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String Theory, Selling Ideas, and Financial Intangibles

December 6, 2016

This article is designed to help you and your team to sell ideas and intangibles. You won't find any of the traditional sales advice. You don't need it here.

If you manage an organization, do you sell something that is intangible? If you sell ideas to your own team or to your community, these two real examples are for you.

Lets start with a difficult sales job, selling financial products, truly intangible merchandise. Many of my clients sell products and services to do this. If you do this discussion may resonate for you. If you don't sell financial products then please use this article to craft a better approach to help you and your firm sell intangibles and ideas.

And as a senior leader, you get to present and sell intangibles. Selling ideas is not just about the sales team, it's what we do to grow a business. We sell ideas every day to move our businesses to a better place for today and tomorrow. I'll focus on sales examples here, but this really is about how you can increase the acceptance of ideas in your business.

American Bank

Andrew took me to lunch to ask how he can do a better job selling to individuals and financial advisors. An executive for American Bank (these names are changed) he told me that he had a hard time getting client buy-in while he was using the material the Bank gave him as sales tools.

Marketing has provided a great set of tools for Andrew and his team. They're clear, comprehensive, and do a great job of protecting the bank while talking about what the bank could do. That may be what you want from a bank marketing team but it doesn't work for the sales team. The bank's story just is not compelling to enough clients.

This is sort of like showing picture after picture of your grand kids to a stranger and hoping that you get a sale. No matter how excited you might feel, the other person politely turns you off. Andrew and the sales team are looking for ways to present the materials so that clients and advisors lean forward and listen.

Average job tenure in this role at the bank is short. Most people fail at this task and leave. Andrew wants to succeed. Trying harder with that material doesn't seem to help him succeed.

Loring Ward

In some ways, Loring Ward (LW, and this is the firm's name) has a more difficult sale. Instead of working with a captured audience of advisors employed by their own firm, LW's customer set is independent financial advisors. While American Bank's target advisors are employed by the bank, the prospects on LW's list all work for themselves. Since they have access to a wider array of suppliers. LW has to earn the right to pitch products to these financial experts.

Both sales teams face the same challenges. However, Loring Ward's sales people typically succeed. And the tenure at LW is considerably longer.

Clearly, Loring Ward's positioning of ideas is different from American Bank's. The core value proposal does not change, but the way each company approaches clients results in a lot more success for LW. This is despite the fact that LW has a more difficult task.

String Theory Applied to Your Business

This version of String Theory is based on how to make better decisions in less time. The basic idea is simple enough - there are two ways to open a bag of seed or grain when it is sewn shut with a string.

You can pull at the string from either end of the closure. One end of the string is difficult to yank and it gets more so as you jerk harder. More effort equals less success.

However, pulling on the correct end is easy, one tug and you have what you want. The solution to get what you want is not to yank harder. The solution is to choose the right end of the string to pull.

For both firms the string has two ends. One end is to insist on what and how the company wants to sell. The other end is to pull from the client what and how she wants to buy. In the first case, the Bank knows what it wants to present and asks it's team to lead with exactly that. On the other end of the string the client knows what he or she values and Loring Ward asks the client so that the sales person can lead with exactly that.

More Success

Sales people at American are discovering that when they work harder and harder with the bank's story, the whole experience gets knottier instead of easier. When the Loring Ward team approaches a client or advisor, they work from a different end of the string.

The Bank's end of the string is to lead with what the bank offers. It is a complete offering, well crafted and well stated. However it is all about the bank and not really about the client or advisor. The client tends to think that the bank cares more about the institution than about the client. It is like those photos of a stranger's grandchild. Nice to see, but nothing that you want to buy.

Loring Ward is training the sales team to ask questions instead of to present material. Rather than crafting a presentation the LW sales team starts by asking questions and by listening. The end of the string that LW pulls is quite intentionally the customer first end.

To be clear, this is the firm's leadership team directing the sales team to start client conversations with "what do you value?" and "In a perfect world . . ." To pull on this end of the string, the best practice is to ask the client to talk about what matters irrespective of what the company has to offer.

If you want to generate more success selling intangibles and ideas, consider how you can replicate Loring Ward's strategy.

Is There Just One End to the String?

Is there a single correct answer? No, both American and Loring Ward will have success. However, LW is having a lot more success per presentation.

I have many clients who choose one or the other, and in general the ones who choose the listening first end of the string (truly consultative selling) are able to sell more intangible products at higher margins.

It is honorable to try and overcome difficulty with sheer strength and determination. It pays the bills more quickly when you also have an alternative way to make things happen smoothly and easily.

Selling Ideas Inside and Outside Your Company

Which end of this string would you choose to sell your ideas? In a world of infinite time and no pressure you might feel comfortable pulling on the difficult end until you succeed. In a mindset of hubris and heroism, you might find gratification in applying more and more force on the tough end.

In a place where you want to succeed and use that win to move on and grow, take the time to define and grab the other end of the string and pull there.

To increase sales of intangible products, the difficult end might be what makes you feel good about your firm. The easy to pull end might be what helps your customer feel good.

You have a choice. If you want to gain more buy-in in less time, choose the end of the string that LW chose. Then use your strength to grow your business from this new and higher level of shared understanding.




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