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How to Keep Competition at Bay

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How to Keep Competition at Bay

The Secrets of Strategic Selling

To be consistently successful, your sales force must move from transactional selling to consultative or strategic selling. You must make a greater commitment to those clients that represent the top 20% of your business. To keep your competition at bay, it is crucial that you work on increasing quality over time: not your quality, but the customer’s. To achieve this goal, you must:

  • Uncover and understand your customers’ changing needs.
  • Become proactive in order to satisfy the clients’ strategic staffing requirements.
  • Deal at a higher level to uncover your clients’ strategic plans for growth. To do this, you will need to change the message you bring these customers.

Strategic selling is much more than taking and filling a specific order. It involves developing a deep-rooted commitment to understanding what challenges are creating roadblocks – for your client, to exploring these problems, and to supplying solutions that will help your customer be more successful. This article will explore strategic selling and how it can strengthen your relationships with your top client companies.


  • Providing solutions to real business problems will keep your staffing service top-of-mind.
  • Becoming a partner, not just a vendor, positions you at a level above your competition.
  • Price becomes much less important so your margins remain healthy.
  • Strategic selling strengthens your ties and involvement with your top customers.
  • Solutions you initiate can be used to encourage business with other customers and prospects.
  • Dealing with decision-makers is much more satisfying personally and professionally.


Here are the “tools” you will need to implement this idea:

  • An Action Plan
    • Uncover clients where using strategic selling would be most effective.
    • Determine who you need to contact.
    • Learn how to get to see them.
    • Review a list of issues to consider. (See the “Forms” section.)
    • Consider the sample questions we’ve provided to help you uncover problems. (See the “Forms” section.)
  • An Implementation Plan
    • Contains sample case studies for your review.

Action Plan

In the introduction to this issue, we indicated targeting those companies that make up your first tier of clients – the top 20%. There are additional characteristics that these target companies should possess to make your efforts more rewarding. These clients should:

  • Be part of a growth industry.
  • Have shown loyalty to your staffing service over time.
  • Be willing to pay value-added prices (this will eliminate volume users who inevitably identify price as their primary selection criteria).
  • Be willing to partner with a vendor.

Once you have selected those customers you will approach, it’s time to consider your next concern:

Whom do you see?

The answer is – it depends. In most cases, CEOs of larger companies are awfully hard to access and, unless you are aware of a strategic issue they are currently facing, you might want to aim one tier down. CFOs, department managers and even HR executives (not order givers!) can also be appropriate targets for strategic selling.

As you consider each client company, make a list of the executives you wish to contact. Get their names, titles and when possible, their e-mail addresses.

How do you get to see them?

It’s really not such a daunting problem. In fact, you have a number of alternatives; however, before you pick up the phone, send your first letter or e-mail…stop and reflect.

First, think about what you’re going to say. Anytime you say the same thing as your competition you become generic. Anytime you open a conversation with statements about your service, you will be viewed as a commodity where price becomes a primary consideration. You simply must become a problem solver to escape from being price-driven.

Your opening statement therefore should have nothing to do with you or your service and everything to do with the client.

Because you are already dealing with this customer, you should know a great deal about their company, culture, product/service and method of operation.

Review the sample list of issues contained in the “Forms” section and consider whether any of these possibilities apply to the client you want to approach. If not, consider a brainstorming session with others in your company who work with this client or with clients in the same or similar industries.

Select a likely subject (a problem where your staffing service can provide a cost-effective solution), and attempt to contact the decision-maker to set up an appointment to discuss this issue. If you open with a subject of interest or concern to your customer, you will have a much greater likelihood of being seen. If you give your client no reason to want to see you (“I’m going to be in your neighborhood and I’d like to stop by….”), why should that client want to waste valuable time with you?

What should you say if you don’t want to sound like everybody else?

Remember this simple rule: the customer should be talking 80% of the time and you should be talking 20%. It’s the only way you can uncover concerns that are affecting your customer’s operation. Ask lots and lots of questions to identify, clarify and qualify problems. (See the sample questions in the “Forms” section.) When you have determined an issue is really critical and that a solution is important to the customer, it’s time to offer an answer that will use your services and provide a solution of real value to the customer.

It’s your problem-solving abilities that make strategic selling so very effective. However, it’s developing your skills in questioning, listening and assessing that will set you apart from your competition. Your competition may have solutions too, but if they never uncover, qualify and quantify problems from the client’s perspective, they won’t have the opportunity that strategic selling affords you.

Implementation Plan

The following are steps to get your Action Plan implemented:

Step 1

Determine which companies from your client list you wish to approach.

Step 2

Decide within each account, the people you wish to contact. Make sure these executives are decision-makers.

Step 3

Select an issue and prepare an opening statement you can use when contacting each decision-maker for an appointment.

Step 4

Review whatever data you have about this customer to familiarize yourself with the client prior to your appointment.

Step 5

Prepare a list of issues and questions relevant to this customer.

Step 6

During that initial appointment, listen more than you speak. Your job is to ask probing questions that will identify challenges facing your customer currently or in the near future. Listen carefully to what your customer is saying in response to your questions.

Step 7

Once a problem has been pinpointed, you need to ask additional questions to qualify and quantify the importance of the subject being discussed. You must raise the value and usefulness of a solution by increasing the “cost” of the problem.

Step 8

When you have assessed the problem and determined that your client really wants and needs a viable solution, it’s time to be creative. You may offer a solution immediately or you may choose to step away, consider the best alternative and make your presentation during a follow-up call. (Personally, I like the second suggestion as it makes your solution appear more thoughtful.)

