Some products are easier to distinguish from their competitors than others. Max Carey didn't figure lead was one of them. But when a supplier asked for help winning a contract with lead's major U.S. consumer-battery manufacturers-Carey did something his competition hadn't thought of. He asked manufacturers what they wanted.
Until his Atlanta-based consultancy, Corporate Resource Development Inc., approached the battery companies, suppliers believed price was their major competitive advantage. However, CRD discovered that battery CEOs were more concerned with the environmental costs of lead than with its price. CRD and its client then fashioned a cradle-to-grave lead life cycle management program that became the toast of the industry. Not only did Carey's client get the contract, it won a premium price and a long-term commitment from a grateful customer.
Carey believes the request for bid (RFB) which started this process, and which CRD turned to its client's advantage, is the bane of a growing company's business. "What the buyer is telling you is that we believe yours is fundamentally a commodity product," says Carey, whose 18-year-old company specializes in sustaining (or creating) a client's competitive advantages.
"As far as I'm concerned, that is the kiss of death for a sale. The control over pricing is now entirely out of your hands," Carey says. Challenging the RFB requires that you identify the buyer's real agenda-an agenda sometimes unrealized by the buyer himself-to reclaim control over the selling process. "Control is the single most important part of the sale."
Sometimes it's simpler than creating an industrywide maintenance program. Bidders consistently willing to go the extra mile, mindful of budgets and deadlines, ready to point out savings that might help buyers after the work is done, build reputations over time that command a premium, according to Richard Huchison, principal at the CPA firm of Clark, Schaefer, Hackett & Co. in Dayton, Ohio.
"Sometimes [buyers] relish the idea of taking advantage of an efficiency in their job that they never thought of," Huchison says. Still, a thorough understanding of the client's business, a relationship of trust-not to mention adherence to project specifications-is mandatory to prevent foul-ups. "If you've gone off half-cocked, you're stuck," Huchison cautions, and you may never get the chance to make things right.
The risk of backlash, either from misunderstanding the client's desires or from offending his or her culture by trying to color outside the lines, is real, Carey agrees. To insure against that risk, he says, concentrate first on prospects rather than established customers and on major bids rather than every RFB that crosses your desk.
"It's all built around research," says John Pekas, CRD sales manager, "so that you know more about that company than they know about you." He compares the sales process to the old lawyer's trick of never asking a question to which one doesn't already know the answer.
"Our strategy is to get our client involved with someone who is more interested in return on investment, rather than deciding on expense basis," Carey says. That means reaching not only the decision maker, but the person or people who set the company's strategic agenda. Sometimes that's not the same individual.
If a company is resistant to your inquiries, you're likely to know it early on. Use confidentiality agreements to protect the prospect's privacy if that is among their concerns. But, says Pekas, "If you put yourself in a position where you have information that they'd like to know, it won't take them long to respond positively."