Today's business environment is difficult at best. As sales cycles become longer and the competition gets stiffer, businesses are looking for the proverbial “silver bullet.” Everyone wants a way to find qualified prospects… and close them better, faster and cheaper.

Heard within this din are multiple promises and offers of ways to accomplish this goal. While some of this hype may work for commodity-based products, those companies selling complex “solutions” and services face unique challenges.

Most proposed solutions to the business-development dilemma are activity or transaction based and really won't change a thing. While your activity level may increase, your bottom line probably won't.

For example, one company selling a complex system generated activity by sending golf club covers to potential prospects. The covers included a promise that a face-to-face meeting with salespeople would provide “something” to put in the cover.

Certainly activity increased, and the salespeople met with prospects. Unfortunately, the salespeople were distracted by prospects who were very unqualified—but were very satisfied with the free golf club.

Worse, qualified prospects who were early in the sales cycle were quickly discounted or ignored as the salesperson went on prospecting in hopes of finding a ready buyer. This type of interaction builds a perception in the minds of prospects that the company is a commodity provider.

Building early relationships is the way to prevent yourself from falling into the transactional and commodity-provider trap. But building early relationships also forces you to focus your efforts and get back to basics.

To avoid wasting resources on prospects and companies that will never buy, you must clearly define market segments that represent the “best fit” for your products and services. Each possible key decision-maker role should be identified, along with the key value propositions those roles would be interested in.

Therefore, your overall value propositions and messages have to be segmented and tuned for each decision-maker's role and position in the sales cycle. Planned and focused follow-up allows you to engage earlier in the sales cycle, before your competitors do.

You can leverage inexpensive delivery vehicles to begin building the relationship cost-effectively and at the same time differentiate yourself and learn from these interactions what pain points your ideal prospects are really experiencing.

Target your message: If both the CEO and sales VP are involved in making the buying decision, you need to segment and target your value proposition to their individual roles and pain points. A CFO may be focused on building shareholder value and concerned about profitable revenue growth, while the sales VP may be focused on sales productivity and concerned about an insufficient sales pipeline. While your products and services may address all of these, your messages, must be tuned to each decision-maker if they are to be heard.

Understand the prospect's world: Where a prospect lies within the sales cycle is also important. If your prospect is in the information-gathering stages, then a massage about discounts for your product will fall on deaf ears. A high-level message about your features and benefits will have similar results for a prospect looking for pricing and availability. Gathering, tracking and using prospect information is key to success.

Engage early: Once your messages are segmented and tuned to roles and position in the sales cycle, you have the opportunity to begin building relationships and leverage more cost-effective channels. Delivering timely and in-context communications drives efficiency up. Early-stage relationship-building can be effectively delivered via email, Web pages, telemarketing and even direct mail, while later stages can leverage traditionally more expensive means such as direct sales involvement.

Additional benefits: The benefits of establishing early relationships are multiple. By nurturing and educating prospects early in the sales cycle, your prospects begin to perceive you as someone who can address their needs. They share with you the real pain points they are experiencing. You can discover hidden market opportunities that aren't being addressed. You can hone your value proposition and out position your competitors.

Does it work? Yes!

For example, a small software company specializing in inventory control focused on discrete manufacturing in a three-state area. It tuned its value propositions to the CEO, CFO and production manager in their target market.

Early feedback from prospect interaction indicated an unmet challenge in managing shop-floor inventory. A solution under a $100K price point would hit a sweet spot in this market. Realizing this, the company was able to quickly repackage existing software modules to create a $75K price point.

Several sales quickly followed, with the average sales engagement reaching $130K as more opportunities within the account were uncovered and follow-on service and support were sold. The company's market focus has continued while its geographic focus expanded along with its sales pipeline.

By really focusing on your ideal prospects, segmenting your value proposition and engaging earlier in the sales cycle, you can be heard above the market noise. Building relationships allows you to outposition your competitors, close profitable sales and build a pipeline of prospects.

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Al Fox and Mike Cuccia Al Fox and Mike Cuccia and Principals SC Squared <>. They can be reached at or