The Press, May 2012

We’re fat. Obese, overweight, overloaded.

Not so much with our waistlines (although that is an issue too), but in the amount of information we are subjected to every day.

This ‘info-obesity’ is making harder for businesses to get through to consumers, particularly the smaller enterprises amongst us. This is at the heart of the issues highlighted in last week’s ANZ Bank survey of the small businesses that make up 90% of Kiwi businesses and employ 40% of the workforce.

The survey’s results were largely positive, with most firms upbeat about their prospects and willing to invest in their business and hire more staff. They were also optimistic about the prospects for the economy overall.

What most of the coverage about the survey has paid little attention to is that the key concern of small businesses was their ability to increase turnover i.e. basically their ability to sell more.

Our information ‘fatness’ is a major contributor to these challenges.

It’s not just the bombardment of consumers with thousands of marketing messages every day, but the rapid expansion of digital media. Smart phones, tablets and the growth of social media like Facebook had made the information buffet that much bigger and more interesting.

Companies are starting to realise this and are trying to incorporate it in the way they sell - a UK-based research agency called TNS has built a model for the way people digest their data. They’ve identified five information eating plans.

‘Fast foodies’ are the early adopters who consume lots of little bits of information. ‘Supplementers’ go for freshest data. ‘Carnivores’ only consume the best quality data. ‘Balanced dieters’ seek harmony between the fun and utility of the information they download. And ‘fussy eaters’, who consume as little as possible, ignoring information as much as possible.

The basic takeout is that it is becoming harder to interest people when they are consumed with ‘eating’ information.

For small businesses without the luxury of an army of marketers and sales people, competing with info-obesity is even harder. It is tough enough running a small business, with offices to run, staff, wages, compliance, processes, machines etc.

A lot of people that start businesses have a specific skill (e.g. engineer, builder, computer programmer) and then have the challenge of being in charge of everything. Selling is just another thing, and often as Kiwi small business people we struggle with it.

Why is this?

A key problem is that we simply have the wrong idea about what selling is, so we approach it the wrong way and get the wrong results.

Our naturally low-key, laid-back Kiwi nature doesn’t fit with the archetypal fast-talking pushy sales person. In most markets this is actually the worst way to sell if you want to build a successful, sustainable business.

How can you get better at selling i.e. appealing to the info-obese?

Fundamentally, you need to find the right targets to make the sales process easier. Ramming your message down the throat of someone who has no need for your product is both difficult and a waste of resources.

It might be okay for the telemarketing centre in Bangalore, but not for most small Kiwi businesses. You are actually better to do less selling to a greater number of receptive people.

Reaching people before they are ready to buy is also crucial. Too often small firms are focussed on what is immediately ahead of them i.e. the prospects on the list today.

You need to be warming up a broader group of prospective customers who may not be ready for buying now, but may next week, next month or next year. You need to be connecting with them now in some way, using newsletters, PR, social media, even the humble old letter.

Once you are actually selling, it is important not to obsess about the result. Selling is always a process with a number of steps. The key is focussing on taking a prospect along those steps, not trying to get from step 1 to step 5 in one fell swoop.

In terms of sales engagement, the great salespeople tend to listen 80% of the time and ask questions for most of the other 20%. They see their job as building a really clear understanding of the customer’s problem and then designing a solution, not just disposing of a product.

That means that you may well qualify out of sales, finding out during this questioning process that you won’t be able to meet the customer’s need well. That’s best for both parties; they don’t get something they are unsatisfied with and you don’t waste time on a customer that will be demanding and expensive to support.

Just as you wouldn’t take a vegetarian to the local steakhouse, the way small businesses can appeal to an info-obese society is by understanding who their customers are and for what they really hunger.

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