January 13, 2010

How to Embrace Bureaucracy

By Heather Baldwin

One of the most annoying things about big companies is, well, they’re big. That typically means you have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and red tape for even the simplest sale. But rather than bemoan the burden of bureaucracy, learn to view it as a tool you can turn to your advantage, suggests Steve Kaplan, founder of The Difference Maker, Inc. (www.differencemaker.com) and author of the Bag the Elephant! How to Win & Keep Big Customers (Bard Press, 2005). Here’s how to embrace bureaucracy.

1. Learn the system. Study the big customer’s – the elephant’s – bureaucracy. Map it and look for its hidden connections and patterns. What processes do managers use to get approvals? Who do they have to talk to? How do they interact with other departments? What forms do they fill out? When you get letters or emails who else is on the distribution list? Those names are there for a reason, says Kaplan, so find out who they are. Then meet with them and ask how you can help them with respect to your proposal or contract.

2. Perfect your processes. Decision makers in a bureaucracy don’t care that you’ll meet their needs. They want to be reassured that your processes are solid. So if you convey processes instead of vague promises to the elephant, Kaplan says, you’ll be light years ahead of your competitors. This strategy works so well that Kaplan, when he was CEO of a company that sold to elephants, used to create processes, give them a brand name and then promote them in his sales literature. For example, “our process for proving that our product samples actually reached the hands of the intended customers was called SampleTrack and our research-matching process was Accumatch,” he says. “I had about 50 different processes, each focusing on a customer need or a claim from my company. These were branded and promoted to give clients a sense of their significance to us, but mostly they were created to give comfort to the big customers.”

3. Help your clients survive their bureaucracy. Your potential clients probably don’t like dealing with the red tape any more than you do, yet they have to live with it every day. Help your clients and you’ll gain a champion. When they ask you for information for their forms, ask them how their company plans to use the data so you can give it to them in a useful format. Or take on some of the work yourself. One of Kaplan’s clients was required by her company to run a detailed cost analysis on the information gleaned from suppliers such as Kaplan. “We took it on ourselves to actually run the numbers and gave her everything she needed as part of our proposal, in the correct format, so that all she needed to do was pass along the proposal with the cost analysis. She loved this so much that she gave us tons of projects – simply because we did her work.” Another company required its marketers to monitor the delivery of samples to Kaplan’s many packing facilities, but the officials weren’t sure how to do it. So Kaplan, working with the client, developed a simple form and took on the burden of tracking and completing the forms, and then forwarding the forms to the client.

Kaplan looks for ways he can shoulder the burden of every clients’ bureaucracy – and he keeps closing deals as a result.