"We can't figure out what happened," said the president of a company that had spent two years trying to break into a new market. "Frankly, we fell on our faces, and we're not sure why."

Some of the confusion came from the results of a survey they had done before they kicked off the sales effort. The survey results indicated that a market existed and, since they could overcome the limitations of their competition, there was room in this market for them. "We thought this was going to be a slam dunk situation sitting here and we'd be raking in the money," commented the manager of sales. "It was almost too good to be true."

As it turned out, it was too good to be true. In fact, it was another case of the naïve belief that if you build it, they will come.

What went wrong? The survey results clearly indicated there was room for a new player, and this finding was bolstered by what appeared to be customer dissatisfaction with the competitors. Based on the combination of these two factors, the company moved forward aggressively, believing success was all but ensured.

What they didn't realize is that the "better widget" doesn't always win. The salespeople spread out through the territory calling on the prospects offering low prices and substantial incentives. "We thought we were going to take it all," said the president. "We wrote a few accounts, but nothing like we expected. It just didn't happen. And we couldn't figure out how we could be so wrong."

On further analysis, it was found that although buyers thought the products were in some ways an improvement over what they were currently using and the pricing was excellent, they didn't change suppliers.


First, they were reluctant to make a change. A bad decision could have disastrous repercussions, particularly for those who made the recommendation to change vendors. Second, they didn't really know the company. Aggressive pricing and product improvements couldn't overcome the fear - and that's what it was - of doing business with an unknown supplier.


There are a couple worthwhile lessons to gain from this case history:

1. Conduct the right research. Like so many others, the management of the company made the assumption that because there was a need for its services that the customers would come to them. Caught up in their own enthusiasm, they made no effort to determine what it would take to attract customers or to find out if they would make a move to the new competitor.

Even when conducting surveys, it's easy to fall (almost unconsciously) into the trap of getting the results we want rather than the results we need. For example, many companies "survey" their customers following the sale or a service call. For the most part, these are self-serving and customers are reluctant to tell the truth. While this particular company uncovered information indicating there was indeed a market for their product, they failed to uncover what would motivate customers to move from their present suppliers.

In the same way, they could have discovered through a survey what those customers valued and then developed a marketing program that focused on those issues.

2. Create a buying environment. More often than not, most companies concentrate on "making sales," as did this company. And to the surprise of everyone, they hit a stonewall.

Even armed with attractive offers, competitive pricing, and a high level of technical competence, the company was less than suc-cessful in penetrating the market. If the company had used its research to uncover what it would take to win sales, they would have led with an awareness campaign that communicated the message that it was safe to do business with them. They could have had a "starter" program and performed customer satisfaction follow-ups. In other words, they would have taken time to build their case with the customers. All this could have led to customer testimonials and other feedback techniques that build buyer confidence.


Generally, it's not the sales strategy that's faulty, although this can be the cause of poor performance. More often than not, it's the marketing strategy that's either absent or faulty. What is needed is to develop a buying environment, one that taps into the buyer's needs and offers the right solution. When this happens, the sales effort is successful.

If there were a basic error in this company's overall strategy, it is one that's ever so common in business today. It's pulling the trigger before establishing the target. It's moving ahead before knowing the right direction. Deep down, it's believing that all that's needed is a great idea or more to the point, all that's required is enormous enthusiasm for a great idea. The result is unnecessary failure including wasted resources, lost time, and discouraged salespeople.

What is so confusing is that the scenario is repeated time-and-again ... often by the same companies. Both consumers and business buyers are cautious - and rightfully so. While they want good deals, they also want to be sure.

When it comes to shortcuts to sales, there aren't any.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He is the author of The New Magnet Marketing and Break the Rules Selling, writes for a variety of business publications, and speaks on business, marketing, and sales topics for company and association meetings. He can be contacted at 617-328-0069; or e-mail, j_graham@grahamcomm.com. The company's Website is grahamcomm.com.

Publication date: 06/19/2006