An interview with Steinbeis Entrepreneur Professor Dr. Steffen Jäckle
Selling is not everything, but nothing works without sales! There are a number of hurdles to overcome when moving to digital selling, as Professor Dr. Steffen Jäckle, Steinbeis Entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Transfer Center Business Development Excellence BDX, can explain. TRANSFER magazine met up with Jäckle for an interview.
Hello Professor Jäckle. What challenges do you face in selling transfer and consulting services?
There are three big challenges: gaining trust, perseverance during acquisition, and attracting attention.
Gaining trust is about the fact that consulting is a commodity of trust. Potential clients are only in a limited position to judge the quality of a service if they’ve not used it yet. That often makes it difficult for new suppliers, especially if they can’t point to reference projects.
Perseverance during the acquisition phase is of huge importance because it can take a very long time, sometimes years after the initial contact, for potential customers to actually have a concrete need for consulting – and for this to result in the chance of a contract. So it’s important to keep talking to lots of potential clients and ensure there’s a healthy balance in the sales funnel.
The third challenge is about attracting the attention of the potential target group. The technological barriers to entry are much lower than they were in the past, but of course that applies to any potential provider, so the big challenge is perception among the target group.
So what’s the key to success?
The success factors are easy to categorize according to those three challenges. The best way to gain someone’s trust is to point to a successful reference project. That’s also why the absolute priority has to be your first project, even if that eats into margins. It also helps to have an established brand behind you, like Steinbeis, to engender trust in the target group.
Then there’s the next challenge – persistence during the acquisition phase. This involves consultants targeting a larger number of potential customers, though what you must never do is go in too hard at the beginning.
And finally, to attract attention you need to use the right blend of communication channels and say the right things. That means not only using “owned media,” i.e. the channels you already have access to, like the company website, but finding a good mix of shared channels, such as social media, partnerships, and if necessary, paid channels. Many firms fail to understand what’s really relevant to their target audience, so you need to find that out.
Your Steinbeis Enterprise ensures the latest findings from research are transferred to companies. What sales issues are currently being looked at in research, and how are they reflected in business?
One of the biggest challenges at the moment in B2B sales is acquiring new customers. In the past, clients would often be acquired through events, face to face – mainly trade fairs, congresses and the like. That approach has now become obsolete because of the pandemic, and if there’s one thing we do know, it’s that things won’t go back to the way they were before Covid. But companies still need to find new customers, which is a fascinating challenge we’re researching at the moment. What we’re finding is that digital tools can be used to attract new customers. But the big challenge is that the new tools require staff to learn new skills, and some organizations – especially with the kind of employees who tend to be averse to change – are stilling hoping things will go back to the “good old days” – but that’s false hope! Times have changed now.
What value do sales concepts and methods derived from scientific knowledge offer in concrete terms to business practice?
As Immanuel Kant already worked out, “There is nothing as practical as a good theory.” Although to be honest, there’s no other function of corporate life where scientific concepts are subjected to so much ridicule by “business practitioners” – this only happens in sales. The thing you hear time and again is that the key bit about sales is gut feeling. That’s mistaken! Better decision-making is based on well-founded, robust knowledge, and that includes – or is especially the case – in sales. Successful selling is no longer possible these days if the approach isn’t underpinned by a good concept.
One of the key areas you work in is digital transformation excellence. What exactly is that?
No company can afford to ignore the possibilities offered by digitech. Not only can it add value for the customer, it also allows you to enhance the efficiency of service delivery. It creates so many new opportunities – especially in sales. Here’s an example: Small and medium-sized companies are now able to enter new export markets, completely online. The barriers to entry have gone down to an absolute minimum, and that’s been driven by technology. Here’s another example: A producer of stair lifts succeeded in cutting the amount of time and effort invested in field sales – to measure customers’ staircases and banisters – by more than 50%. How? By using augmented reality glasses. The time it then took to install lifts after order placement went down from seven weeks to ten days, because the data’s now available in a digital format, right from the beginning.
The value that adds is clear and sales staff know that too. So the goal must be to use digitech to generate more business. Although of course things also work the other way around: If tech doesn’t add value, staff are usually pretty quick at noticing what’s happening – and worst case scenario, they’ll refuse to use it. If that’s the case, I’d say rightly so! Digitech is not just a means to an end, it has to enhance customer benefit and make service delivery more efficient.
Prof. Dr. Steffen Jäckle (interviewee)
Steinbeis Transfer Center Business Development Excellence BDX (Ravensburg)