Mr. Paton

Sales & Marketing

Winning with the Web: Return to the Basics

By Mike Paton, Senior Vice President, Signature Worldwide

"That's nothing," he'll say after Tiger stripes a drive 380 yards down the middle while protecting a six-stroke lead at the Masters. "Put that titanium rocket launcher in Arnold Palmer's hands 45 years ago, and he'd never have lost a tournament!"

Since my father-in-law hasn't lost an argument since 1953, I'm always quick to agree that advancements in technology have certainly helped "raise the bar" on performance in many sports. But every athlete has access to golf balls that fly farther or space-age tennis rackets. As a result, we agreed that today's champions excel by distinguishing themselves the same way they always have - through talent and hard work.

The idea that champions don't rely on technology alone is something we need to keep in mind in the hospitality industry. With so much business being conducted "online" today, you may be tempted to let technology do all the heavy lifting for your hotel. After all, you probably get plenty of transient reservations via brand websites or TPAs, and perhaps your sales staff can barely keep up with all of the electronic RFPs you receive.

Certainly, you and your sales team have had to change the way you work to accommodate the increased role technology plays in business today. But, like champion athletes, you must make sure not to rely too heavily on automation and just "go through the motions." And you shouldn't drastically change the way you work just because you're more frequently connecting with people online. Technology just creates additional ways to link buyers and sellers -- it's not meant to replace basic sales skills and old-fashioned hard work.

While this concept may seem simplistic, audits we've conducted with numerous customers have proven that implementing this idea at your hotel is much more difficult than you might think. We've found the vast majority of sales professionals respond ineffectively to inbound opportunities received electronically - via e-mail or web-based RFPs. Even sellers who normally excel at establishing relationships with prospects and building value in their hotel seem to behave more as passive "order-takers" when communicating with someone online.

Why? Perhaps because online communication seems to put the buyer in a position of authority, making all but the most talented sellers believe their job is to simply respond to the request. Maybe the average seller believes some purchasing manager interested in nothing but price and location is going to make the buying decision associated with every RFP. As a result, every question is carefully answered, and all documentation is attached, but there's no dialog. The sales manager prices the business aggressively, believing it's the only chance to win the bid. And then the RFP response is dutifully shipped off - almost always just before the deadline.

As a result, the sales manager's worst fears are realized. Confronted with a dozen responses that all arrive at 4:45 pm on the day they're due, the decision-maker sifts through piles of information looking for the best partner. No matter how beautiful your property's digital photos, it's virtually impossible to stand out...and so the decision is made based on price and availability.

Obviously, you can do better. In working with thousands of top-performing sales organizations, we've found today's champions have mastered the basics and have learned to apply them through all available sales channels. They realize that every purchasing decision - be it for a single transient room night or an annual convention - involves two people just trying to communicate. And so they apply their communication and sales skills to whatever process is required to "get the business."

There's no need to invent a new sales process to get the results you desire. If your company's approach is one that works for most of your sales team, help them apply that approach for interactions that occur primarily online. Just like Tiger might have to make a slight adjustment in his swing to get the most out of a new club, your best sales managers may need to "tweak" their approach to be online sales champions.

Here's what I mean. Every successful sales dialog - be it online, over the phone, or in person - includes four critical steps:

It's easy to picture your best sales manager responding to a phone inquiry by using skills to walk the prospect through each of these steps. She will connect with an upbeat, professional greeting, getting and using the prospect's name, and letting the caller know he's definitely reached someone who can help him.

Once rapport is established, the sales manager asks open-ended qualifying questions to discover the caller's needs, wants and top buying motives. When describing what your property has to offer, she works hard to build value by offering benefits and describing competitive advantages that match the prospect's needs. Only then does the talented seller verify understanding, quote a price and close the deal by gaining commitment.

Although these steps are very basic, they're remarkably effective. However, for even the best sellers, using this same formula for online inquiries is much more difficult. After all, "wired" prospects have thoroughly researched your property - and several competitors - before initiating contact. And because they don't want to waste a lot of time, these prospects may have prepared an RFP that clearly defines their company's needs and asks you to respond with very basic information in a format that doesn't allow much room for selling.

The existence of a formal RFP does not mean you have to abandon the sales process that works for you, any more than buying a new golf club means you have to completely change your swing. To illustrate, let's apply the sales skills described above to the typical RFP process:

Since most sellers never take the opportunity to develop rapport with the decision maker who's sent out an RFP, your team can really distinguish itself by concentrating on the connect step. Instead of putting the RFP on your "to do" list for the week before its due date, immediately review the RFP and contact the sender. Most RFPs will include a name and contact information in the event questions arise. Follow those instructions carefully and be brief. Simply introduce yourself, advise the prospect that you're reviewing the document carefully and plan to respond. Clarify the preferred method of communication should questions arise, and express appreciation for being included.

Once you've connected with the prospect and established ground rules for future communications, you're ready to discover what really matters to the decision maker(s). After carefully reviewing the RFP and preparing a list of questions, contact the prospect to "gather more information." Make it clear that you want to thoroughly understand their needs and greatly appreciate their willingness to invest this additional time. Ask a series of open-ended questions , which identify the real needs and wants of all the stakeholders. Use clarifying questions to drill down to the top buying motives.

Armed with that information, you can now build value in your hotel by stressing in your formal response those things that most clearly address the prospect's specific desires. In addition to helping you avoid providing a long list of generic hotel features, this personalized approach will really differentiate your offer from those provided by your competition. If your property is clearly the best fit, price will be a less significant factor in the ultimate buying decision.

In order to help navigate your prospect through the proposal review process so you can close the business, try responding in a very unique way. First, send your proposal in early. Christine Chippindale, Senior Director of Travel Industry Sales for Choice Hotels International says, "More than 70 percent of the responses we get to RFPs come in within 48 hours of the due date."

As a result, she and her team make it a point to respond to all requests quickly and thoroughly. "If your proposal arrives first and completely addresses the needs of the decision maker," she says, "it's more likely to be evaluated carefully and viewed on the basis of more than price." And, you'll be better able to engage the prospect in dialog and help resolve any questions or potential objections.

So whether you're a "techno geek" with a Blackberry strapped to each wrist or still haven't learned how to make your VCR stop blinking "12:00," the message is clear. No matter what the medium, do a great job at each stage of the sales process and you will close more business. Your best sales managers and reservations agents have already mastered these basics for interactions that occur in more traditional sales channels. But as more and more business moves online, you won't be winning many more sales championships unless your team is able to skillfully apply these skills to "the Web."

Mike Paton leads the sales efforts at Signature Worldwide, a training and business solutions company dedicated to helping hotels and resorts create legendary experiences for their customers. With more than fifteen years of experience as a top seller and sales manager, Mike knows first hand the value of creating a customer-centered sales and service culture. Paton is a national champion public speaker and holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from The Ohio State University. Mr. Paton can be contacted at 800-398-0518 or mikepaton@signatureworldwide.com Extended Bio...

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