LOS ANGELES — “You guys are all the same.”
Through the years, industry sales teams have all heard these difficult words. For the most part, our fine troops shake their heads, pull up a thin smile and dance around the objection their potential customer has placed before them.
Other than “the price objection,” specific service and product differentiation is the most obvious, yet seldom answered, hurdle. With today’s more savvy consumer, it is potentially our most important hurdle—and at the same time, possibly our biggest opportunity.
There are three driving factors that make this issue worthy of serious review:
- Our B2B customer knows very little about our real process or durable products.
- Our prospective senior buyers are now evolving from “Gen Y.”
- Our industry’s processes (including marketing and sales) are very slow to change.
Have you ever been to a party or family event and have someone ask, “What do you do?”
You answer keenly, using buzz phrases like, “I’m in the textile rental and maintenance industry,” or “I’m a linen supplier,” or “I rent uniforms.”
Regardless of your answer, you then spend 10 minutes explaining “textile rental service,” followed by questions that center around Laundromats, Macy’s annual linen sale or how they can get their hands on one of those cool microfiber cloths to clean their glasses.
Potential B2B customers and the general public really know very little about our industry and services. And while they may recognize a product, the idea of washing 900 pounds of laundry in one machine is, while impressive, vaguely understood by most.
The typical buyer has, therefore, little basis to perceive (on their own) differentiation between rental providers—because they have no real basic understanding of our somewhat complicated service model, production processes or (industrially launderable) textile product specifications.
Since our business model is rarely really explained in detail to either new sales associates as well as their potential buyers, the absence of differentiation positioning leaves sales reps with even tougher objections like price.
Yes, there are fairly immediate solutions to this dilemma, most of which will positively impact your top-line growth, as well as your retention and profitability.
GEN Y BUYERS
Simply put, “This ain’t your daddy’s uniform.”
Known sometimes as “millennials,” this generation of buyers was born between 1982 and 2004. The oldest of Gen Y is now turning 35 and actively climbing into the upper mid-level workforce, including B2B purchasing management.
In U.S. family-owned businesses, millennials are being groomed for, and already starting to take, the executive helm, wielding executive and political power in business and society (already evident in our own industry). In the next 10 years, this group will become the basis of purchase power, our buying majority, so to speak.
So, what makes this dynamic impactful? This group was growing up during the early information revolution. They were about 10 when the Internet became commonplace.
Some of them were in grad school when Steve Jobs changed the world with the planet’s first hand-held, graphics-intense, network-connected, instant information tool in the form of a mini-supercomputer known as a PDA (personal digital assistant) or more commonly referred to as an iPhone.
Millennials have completely embraced information technology (because it’s all they’ve known), and use search engines and social media, acting instantly on their questions and/or suspicions—sometimes in front of or even during the sales call.
There is no escape, and as we head into the coming five years or so, technology, social media communication modes and Gen Y language and cultural understanding will become key ingredients in sales success.
Simply put, our industry must be able to reach and communicate with this new and powerful generation of buyers, who are savvy about having instant analytical information at their fingertips.
Our industry has a bit of a journey to take in this area (myself included), and most of us are just “getting our arms around” the dynamic shift upon us.
SALES PROCESS CHANGE
In the past, our industry sales professionals could hit the road with an arsenal of good quality, strong service and fair prices. If buyers became convinced, deals were made.
In more recent decades, the industry expanded with national players who educated the buying businesses on common practice and consistent product. The industry rose up to new standards, and the concept of differentiation became key to the sale, whether in fabric, construction, image, finish, packaging, service or even information.
Here’s the part that’s interesting. A Gen Y buyer can learn all these market dynamics doing a Google search, while participating in a blog, all during their drive-through at Starbucks—before they even arrive at their office.
All of us, as American buyers, are spoiled. The old methods of simple selling no longer work. Value selling, based on guiding the buyer through three drivers, has already become core to the sale. Here’s the new landscape:
- People don’t buy things for what they are, we buy things for what they do.
- Once the value or benefit is positioned and perceived, the buyer can (with information or assistance) journey through their buying motivations from “functional” to “social” to “emotional” (personal).
- Savvy sales professionals who can guide the prospect through this journey will win.
