Most agencies I’ve come across think sales-is-sales.
“We’ve got a product people want, we’ve got salespeople, and it’s a bull market. What’s else do we need?”
But that bull can turn on you…
I’ve watched those very same agencies bleed market share like a goring victim at Pamplona, particularly in the last several years.
How is that possible if people want what they’re selling?
It’s all down to an insidious – and seldom-discussed – binary that lives within niches.
Do people need what you sell always, or do they just need it right now?
In the case of always, you can call the shots, you avoid being a commodity, and you dictate your price. In the case of the right now, you’re at the mercy of people’s whims, and they’re constantly comparing you to competitors.
The latter market is called a Pull Market.
If it were a real place, it would be a drab trade show, complete with migraine-inducing fluorescent lights, and overpriced stale sandwiches. Inside there are thousands of booths filled with competing vendors, all lined up in rows, like the ending sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The sellers say they’re there to build relationships or learn what’s new in the industry, and that’s partially true.
Mainly, though, they’re vying for face time with a dwindling stream of buyers who have unlimited options.
The Pull Market buyers understand their own problems well, and they’re usually decided on a specific solution. Sounds great for the Pull sellers, right?
Not so fast.
Yes, the buyers are simply seeking the right vendor, but they have their pick of the litter, so they enjoy pitting the sellers against each other. From sellers, they demand lengthy proposals and drawn out consulting calls, and they usually get what they ask for.
The Pull Market sellers think they’re differentiated by qualities like their creativity, or stellar customer service, but all the buyers see is thousands of monochromatic booths.
From years of selling only to those who approach their booths ready to buy, the Pullers think very highly of their sales skills. Their sales process starts with a buyer approaching their booth, then both parties go through a discovery process, then a number of meetings, and then the sellers build a proposal. After the Pullers submit their work, they sit tight and wait for a response. Sometimes buyers go silent after the sellers invested many hours on the proposals and unpaid consulting calls. Other times buyers demand lower prices, or they completely rework the proposal. The Pullers complain and bicker internally, but they usually capitulate. They say they’re focused on building long-term relationships, not transactions.
When the Pullers are lucky enough to win a client or two, they leave the trade show floor, and they stop selling. They work many late nights, through many pots of coffee, and they bend their offering to each buyer’s individual needs. After grinding out this process for years, some Pullers attempt to standardize their offerings. But that requires turning down business, which is a luxury they think they can’t afford, plus, it takes a lot discipline. Most slide back to a “special orders don’t upset us” policy.
The Push Market lives on the other side of town. It’s a colorful, Arabian-style bazar, rumbling with music and wafting with delicious smells. Unlike the dwindling stream of buyers in the Pull Market, The Push Market flows with a roaring river of customers.
Unlike the choosy buyers of the Pull Market, the Push Market buyers know only that they have problems, and they’re not sure how to solve them. The Push Market sellers rarely compete, and each is the best in the world at what they do, not unlike the fishmonger, butcher, and spice trader hawking their wares in close proximity. The Pushers’ offers are novel and original, not commoditized like those at the drab trade show across town. With that in mind, The Pushers have a lot to teach their buyers, who are delighted to learn.
The Pushers work their sales muscles the way bodybuilders lift weights – consistently and systematically. Due to the frenetic pace of the bazaar, they have to constantly improve and fine-tune their skills. All they need is a slightly curious glance from a passerby, and they can be at least moderately confident that he will become a customer.
The Pushers couldn’t care less about building relationships with strangers – they save that for those who have paid them. They rarely capitulate, and an air of constructive tension pervades their sales conversations. It’s not that the Pushers are greedy or uncaring, but they’re genuinely confident in the ability of their wares to solve their buyers’ problems. The Pushers know that they’d be doing their buyers a disservice by not compelling them to take action. While the buyers might be taken aback at first by The Pushers interrupting their stroll through the bazaar, it’s not long before they’re enraptured. After all, the Pushers are the best in the world.
Occasionally The Pull sellers escape their confines. They dash out the front door of the trade show, past the stale sandwich stands, and head across town to The Push Market. When they arrive, they try to mimic the Push veterans, but it’s not long before they fall back on old habits: they capitulate to buyer demands, they over-customize, and they’re not persistent. They opt for pleasantness and relationship building over constructive tension. Unless a passerby happens to be on the hunt for their specific offer, the Pullers chalk the buyer up to a “bad fit”. As soon as they close a deal, their sales activity drops off – the weights collects dust and their muscles atrophy.
After a long and sweaty day at the bazaar, the Pullers walk back defeated to the Pull Market. They wince at the fluorescent lights and tuck themselves back into their trade show booths. They complain to their colleagues about how uninterested the Push Market buyers are, and they say that from now on they’ll only meet with those who are “ready to buy.”
Across town, The Pushers count their money and return home to their families at a reasonable hour.
In which market would you rather put your business?
Here’s to join the push market.
As Noah Kagan pointed out at a recent conference I attended, no successful company started without niching: Facebook began by focusing on colleges, IBM sold calculators, and Amazon sold books. Why do you think you’ll be the exception?
You don’t have to blow up your business and reinvent it, but as Seth Godin encourages, you have to find the area where you’re the best in the world. You can niche by way of experimentation – simply create an industry focused landing page, and change your sales pitch and materials to reflect your specialization.
Solve a specific problem.
Why it’s not impossible to be a one-stop shop, it’s a hell of a lot easier if you can solve one significant and legible problem for your market. The problem Sales Schema solves, for example, is ending the feast and famine rut for ad agencies and marketing service companies by giving them sales conversations with their ideal prospects.
Mold the lumpy clay of your product or service into one you can implement in a step-by-step fashion. Be assertive when it comes to your process and your clients will be compelled to comply with your carefully constructed system.
When you brand yourself based on the services your provide and not the problem you solve, you will get put in the Commodity Mental Bucket, and you’ll become a line item on someone’s spreadsheet. That’s not to say you should be opaque about how you solve problems, but features should not be the focal point.
Don’t let your sales muscles atrophy.
Practice sales consistently, and don’t use busy-ness, or having a lot of clients, to excuse letting activity drop off. Since it will take weeks or months to close business, your inactivity will mean a downturn in the not so distant future.
Find a scalable source of leads.
SEO, PPC, and outbound email are generally scalable. Referrals and your personal network? Not so much. You don’t have to use every strategy under the sun, just pick one or two things, experiment, and double down on what’s working.