“Are you helping me or not?”

There is an epidemic of poor responsiveness in sales and service.

Consider the case of IBM, a global behemoth with over $100 Billion in annual revenues.  An article in the April 25, 2013 issue of the Wall Street Journal reported the existence an internal IBM video, that was sent to all 430,000 of its employees by CEO Virgina Rometty.  In her 5-minute long missive, Rometty decried the absence of a sense of urgency among her legions in responding to prospects and customers.

She stated that IBM has been guilty of not being sufficiently proactive in engaging with prospects and customers, to get them the information they need and to answer their questions.  As described in the WSJ article, the solution was to change IBM’s process in hopes of changing its culture:  “The CEO then unleashed a new rule.  If a client has a request or question, IBM must respond within 24 hours, she said.”

By their CEO’s reckoning, IBM was a company that had a responsiveness problem.  Even a giant company with some of the most well-trained and well-managed sales and support people in the tech industry, with virtually unlimited resources at their command, who design, sell, manufacture, integrate and deploy some of the most complex IT systems in the world, was visibly failing its prospects and customers in this most basic of sales (and service) skills.  And, as a result, becoming vulnerable to their competitors with some of their biggest customers.

IBM is an example of an enterprise with the self-awareness and insight to make a change to a culture of what I call laissez-faire responsiveness, which was sapping their ability to compete.

How Can You Build A Culture Of Responsiveness At Your Company?

The first step is to develop a clear understanding of why it is so important to integrate responsiveness, into every aspect of your sales efforts.  Consider responsiveness from the perspective of your prospects and customers.  Like everyone else in this world, they are short on time.  Every hour of their time that they invest in evaluating products and services for purchase, is an hour that is taken away from more important activities that could increase top-line revenues or bottom-line profits.

If you can use responsiveness to reduce the amount of time the prospect requires to move through their buying process, then that will accrue to their benefit – and yours.

Unfortunately, customers have become conditioned not to expect responsiveness from salespeople and the companies they work for.  Salespeople and their managers often don’t recognize, how essential responsiveness is to their efforts to build trust and credibility with prospects.  Most importantly, they fail to understand how responsiveness, at all stages of the customer’s buying process, creates the foundation for true seller differentiation, which leads to a tangible and sustainable competitive advantage.

Chances are good that you compete in a market where it is extremely expensive to create and maintain any meaningful product differentiation.  Innovative products and services are quickly copied and commoditized in a rush to market by a myriad of competitors.  As a result, the product(s) that you sell, as well as those your direct competitors sell, are often perceived to be largely the same in the eyes of your customers.  In this environment, how then do you stand out?  How can you reliably distinguish yourself from everybody else?

The answer is responsiveness.

What does responsiveness mean?  Responsiveness has a specific definition in sales.  It’s the combination of two inseparable elements: value and speed – take away one of those two elements and you’re no longer responsive.

The easiest way to remember the formulation for complete responsiveness is to see it as an equation:  Responsiveness = Value + Speed.

Value is any information (in the form of questions, data, insights, research, context, case studies and so on) that you, as a seller can provide, that enables your buyer to move at least one step closer to making a decision.  Speed, obviously, is the time it takes to provide the requested information to a customer.

Being fast is good for gold medals, but in the absence of value, speed is not a virtue in sales Being first to respond is not the same as being responsive.  For instance, if you’re fast to respond to a prospects’ inquiry but don’t provide any data or information of value that the prospect can use to move forward in their buying process, then you’re not being responsive.  Being fast is good for gold medals, but in the absence of value, speed is not a virtue in sales.

It’s all too common for salespeople to feel good about themselves when they receive a question from a customer in an e-mail and provide a response the next business day.  But what if your primary competitor satisfactorily answers that same question within 30 minutes?  What has happened to your competitive position?  Has it (a) worsened, (b) improved, or (c) stayed the same?  The only realistic answer is (a) – worsened.

So flip that last question on its head.  What will happen to your sales results when you commit to being absolutely and completely responsive, to every customer inquiry and request?  What will happen to your competitive posture on every deal you work on, when your competitors have to struggle to keep pace with your responsiveness?

The mistake sellers make is in assuming that customers don’t place a value on responsiveness.  They do. Witness the message from Ms. Rometty to her 430,000 employees.  She hadn’t unilaterally decided out of a misplaced sense of sales altruism, to fix a problem that didn’t exist.  To the contrary, she was responding to concerns expressed by their customers.  And it was these customers who were clearly stating that it wasn’t up to IBM to dictate how fast they could do business – If IBM couldn’t keep up, tough luck.