Step 9

Repeat this process with each contact you have selected in each client company.

Step 10

Create a hard copy binder and/or a folder on your computer to record the customers, issues and solutions you’ve implemented. Don’t forget to ask clients for a testimonial each time a solution you have suggested is successfully implemented. Use your success stories with other decision-makers as a way to expand your sales and profits.



  • Turnover – Is there a job category, department or shift in your client’s organization that is experiencing a consistently high turnover problem?
  • Project Work – Are there periodic spikes in a client’s production process that are causing headaches due to excessive overtime or scheduling difficulties?
  • New Product Planning – Does your client suffer when the planning of activities for new product development plays havoc with the company’s regular work schedule?
  • Bottlenecks – Does your client have a bottleneck in their manufacturing/distribution/operations area that is causing delivery problems?
  • Productivity – How does the summer vacation schedule impact your client’s productivity?
  • New Equipment – Is there a department in your client’s company that is ready to install or has just installed a new system or new equipment? What challenges has this presented?
  • New Location – Has your client opened or is your client about to open a new office/branch/location? What concerns have to be dealt with?
  • Recovery – Is your customer beginning to experience an increase in business after downsizing during the recession? How are they dealing with these new growth issues while keeping an eye on costs?
  • Qualified Personnel– If you have a client whose product/service requires highly trained or technical professionals, what is being done to ensure that a sufficient number of candidates are available when needed?
  • Competition – What is your customer doing to ensure that competition is not cutting into his market?
  • Customer Service – What systems and standards does your customer use to ensure a high level of customer service? How satisfied is the client with the response time to customer problems? What would they change if they could?
  • Costs – If your client is continuing to experience a lull in business activity, ask what steps have been taken to cut costs. This issue and the answers you receive can open the door to problems that occur when there still is work to be done and the customer has cut too much in an effort to eliminate extra overhead.


The issues listed in this section are examples of the concerns your client’s management personnel deal with daily. The sample questions are offered to help you begin to probe more deeply into an issue. Simple follow-up statements like “Tell me more,” “Please explain further,” or “Can you give me more detail?” will help you qualify and quantify the issue.

You need to find out how important it is for your client to find a solution to the problem being discussed. Keep asking questions until you determine the validity of the problem and the value your solution can provide.

  • How has the turnover in your ______________________ department affected the workload of the remaining staff?
  • What effect has the increase in overtime had on your employees (or on employee productivity)?
  • What has been the impact of delaying your new product announcement?
  • What have you done to address the bottleneck in the ____________________ department?
  • Have these staffing problems caused you to lose any clients?
  • What have you done to ensure you have back-up staff in operating your new system?
  • Has the shortage of support staff impacted your ability to respond quickly to client calls?
  • If your staff shortage causes deliveries to be delayed, how does that impact your relationships with those clients?
  • How much could you save annually if we could eliminate your seasonal overtime costs?
  • What impact does this problem have on production?
  • What would a 10% increase in output mean to your profitability?


  • A dental equipment manufacturer needed to roll out a new product marketing program. During a discussion with their primary staffing vendor, the client was complaining that the marketing people in her department were overtaxed and their new product announcement would have to be delayed. By asking lots of questions the staffing rep found out that this delay might be very costly. It seems her customer had a competitor trying hard to develop a similar new product. The marketing manager’s only solution that she felt she could implement was more overtime for her staff. The staffing rep went back to her office, conferred with her boss and a senior recruiter for their firm.Results: The staffing service was able to locate a qualified product marketing professional who they placed on assignment with their client for four months. The customer’s staff cut their overtime, and morale became more positive. The customer was thrilled. The mark-up on the contract temporary was 68%!
  • During a monthly visit with a major legal client, a staffing rep asked to speak to the manager of the firm’s word processing secretarial pool. The purpose of the call was to discuss their summer vacation fill-in program. The manager was unhappy. Last year they used a variety of temporary legal secretaries, many of whom did not like “pool” work assignments. The temps often left before their assignments were up. And this year they had an even bigger problem having installed a proprietary software package unique to their law firm. The manager complained bitterly about costs and reliability. The staffing sales rep left feeling more than a little worried about his account.Results: After a brainstorming session with his manager, the rep made the following presentation to the client. They would recruit legal students from the local university who had legal terminology and good word processing skills. The client agreed to a four-hour training session for their unique software. They provided the trainer and the staffing service provided the new temps. The students were delighted with full-time summer jobs that looked good on their resumes and paid considerably more than other alternatives. The customer gave the staffing service an exclusive for 10 to 12 temporaries for 11 weeks. The mark-up was 58%, and the customer was very satisfied!
  • A growing parts distribution company decided to convert from using independent sales reps to hiring in-house sales staff. During a meeting between the staffing rep and the VP of Sales & Marketing, the VP indicated that the company would have to hire on their own because they couldn’t afford to pay agency fees for the number of salespeople they needed to hire. When the staffing rep probed further, the VP said that he could only afford to pay about $2,000 per hire and that certainly wasn’t enough to interest a professional recruiting firm. The VP also admitted that they were pressed for time and that their HR Department really didn’t have the personnel to tackle this project unless the VP agreed to prolong the hiring time. The VP said increasing the hiring timeline could cost the company a large chunk of lost business, but he really didn’t see an alternative.Results: The staffing rep suggested two alternatives: (1) The client use a contract professional recruiter to augment the HR staff for the time needed to locate and hire the number of sales reps required; (2) If time was really critical, the client could pay the staffing service an hourly charge + expenses + a $2,500/per hire fee for every sales rep recruited and hired by the customer. The client chose alternative #2 and the hiring was completed in just under six months.

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