- If these sales professionals wield the communication power discussed here, your company’s sales growth will thrive in the next decade.
So, let’s break it down with regard to the three drivers.
You buy your dream car, whatever that may be. You mention it to your friends, drive it proudly, and you are now livin’ large.
Did you buy the car because of its killer engineering? Sure. Did the sleek design or perhaps the integrated electronics drive you to spend those precious dollars? Probably.
Did the fact that the automobile was known as an expensive, prestigious brand have anything to do with it? Of course.
Did you want to pay more money for a hybrid in order to contribute to saving the planet? In some cases, yes. Or did you buy an economical used car, because it did what you basically needed, and allowed you to keep your money for higher priorities (family, college funds, charity, room addition)? Possibly.
But in the end, you signed on the bottom line because all these things made you “feel” good about your decision. You took the journey from functional attributes through social dynamics, all the way to a personal (emotional) buy decision.
Now think about the current methods of selling in our industry. We spend the most time on functional selling, around product spec and image, as well as our service or efficiencies. In many cases, our “selling” just stops there. Yes, we sell, and many sell big. But Gen Y can get all that functional “stuff” on their iPhone. Uh oh. Now what?
Social-driven selling in our industry currently centers around “social compliance,” most specifically the positive environmental impact of reusable textiles and our eco-friendly process.
A second key current social driver is international human rights, packed with manufacturing standards and other certifications, that any legitimate industry supplier can provide in detail.
I’ll go ahead and admit it for all of us. The first time I heard the term “social compliance,” I had to Google it. The term started as “corporate responsibility” and has transitioned from a voluntary activity to a social mandate. By who? As of a few years ago, Gen Y.
This group of Americans grew up with social compliance as an accepted standard. They’ve never known anything else. They expect it, look for it, live it and buy it.
Our industry has recently embraced social compliance in environmentalism by certifying our green laundering process under the Textile Rental Services Association’s (TRSA) “Clean Green” certification program. This is, in fact, our industry’s stand on environmental social compliance in production and was intended as a single voice to the coming generation of buyers.
Are you Clean Green? Does your sales staff know what it is? How to position it? Why it’s important for your buyer to hear about? Have you asked your associate suppliers for their social compliance program, and do you use that in your value-offering with prospective clients?
You will soon be entering the “social compliance zone,” where savvy Gen Y buyers won’t move forward without satisfying this mandate in their basic mental checklist. It’s a social driver, as they believe it’s the right thing to do for the good of all of us.
By the way, the use of reusable textiles, being processed under the Clean Green operational standard is, in fact, the right thing to do.
If we don’t move the new buyer from a simple functional-based position, through the social compliance dynamic, it will be difficult to get the buyer to the altar of textile love. They have to believe that you, your company, your people, your products, your processes, your services and your business ethics and track record are all in line with their cultural baseline expectations.
They’ll Google you, review you, blog you, analyze you and listen to you. And if your sales professionals can talk their language through their communication modes, you take them to the end of the buying journey, where they say to themselves, “I have to do this. I have to have this. It meets my needs, and I want it.”
It’s become personal, and the “emotional” driver is singing them your praises.
It’s more than just, “I have the same product or service, and mine is better.” It’s about specifically calling out your differences and why you got there.
It’s about what the product or service does for your buyer—both for their company and for them personally. It’s about continually taking your buyer from understanding the functional parts of your products and services to understanding that by buying from you, they are participating in social compliance.
And finally, getting your prospective customer convinced that buying your product or service is a must-have because it’s really about them. That is the time we start to discuss their cost vs. what others might have thrown out as pricing.
If customers see true value first, the price paid becomes far less important. As to how we communicate our message? Yes, it needs to be face-to-face, with direct follow-up. But here is a current general marketing statistic on Gen Y that states “81% say that ‘posts’ [on social media] from their friends and acquaintances directly influence their buying decision.” Does your sales team know how to bring this to life in your selling process?
We have lots to do, and always will. A senior executive who mentored me in the past used to tell me regularly, “In marketing, the first to market typically wins.” If the dynamics above are real, we need to get to work—yesterday.
In the meantime, the current economic landscape, product innovations and buyer dynamics offer today’s industry sales professional more opportunities to succeed than ever before. Make it count for them so it counts for you.