In sales, responsiveness becomes one of the primary tools you can use to demonstrate to your customer, that the experience of working with you and your company is different from the others.  And in the process, develop a level of credibility and trust that will result in winning orders.  If you value responsiveness then it will quickly become apparent to your prospect through your actions.  And it will set you apart from your competitors.

How can you instill a culture of absolute responsiveness, which ensures a positive perception of you and your company?  You have to take deliberate and concrete steps, like those outlined below, to define your own standard and process of responsiveness and create metrics, which enable you to measure your performance and improve your process.

Step 1.  Make Responsiveness A Priority – Starting At The Top

There are no good reasons for not prioritizing responsiveness – just bad excuses. Every individual, from top level management to each salesperson, is in complete control of their own ability to be responsive.  It doesn’t take any prep work.  It doesn’t require support from anyone else – just a personal commitment to do it.

Don’t fool yourself into believing that an auto-generated email to a customer request is responsive Managers need to establish expectations for responsiveness.  Like IBM, specific standards for responsiveness need to be created and everyone who engages with customers – as well as employees who support those who do – have to be trained on how to be responsive.

Lastly, here is a key point to remember: responsiveness requires a personal response.   Don’t fool yourself into believing that an auto-generated email to a customer request is responsive.  It isn’t (because it only contains one of the two required elements of responsiveness).  Create sustainable sales-based differentiation by incorporating personal responsiveness into every step of your selling process.

Step 2.  Define Responsiveness Metrics For All Customer-Facing Sales Processes

If you aren’t measuring it, your responsiveness is not measuring up.

You need to define responsiveness metrics for all customer facing sales activities. How long should it take to follow up a sales lead?  How long should it take to respond to a customer email?  How long should it take to provide a quote to a prospect?

Before you can define a metric you need to understand your sales processes.  Use a flow-charting or mind-mapping application to document all of your existing sales processes.  Be sure to include all of the steps that are required to make them happen.  For instance, what is your sales lead follow up process?  From the time you receive a lead, to the time it is in the hands of a sales rep who will make a follow up call, how many hands does it pass through and how long does it take at each step along the way?

Once you’ve mapped out your processes, then you can establish metrics for how long they should take.  You can capture tracking data in your CRM system and use that to review individual performance against your metrics (and you should do so daily).

Lastly, it is a requirement that you share your metrics, and your performance against them, with your management and employees (and customers as well).  You need that additional accountability that comes from sharing and publicly committing to a specific standard of performance.

Step 3.  Sell With The Sharp End Of The Stick

This is a term from my first book, Zero-Time Selling.  Selling with the sharp end of the stick means placing your people with the deepest product knowledge and customer expertise, closest to the prospect.

Your front line salespeople need to be able to be completely responsive to their buyers. When your front line salespeople can quickly deliver the value the prospect requires to move quicker through their buying process, your absolute responsiveness skyrockets – and you’ll win a higher percentage of the sales opportunities in your pipeline.

Think about it this way.  Has a customer ever called you to complain that the salesperson you assigned to their account was not “salesy” enough?  “We like John well enough, but he’s just not salesy enough.”  No, that’s never happened.  However, in my career, I’ve received calls from prospects who’ve complained that the salesperson on their account didn’t know enough about the solution they were selling and could I please send over someone else, if I was still interested in winning their business.

Step 4.  Exceed Customer Expectations

Think about it this way.  If you were a customer of your own company, what would your expectations be for the sales experience?  That is the minimum standard of responsiveness that you should deliver.  You should attempt to exceed that expectation with every sales interaction with a customer.

In my business, I try to respond to every lead or question I receive within thirty minutes of receiving it.  I am still surprised every time I rapidly respond to a customer inquiry and the person I’m talking with says that they are shocked that I called them back at all, let alone so quickly.

Here is a helpful tip: When you follow-up with a customer, always begin by apologizing for taking so long to respond – even if you’ve responded within five minutes.  It makes the point.  And raises the bar for all your competitors.

Responsiveness is a quick, easy and cost-effective way to create true sales differentiation, in the eyes of your prospects and existing customers.  Instill a culture of responsiveness, to maximize the value you deliver to your prospects and you’ll see an immediate improvement in your sales performance.