Customers expect Sales People to be subject matter experts. That is one thing that comes out really strongly from the recent research we carried out along with the Harvard Business Manager. But nearly half of the customers we interviewed don’t believe that Sales People have that expertise. That presents you with a fantastic opportunity.
Sales are made by thought leaders
First, let’s be clear about the way organisations make major purchasing decisions today. They research potential solutions on-line long before they contact potential vendors. They are disappointed when in the first meeting the Sales Person turns out to know less than they do. And they want to be challenged if the Sales Person thinks they are trying to solve the wrong problem.
Subject matter expertise underpins a consultative sales approach and is the foundation for establishing trust. The support of specialists is required in selling complex solutions but Sales People should not underestimate customers’ expectations of their own knowledge.
If you are the person who has provided the information they read from the earliest stages of their decision making process and shaped their thinking you are in a very strong position when it comes to that first meeting.
Becoming a thought leader
In Zurich, the most prestigious office building in town is occupied by a law firm. For every lawyer in this firm there is a set of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) goals. Firstly, they have to say in what area they are a widely recognised industry expert and what evidence they have to support that claim. Second, they have to say in what area they will be a recognised expert in 3 years time and exactly how they going to achieve that status.
For lawyers this might be more straightforward than for some of you, because there are well known journals and web sites where they can publish articles show casing their expertise. But Sales People who publish useful, interesting articles will get readers to share the content and other sites will link to it. I know a Sales Professional who is highly respected in the coffee industry because of the articles he publishes on his LinkedIn profile and another Sales Professional in IT who has a reputation in the industry because of the intelligent and insightful articles he writes.
How do you become an industry thought leader?
It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work over a sustained period. You are striving to build a reputation as someone who is an authority in a specialized field - someone who challenges current thinking.
First you have to build your knowledge. You can do this by going through existing research that is already out there but possibly not well publicized, conducting your own research and learning from your own experience and that of your colleagues. Then you have to present your information in ways that your audience – existing customers and prospects – will see it and want to read it.
The Thought Leadership Article
I hate the term blog because they are usually full of sales blah, blah. So instead I like to use the term TLA, which stands for Thought Leadership Article. A TLA must arm the reader with ideas that help them become smarter and more creative.
Here are five qualities which a leading business magazine uses to evaluate potential thought leadership articles for publication:
Expertise: You must know a lot about the subject you’re writing about.
Evidence: It’s not enough to know your subject deeply - you have to prove it to the reader. Referring to supporting research is one good way to do this; describing relevant examples is another.
Originality: New ideas are rare and precious but that’s what makes you a valuable resource for decision makers.
Usefulness: You need to explain your thinking so that the reader understands how to apply it in a real situation.
Writing that’s persuasive and a pleasure to read. If you don’t capture the reader’s interest right away, they will move on to something else.
You may publish your TLAs on-line on your own site or submit them to other web sites. You may be able to get them published in relevant on-line or off-line publications or you might find it useful to go to sites like LinkedIn and join relevant groups then publish your TLAs there. It is important to generate a regular stream of TLAs to build your reputation and keep people interested.
Shaping the way prospects think
You are not trying to sell with a TLA, if you do you will put people off. But you can influence the way people are thinking before they start actively looking for a solution. And you increase the probability that a prospect will contact you when they have a concrete need.
So you are achieving 2 things by becoming a thought leader. Firstly you are making people aware of who you are and beginning to earn their trust by providing them with valuable information. Secondly you are providing information that challenges conventional thinking and makes you a person to go to for new ideas. You will find this is a good way to stay in touch with past clients as well as influencing new ones.
Is it too late already?
In some sectors, like law as I mentioned earlier, there are already many people vying to be the expert everyone turns to. But in most sectors there is scope to either compete for that role or find a niche where you can specialize. And as we know from our research, customers do a lot of research in the early stages of the Buying Process so they will seek the opinion of more than one expert. Make sure you are one of them.
Are there people out there you see as thought leaders?
What have they written or done to earn your trust?
On what topic could you become a thought leader?
How could you become a USP?
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