What can you really learn about the strength of a company’s marketing plan and value proposition? If you talk to key executives and are able to ask important questions the answer is a whole lot. In a recent strategic sales position phone interview I obtained with a small electrical distribution line sensor company firm, my interviewer served as the VP of sales. He told me that “the successful candidate would need to secure a three-year, $30 million procurement contract” with a major electric utility. Instead of interviewing me he gave a speech. He ended by asking me if I “had what it took” to accomplish this goal. My first impression was… how the heck do I know?! Of course I provided reassurance that even this monumental a project could be overcome by the right process and the right person. I humbly suggested that person could be me.
However, being a person who welcomes a challenge, I decided that I would ask a few marketing-related questions to better understand the expectations being laid before me. My responses and questions included:
“I am certainly excited about the challenge you’ve outlined and may I ask: ‘Where did the $30 million dollar target originate?’ ‘What analysis did your company do to arrive at that number?’”
He said unsurprisingly: “Oh, that target was developed ‘internally.’” My first thought was “How do they know whether $30 million is the right number? Maybe it’s $60 million… or maybe it’s $10 million.” What’s the point? My interviewer was indirectly letting me know that his company had not done any market analysis to determine the true market potential for their product. That’s a big red flag for a sales guy like me.
Okay, my next question: “Why should the customer buy your product over the competitor’s?” (Hint: Think “value proposition”) Long pause after this one. The interviewer (mind you, he is the VP of Sales for this company) responds “Well… we’re more focused on the customer than our competition.” Really? What company doesn’t say they’re focused on the customer? According to Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson in their book “The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation,” a differentiated value proposition is essential to influencing a prospective customer to think differently about their business and to give your product/service any serious consideration. I was ready to end the interview right then and there. Instead I gently suggested that understanding the competition could be valuable for learning many things. He agreed.
Bottom Line: Sales excellence and success within an organization begins with a clear understanding of the target market and its potential acceptance of your product/service. Moreover, an organization must have a solid value proposition (i.e. what customer problem or “pain” are we solving?) that is understood by all and can be articulated to the customer in the customer’s terms. As an executive my interviewer should have known. As a sales professional I make it my business to know. How about you?