How to Get Inside Information for Solution Selling

By Geoffrey James

Selling software used to be deemed a “technical sale” where the primary goal of the sales rep was to provide information to the customer. If you had technology that seemed state-of-the-art, all you had to do was demonstrate your software, prove your company’s credibility and then write up the order. No longer. Today, decision makers are more likely to buy your software based upon what you know about their company and their business than upon what they know about your company and your products.

If you’re going to show how your software and services can address the real business needs of the customer, you’ll need to learn a lot more about the customer than you did in the past. Ideally, you’ll want the kind of inside information that will allow you to quickly craft a solution that exactly meets their needs. Here’s a quick way to get those all-important facts:

First, use the Internet to gather enough public information to provide an overview of the target firm, its strategies and its challenges. Most companies leave a substantial “cyber trail” that goes far beyond press releases on the corporate Website. If the company is publicly held, check out its SEC filings. Search for conference proceedings that featured executives from the target firm. If your company has access to the Nexus news service, look for published interviews with key executives.

While you’re gathering information from public sources, keep a list of individuals who have left the target firm, regularly do business with them, or have personal contacts with the executives of the firm. These are the people who, if approached, might be willing to coach you in more detail about the inside functioning of the company, not to mention the personality and interests of the decision-makers.

Once you’ve mastered the public information, contact these potential “coaches” and ask for their assistance. To do this consistently, you’ll need to use your sales and communications skills to determine how the potential “coach” can benefit from speaking with you. In some cases, the coach’s motivation can be as simple as the desire to share information. In other cases, the coach’s motivation could be the possibility of career advancement.

Using the public and private information that you’ve gathered, determine which decision maker can personally authorize the purchase of whatever you’re selling. Then determine how your company can provide the kind of value that would cause that decision maker to actually make a purchasing decision.

In most cases, you’ll find that your best point of access is one of the “coaches” who helped you develop the private information segment of your research. However, it’s vitally important to have your “coach” position your request for a meeting in a way that enhances your credibility. If your coach says something like “Sue wants to talk to you about her company’s framistats,” the decision maker is likely to say something like “Albert in purchasing makes those decisions.” By contrast, if your coach says something like “Sue wants to talk to you about how her company can impact your revenue growth and profitability,” the executive is much more likely to agree to a meeting.

If you already have a relationship with the decision maker, perhaps through prior business or social contacts, you can approach the executive directly. However, your request for a meeting must be carefully worded so that it motivates the decision maker to meet with you personally and not delegate downwards.

Worst case, you can write a letter describing why you would like to meet with the executive personally. This letter must be finely crafted to communicate your understanding of the customer’s company and how your firm can provide value significant enough to warrant the executive’s personal attention. If you use this method, explain to the executive’s admin that you are about to send the letter and solicit the admin’s help in seeing that the letter actually gets read.

The above is based upon an interview with Mark Shonka and Dan Kosch, coauthors of Beyond Selling Value – A Proven Process to Avoid the Vendor Trap (Dearborn Trade, 2002).