their homework does not deserve a minute of my time. This should be required reading for everyone who sells.

  9. K.C. Donovan

    Michael – right on! It’s funny as I have been the one getting those calls for the last 10 years – and now I am the one making them (new Social Recruiting start-up recently launched). You seem like someone I would like to get on the other end of my calls – but unfortunately I must add that the far majority of people we approach – with pretty much what you advise as our approach (and we even go a bit farther than you preach) are well – rude, condescending, dismissive, and worse. It seems that with the bombardment of data and content that we all experience that it is tough for many to accept hearing anything else new…

    We take a very professional, consultative approach and if anything probably spend too much time researching business targets (my sales guys tell me I my call velocity should be higher :)…of course it is critical to be a good listener and learn what problems a prospect has to see if you can help them – if not it’s important to turn them on to a competitor that can (if their interested). In many cases, we’ve been calling to offer the prospect company 3-6 or 12 months of free services – but rarely get to that point of the conversation before getting rushed off the phone. Reading this it seems as if we are a bunch of incompetent sales folks, but I can attest that this is not the case (hours are spent role playing, chatting about various issues we can help resolve in the industry we serve and reviewing a consultative sales approach).

    Anyway, thought you would appreciate that not everyone is as open to learning about new ideas as you seem to be… (need a Career Community built and managed?). Anyone else seeing a change in the last year or so in vendor sales relations?

  10. Keith Halperin

    @ K.C. and any other vendors:

    I work for a large and growing organization.
    If your product or service has a decent-length free trial-period, please feel “free” to contact me.

    Also, any organizations looking for a recruiting product or service beta-tester, give me a call.

    Now, that wasn’t so hard was it?

    Cheers,

    Keith Halperin
    keithsrj@sbcglobal.net, 415.672.7326

  11. Advice for Recruiting Startups - ERE.net

    [...] Oh, and read this. [...]

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