High-tech and pharmaceutical companies have long had to hit the selling streets immediately when, or even before, a product is available. But now firms in many other industries increasingly depend on quick product launches to bring in revenue soon or capture market share before rivals can respond with their own innovations.
The best firms start fast, but there is more to it than that. If they don’t start smart, too, all they have is a rush to disaster or an expensive do-over. How do the best firms start both fast and smart? And what are some common mistakes that slow down product launches or, worse, force you to do it all over again to get things right?
Smart starts begin with smart products, and smart products are almost always developed after paying close attention to customers. Brian Azar at the Sales Doctor says the best companies treat their top reps as internal customers and use them to find out what leading-edge customers are looking for.
“Top salespeople are future oriented,” Azar explains. “They are your eyes and ears. They ask customers what they will need next year.” Moreover, these critical answers do not just go into suggestion boxes; they are promptly given to C-level execs through both sales and marketing.
To find out what’s going on with customers, top reps can form their own executive groups, made up of their best customers, which meet quarterly during the year. “It must not be a pitch or reward, but a way of collecting information,” Azar emphasizes.
These face-to-face meetings simply cannot be replaced by digital tools to discover new ideas. “For new products, you must have a live sales rep. Digital surveys only help during prelaunch to collect statistics.”
The next step is a beta or pilot test with other customers so that potential buyers learn about the new product. Meanwhile, operations managers will learn what adjustments they will have to make, and salespeople will learn how the new product will have to be sold.
According to Azar, getting reps fully on board depends on three factors: the quality of the rep, training, and incentives. He urges firms to launch new products with the top 20 percent of their sales force first – those reps who sell as if they’re running their own businesses. “Pay them extra, if necessary, to form teams with others.”
The big trick is often getting the middle 60 percent of reps truly interested in and knowledgeable about the new product. “Training must be live or interactive,” Azar insists. “If you send reps a training CD, they will fall asleep.” And noncash incentives will be necessary to get most of the sales force as excited as it needs to be for a fast launch.
Prelaunch activities must be synchronized with the training and motivating of salespeople. Teasers and samples can be sent out, and demonstrations can be done. In consumer markets, the best companies keep prospects upbeat with weekly reminders of upcoming new products.
Azar says the most common launch mistakes are failing to get reps sufficiently involved with interactive tools and using unrealistic pricing strategies. David Brock, president of Partners In Excellence, cites two other common mistakes: starting too late in planning the launch and failing to get customers engaged as early as possible. “Too many times, engineers develop the product and push it out the door,” Brock says. “Then they have to relaunch it, and that pushes out the time-to-profit.”
Brock urges getting not just big customers, but the customer thought leaders involved in product development – and then keeping them involved: “Invite them in for product milestones. You can get references and testimonials and business cases, and then your salespeople will know how to create value for customers.”
Like Azar, Brock is wary of digital shortcuts. Digital surveys are “better than nothing,” but not much. “You may just get the answers you want, or customers might not know how to answer. Surveys may validate assumptions, but customers don’t know what they don’t know. Nobody knew we needed Google or iPad.”
And companies may need to be disciplined with their own resources. Unlike Azar, Brock thinks it is essential to concentrate the launch not on the best reps, but on the best markets: “You never have enough sales and marketing resources to do it all. Concentrate on geographies or segments.” This concentration, in turn, determines hiring and training of reps.
“Everything is so easy when you start with customers,” Brock argues. “Training says, ‘Here are the segments to go after, here is the size we want to go after, and then here is who we are going to call on and how we create interest.’”
Brock sees more and more just-in-time training delivered over the Web today. Product training can be done interactively over the Web, economically and just before launch, which is crucial if lessons are not to be forgotten. He thinks normal compensation plans should be enough to motivate sales of most new products to existing customers, with spiffs reserved for new markets or truly major innovations.
Brock argues that companies should set short-term metrics for launches, at 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, and six months. These timetables are critical to understanding how the launch is going while you still have time to make adjustments. “[In order to evaluate the launch’s success], consider volume of rep activities, number of appointments, hours of face time, quality of customer reactions, and amount and favorability of press coverage,” Brock urges. “If you wait for cash to come in, it may be too late.”
Some launches fail or sputter because even a well-planned schedule can slip. For example, development of the new product is delayed, but sales execs are not informed. Then reps will be trained and ready but idle long before the product is available. Constant communication must keep all departments aligned.
In other cases, a fast launch pace is set and adhered to, but there isn’t sufficient time for training and hiring sales reps. Actual training does not take long, Brock acknowledges. But he says developing training materials and, especially, having the right reps in place takes a lot longer than 60 days.
