By Jeff Fortney
In my last article, I mentioned five basic tenets of sales. I strongly believe in them. They have worked for me during my sales endeavors, and I've seen many other sales professionals gain greater success by using them, as well. I also believe that whether they're called “tenets” or something else, we all use them in some form. Essential to applying them is flexibility. After all, “tenet” is defined as a principle, philosophy or belief.
I developed my five tenets 17 years ago: 1. Identify your targets; 2. If your competition is doing something, you stop doing it; 3. Never chase maybes; 4. Listen more; and 5. Act as a mirror. At the time, merchant level salespeople (MLSs) were in the midst of a race: the race to the bottom. They struggled to get merchants to listen—even when they didn’t talk about price. Too often, merchants knew what MLSs were going to say before they said it. Many didn't get past introductions.
Something had to change. At minimum, we needed to readdress the sales process. But, as I researched further, I discovered the issue encompassed more than the process. A change in philosophy was needed. This led me to revamp my approach and develop my five tenets. It also changed how I helped ISOs and MLSs. When talking with or training salespeople, I would explain the tenets, why change was needed and how it would help them.
Many who adopted the tenets had found it difficult to get merchants to speak with them. After attempting to apply the tenets, some quickly reverted to the "show me your statement and I'll save you money" approach. It helped them when I pointed out that in sales, basic tenets can’t be scripted or contain specific steps that must be done to guarantee success. They must be executed with flexibility. If no two prospects are alike, how could a one-size-fits-all approach work? The goal in sharing basic tenets is to help you develop a philosophy that is consistent throughout your efforts while helping you differentiate yourself from your competition. Implementing these tenets is a significant change of approach for many. But today’s new normal is an opportune time to improve your approach.
In "Identify your targets, the top tenet for sales success," published by The Green Sheet, Sept. 13, 2021, I explained the first tenet: identify your targets. This is primarily an internal effort to avoid scatter shooting so you can identify true targets (not wish-list merchants) and better plan your efforts.
The remaining tenets provide philosophical direction for approaching those targets. While identifying targets is an internal activity, the remaining tenets are external. The second tenet—if your competition is doing something, stop doing it yourself—may require the most effort; it's also the most impactful when executed.
You may believe you already adhere to the second tenet. But ask yourself: Have you led with price recently? Do you know what your competition is doing? Taken literally, if your competition is marketing a new product, you won't discuss that product. But the second tenet isn't meant to be taken literally.
Professionals in all industries often attempt to emulate success. Our industry is full of those who copy their competition. The result? It all becomes about price, and margins get squeezed tighter and tighter. ISOs can still profit, but MLSs find their residuals are minimal at best.
Merchants recognize and anticipate the cost-savings approach. For example, several years ago, I was asked to spend an afternoon with a new MLS from a large ISO. My goal was to observe and provide insight after each visit. On our sixth call, immediately after the MLS introduced himself, the owner sighed and grabbed three papers from the counter behind him. He laid them in front of the rep and said, “This is what you want to see, right?” It was the merchant’s statement. Confused, the rep looked at me. He was used to asking for statements, but our aim was to change that approach. I stepped forward, put my hand on top of the statement and said, “I don’t think you want to show this to us. You don’t know who we are, and why we are even here, and you don’t know if you want to do business with us. We don’t know if you are even a good fit. It's best to have a conversation before considering this.” All the time my hand remained on the statement.
The merchant was surprised. I could see in his face he didn’t know how to respond. Finally, he said, “You mean I may not be a fit for your company?” We spent the next 10 minutes talking about his business, his challenges and his opinions about our industry. As the conversation drew to an end, I told him I could see a fit, and if he would like, we could review the statement to see any areas that were padded, overcharged or could be improved. The result? We only matched the price, but addressed a few areas of improvement. We also helped him understand the costs and process better.
Not once in the first 10 minutes did price come into the conversation. Fast forward to today. Merchants face unique challenges they could not have anticipated before COVID. Many are struggling to keep their doors open. They need more consultation and less cost savings. Sure, saving money is still important. But the cost reductions we may provide aren't likely large enough to keep them afloat. They need help. And they'll listen to agents who present themselves as individuals who may be able to help. In recent months, this has become more evident. Almost daily, I hear an ISO or MLS bemoan their inability to sign specific merchants. They invested their time and demonstrated cost savings, yet the merchants wouldn't go forward. During these conversations it becomes apparent that they reviewed merchant statements but asked few questions. They never asked how the pandemic impacted the merchants or how they were reaching out to consumers, nor did they find out what the merchants really needed. They didn't distinguish themselves from other reps who'd stopped by. Had they understood the merchants' true needs, they could have eased the real pain instead of attempting to save merchants money.
To truly embrace the second tenet, study your competition. Ask merchants what other reps say when they come in, or what they've heard from others who sought their processing business but didn't show interest in helping them survive. Know your competition is not just a slogan; it’s an imperative if you want to succeed in today’s new normal. In my next article, I'll discuss two tenets that will help you know how to make the sale easier when you're in front of a merchant.
Jeff Fortney is vice president ISO relations for Signature Payments. A long-time payments industry executive and mentor, Jeff is focused on strengthening and developing partnerships and evaluating new business opportunities. He can be reached at 214-458-1379.
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