I Stopped Selling to My Customers -- and Started Training Them to Buy

Last Updated Jul 27, 2010 1:14 PM EDT

By Robert Bilotti, Managing Director of Novita, Chicago
Like most business owners, I'm passionate. I can even be kind of in-your-face. I think my company does great work for a great value, and I want to tell customers, "You should be using us!" Problem is, they don't always appreciate the direct sales pitch.

We used to rely solely on email marketing, trade shows, networking, cold calls and direct mail to market our employee training services. But a few years ago, we realized that those tactics just weren't grabbing our customers.

It was time to take a bit of our own medicine. We help companies educate their employees, so why not educate our potential customers? After all, big companies do it. For example, Apple has classes on how to use their products; Whole Foods gives free cooking demonstrations. People love free stuff. And then these companies structure their presentation so customers think they can't live without the products in the demo.
The old soft shoe
We tested this approach by developing free seminars and webinars. We target HR managers at larger companies, whose barriers to hiring us tend to be budget and authority. We used webinars to train them how to build the case for some of our projects, so they can get management to release the money for them.

For example, we help companies develop a program to bring new employees into organizations -- what we call onboarding. Improving onboarding is always on HR managers' to-do lists, but it tends to be way down on that list. So we offered a webinar to convince them to move it up. To build our case, we conducted a survey of employees from 400 organizations nationwide that put a dollar amount on an effective onboarding program.

The biggest investment to launch our new approach was time. It took about a week to get the initial webinar up and running. The financial investment was minimal. (It would have been higher had we wanted to do in-person seminars that required refreshments.) We used social networking and traditional outreach methods -- email blasts, direct mail -- to get people registered. We found that because our outreach was "educational," people were more receptive to the marketing. When we had 100 people register for our first seminar, I knew we were on to something.

We still do some traditional advertising. But the training approach has even influenced these strategies. Now, instead of doing an email blast about an offer, we do one that educates -- for example, we'll write about how managers fail new employees and what you can do about it. And when our salesperson calls a potential customer, he presents himself as not just pitching our services but providing information.

A longer sales cycle
I see two main challenges to the training approach to sales. The first is that it takes time to train customers right.
And you have to remember you are training potential customers, not current customers, so you have to be OK with the fact that some of them are going to take your information and just walk away. We have done tons of webinars and seminars where nothing came of them.

But we have gotten better over time at identifying what customers are looking for. At the start we used a lot of stats about the effectiveness of our services, but I realized our customers respond more to an emotional connection. They want to know how we are going to make their lives easier, from a more personal perspective.

The other huge challenge is where to draw the line: It can be hard to delineate between training customers to buy your product and giving away your knowledge. I've crossed the line a few times -- I started to feel like I was doing something for free that I usually get paid for. Each business owner has to figure out where to draw the line, and I have gotten better at this.

Webinar attendees will often ask me to send them more information after a session. I used to do this, but inevitably some would ask for even more. I've stopped giving that information away for free. Instead, I set up a consultation to educate potential customers about our expertise and steer them toward buying.

Our revenues have gone up since we started this anti-sales approach. I haven't had time to track the percentage of webinar attendees who become clients; off the top of my head, I'd guess that if 200 people go through a webinar, maybe three will become customers. That may sound low, but these customers wouldn't have known about us unless we had done the webinar, and we bring in a lot of money with each customer.

We've definitely increased our pool of interested buyers. We have seen 30 percent growth in revenues since using this approach (though part of that growth comes from other factors, like bringing on an additional salesperson). We now have six employees and bring in $400,000 a year.

The "soft" sell turns an often-adversarial relationship into one built on mutual respect -- and co-dependency. It's a tactic that even an in-your-face kind of guy can appreciate.

-- As told to Caitlin Elsaesser