Anything that diminishes the readiness and motivation of the sales force is deadly to fast starts. Indeed, one key to any successful launch is “selling the sales force on selling,” emphasizes Jim Morrissey of Market Share Catalysts. “The key is to get them excited, not just informed.”
Morrissey urges managers to look for a catchy acronym that conveys how the new product or service is distinctive and will be superior to the competition’s products. In one launch of a new high-tech product, Morrissey had lapel buttons handed out with the letters TAP, which stood for technology, architecture, and performance. “The salespeople were on their feet cheering,” he says.
The best firms know how to generate excitement and sales readiness year in and year out. Even though it isn’t in one of those flashy high-tech markets, Connecticut-based Basement Systems knows something about launching new products fast and successfully. The company has introduced 28 new patents in the last 20 years and approximately doubled revenue every year while doing so.
Basement Systems now has five divisions: the original basement service; Clean Safe; Total Basement Finishing; Foundation Repair; and its newest line, Dr. Energy Repair, a home energy audit. Much of the company’s success has been achieved through a network of dealers and franchises that now include 350 companies in six countries.
New products are developed and tested at the Basement Systems Connecticut headquarters and then taken out to dealers, according to chief marketing officer Dan Fitzgerald. “The key to fast starts is training,” Fitzgerald emphasizes. “We have a huge training effort in Connecticut. We have two training sessions each month on every aspect – sales, marketing, production, call centers, service, and follow-up.”
The company brings new dealers onboard quickly through a distinctive business model. Basement Systems’ early relationships with dealers are handshake agreements with no contracts. “We get paid only if they buy,” Fitzgerald notes. “This makes it a true partnership, and they are part of a family.”
Richardson sells sales training to firms that are launching new products and launches its own new products frequently. “New products usually start when you hear a couple of clients asking for something,” says Frank Donny, senior vice president of demand generation at Richardson. “Then you do the market research to see if demand is out there.”
The next step at Richardson is the product briefing, which Donny calls “the who, what, when, and where of the new product idea.” This briefing is shown to several groups: industry analysts who know the pulse of the market, major clients, and salespeople who know their markets well.
Richardson then determines not only whether the new product is likely to succeed but also where it fits in the existing product suite. Donny explains, “We don’t want to do a one-off product. Most should be cross-sells or up-sells.”
If the market is ready and the product fits, Donny puts together a playbook of 15 to 20 PowerPoint slides: “This tells us what it is, why people will buy it, who will buy it, and how to sell it.” The aim is to build a dialogue for salespeople so they can visualize how to position the product against the competition.
Reps are then trained in classrooms or through Webinars. They must know the playbook cold and be able to demonstrate the product and role-play the sales. Almost all the time, Richardson will spiff reps or provide extra incentives for selling new products.
Marketing, or what Donny calls demand generation, is done in about four weeks, usually while training is also being done. “[Salespeople] must come out of training with opportunities sitting at their desks, so you have to have some [prospects] in the pipeline,” he says.
Marketing will start with an industry segment or executive role if the new product was designed for these, but Donny always markets across all regions for a fast start. And he always pilot tests “A” and “B” versions of his basic marketing message to see which works better. “If you do not do that,” he continues, “how do you know you have the best?”
For quick starts of new services, it usually takes four to six weeks to build the playbook and two to three weeks to train reps. The whole process, from initial suggestions to launch, takes three to four months at Richardson. Donny acknowledges that launching new manufactured items or software can take much longer.
Like Brock, Donny says short-term metrics are essential after launch. “You must have short-term goals,” he advises. “You need key performance indicators, such as the quantity and quality of leads, leads converted into opportunities, and how many turn into proposals. We set these for both marketing and sales for three, six, and twelve months.” •
10 Steps to a Smart Launch
1. Get a bright idea, internally or from your smartest customers.
2. Come up with a preliminary product definition.
3. Check with customer groups, industry thought leaders, and top salespeople.
4. Define the product, best markets, reasons to buy, competition, sales strategy and tactics, and set a launch date.
5. Hire new reps, if necessary.
6. Pilot and start the marketing campaign.
7. Develop sales-training materials and incentives.
8. Train and excite salespeople.
9. Launch the product, starting with a launch to only the best markets if it’s more affordable to do so.
10. Start measuring leads, qualified leads, opportunities, customer reactions, proposals, conversions, and revenue.
Three Steps to Get the Most from Your Talents
Get Reps to Perform at the Highest Levels