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Selling: Sneaking Past Gatekeepers

Q: I own a software application marketed to the health-care and insurance industries. The problem is, we're having a hard time getting key decision-makers to talk to us. We've tried many times but can't seem to get past the gatekeepers. What are we doing wrong?

-- J.W.M., Centerville, Mass.

A: Although there are ways to get past the gatekeeper, it's best to go through another entry point, or use the gate when the gatekeeper isn't there, experts say. That means doing field research to determine exactly whom you need to talk to at the specific company you're targeting, says Dave Stein, a New York City-based sales consultant and author of How Winners Sell.

"Meet them at industry or analyst conferences, where contact with them isn't being controlled," he says. "Ask your existing customers, business partners, and other vendors who have relationships with them for introductions. Create events that would attract them, such as an executive breakfast where they and their counterparts in other companies could listen to an industry pundit."

And try reaching them when they're likely to have more time to chat: "Call executives during off-hours, between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning and after 5 p.m.," Stein says.

"PROVOKE INTEREST." Before breaking through to decision-makers, however, you must prepare the right message for them. Otherwise, you'll waste your time and theirs. "Understand precisely what improvement you will be providing to that executive and the company -- and be able to articulate it in a clear, compelling, and concise way," Stein says. "Executives don't care about your software. They care about delivering value to their shareholders. Tell them how you will help them do that."

Too many salespeople try to cram all of the details of their company's product or service into a message that provides a lot of information but little value, says Scott Edinger, a regional-sales vice-president at Huthwaite, a sales and marketing firm based in Sterling, Va.

"To develop effective messages that move a prospect to action or to engage in a dialogue, the key is to provoke interest -- not to lecture or inform," Edinger explains. A lecture results in boredom, which explains why so many sales calls go unreturned.

WEBINARS AND GIVEAWAYS. You should also realize that sales in the software industry derive from process and discussion, and one call represents only a small part of a sales cycle. You want an ongoing dialogue.

"Successful prospecting messages gain the interest of potential customers and create value by focusing on issues that the prospect is facing, the impact of those problems, and a hint at solutions you can provide -- if they will talk to you," Edinger says. "A quality [sales] effort...will be both credentialing and differentiating in the eyes of your clients."

Also, remember that while the cost of application development has plummeted, the cost of selling software has skyrocketed. Burned by overcomplicated, overpriced, and quickly outmoded applications, information technology departments today cast a wary eye on new and unproven applications, says David J. Cichelli, senior vice-president of the Alexander Group, a sales consultancy based in Irvine, Calif. "They now lord over tortuous procurement processes, making sales efforts extremely difficult and costly," he says. "Direct sales efforts are often futile."

The best way to sidestep this barrier: Bundle your software with a service offering, Cichelli recommends. "Offer free, Web-based, high-value content seminars on how to solve your prospect's needs," he says. "Promote these Webinars to the end-users, not the IT department. Give away your first 10 sales to get proven reference accounts, and use the successful installations to sell to like buyers." Sweeten the deal, and you just might find more gates unlocked in the future.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

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