Originally published - November 9, 2007
The "Googlization" of information has leveled the playing field between sales representatives and prospects. With easy access to information, buyers are initiating purchasing cycles by performing extensive product research on the Internet long before inviting a sales representatives into the process. Increasingly, buyers today know as much, if not more, about the product and the competition's products as the seller knows. Product knowledge, once the manufacturer sales representatives' main advantage in the selling cycle, is now readily available to buyers. This shift in the balance of knowledge leads to more complex questions about the product universe. In response, sales representative need to know more about how the products they are selling can be used in specific circumstances, understand the sales advantages over competitors' products, and be able to describe the resulting benefits.
Sales representatives can no longer retreat to product expertise to trump challenges or issues raised by buyers. Canned presentations and brochures of the past are simply not enough. There is a convergence of demands and expectations: how the salesperson responds to these challenges determines whether or not he closes the sale. So, the bar continues to be raised as to the value a salesperson must bring to the table during the buy-and-sell process. Given this new reality, what tools are available to arm salespeople to better answer customers needs and present them with compelling reasons to buy? 3-D applications fulfill the vision of design and engineering firms. They provide a rich data set for salespeople to obtain marketing materials and digital prototypes that help shrink sales cycles and improve their customer face time.
Real Time: The Difference between Winning and Losing the Sale
Similarly, access to real-time information may be the difference between winning and losing the deal. It is no longer acceptable for salespeople to respond to customers' inquiries with "I'll get back to you." In the time it takes for the salesperson to respond to a customer's question, a competitor with stronger product knowledge, customized proposals, or better pricing will have won the business. Whether it's online, over the phone, or face-to-face, organizations need to respond to customers' inquiries in real time. Information about in-stock parts, price breaks, alternatives to out-of-stocks, etc. should be readily available to the salesperson when interacting with customers. Without easy access to information, salespeople lose credibility—and a potential relationship with the customer.
Putting relevant information in the hands of sales representatives to deliver real-time responses to clients is mission critical. For example, detailed product and support information need to be readily at hand; pricing issues should be resolved on the fly so that cost can be factored out of the equation; and time-consuming approvals from management or engineering are barriers that need to be eliminated. Sales should know how far its price discounts can go without additional approval bottlenecks, and whether design changes or material changes can be made without referring to the engineering team. With the right tools, such as a product streaming and data management application, sales representatives can refer to a repository of product, pricing, and materials information, as well as eliminate extra steps in obtaining approvals. This gives the sales representative the leverage needed to compete on service versus merely on cost. In other words, sales can then focus on helping the customer, and not just making the sale.
The Dark Horse in the Selling Process
Product complexity has emerged as the dark horse in the selling process. As product depth and breadth increases, it is more difficult for sales representatives to be as completely versed about an ever-expanding solution set as they once were. Traditionally, sales representatives would try to have customers buy without knowing the real benefits of certain products or services for the customer. To make matters worse, manufacturers' products now have added complexity, with advanced processes, materials, parts, and pieces that are more difficult to explain. Helping the sales representative communicate complex concepts in a language the client understands is the first step to success. Moreover, showing the client how pieces function together helps win the sale.
Given the greater complexity of product offerings, there are applications now available that provide salespeople with the ability to explain complex manufacturing processes, products, building materials, and other key factors in producing product. Additionally, with a product stream or design and data repository solution, the sales representative knows exactly how the pieces fit together: 3-D digital prototypes can be done to show how pieces interact, and additional functions are displayed. This removes confusion about what products would benefit the customer the most. Sales can then point the customer directly to what product he is missing to meet his needs, whether that product is a part or a service, support or certification. This helps to build a partnership with the customer and to build credibility for the sales representative. Certainly, the more the salesperson knows about the product, the more credibility he has, and the more likely the salesperson becomes the customer's trusted advisor. Thus, with the right tools, salespeople can help customers make business decisions—not merely purchase decisions—that are right for their organizations.
A Photorealistic 3-D Environment
Prototyping needs to move beyond demonstration and should inspire customer confidence. This starts in early project qualification. Traditionally, once the customer's initial questions are answered, a sales representative has to deliver a product prototype. A representative would get an idea of the buyer's goal, and then have a detailed pilot developed, which often included building custom prototypes. But while the customer could see a physical product, this method presented numerous limitations, including not being able to see the product's functionality or how it works with other products. Further, prototyping was a slow, design-intensive, and costly process. And in the end, the result did not necessarily reflect the actual product accurately.
Today, with sophisticated product streaming and 3-D configurators delivering digital prototypes, the representatives can focus much more on understanding what and how the customer wants to buy. They can take the customer's exact specs and requirements, come back (often in real time), and conceptually present a simulated model to the buyer to verify whether the seller is on the right track—and within the customer's budget.
This process is done within a 3-D, photorealistic environment that maximizes past designs and produces realistic images of functional prototypes. The presentation of simulated functional prototypes is pivotal to the sales process, as it instills customer confidence. And this type of prototyping and design work keeps effort, time, and costs in line. So a project's cost (actual versus budget) can be better determined, since there is a direct correlation between the ability to provide an accurate quote with knowing what the end-product will look like and how that end-product will function. The customer can experience the entire product before it is actually manufactured. What's more, proposals to sales conversion rates trend upward when product simulations are done.
Market Conversations, Not Mass Market Messages
Proposals should reflect market conversations, not mass market messages to manufacturers. Sellers need to produce proposals that make customers feel valued. Customers typically want to see a simulation and receive an explanation of exactly what they are buying, not merely a generic representation with all the potential options listed on the side. So, in order to meet client needs, sales representatives should engage all the stakeholders in the process so that when the customized proposal is submitted, it can stand on its own.
As we experience more "committee-based" buying decisions, the importance of the proposal increases: salespeople may never get a chance to interact with all the people who will influence the outcome of a sales opportunity. In lieu of being present during some of the critical discussions that might take place behind the scenes, salespeople should ensure that the materials they provide to prospects clearly spell out what the products do; why these products do it better than other offerings; and what the return on investment (ROI) would be for purchasing the products. In short, salespeople need to do a much more complete and comprehensive job in proposing if they are going to improve their odds of closing the sale.
Cookie-cutter, generic proposals are no longer viable. Instead, customized proposals containing product simulations and 3-D prototypes help ensure accurate, fully functional product models. Digital prototypes will convey what the salesperson cannot in his absence. Visually, 3-D prototypes can answer questions that might be raised; they are the next best thing to having the salesperson attend the behind-the-scenes decision processes.
Manufacturers without the right tools in place to enable salespeople to do their job well are at increased risk of losing sales. The difference between success and failure depends on how clearly the organization understands its customers; how well the sales team conveys features and benefits of the products (through presentations and proposals); and how an organization is able to map that product knowledge to customers' needs. Ultimately, proposals must result in sales. This is achieved through tools that help sales teams identify how to align customers' needs with the right product data; provide accurate, functioning 3-D prototypes; and generate accurate proposals.
Timely and sophisticated tools that maximize design reuse, automate release management, and streamline the change order process are the keys. Such systems, which combine product configurations, industry issues, simulations, and virtual prototypes, are emerging to arm salespeople with material and collateral that are helpful to prepare for and use during face-to-face customer interactions. Ultimately, the right 3-D tools and product data management tools can help achieve these critical sales tasks and help close sales.
For more information and to start your own custom solution comparison, please visit TEC's Customer Relationship Management Evaluation Center.