Persuasive Selling in Economic Development

Convincing capital investors that your community is an ideal location choice to build or expand their business is both challenging and time consuming. You can spend weeks to months making presentations, engaging in telephone conference calls, sending information, and answering questions. And yet, despite your best efforts, your community is dropped from the list of locations under consideration.

Sometimes it is simply because the fit isn’t right. In my mind that is a positive outcome. If selecting your community doesn’t deliver a win:win value proposition, then the relationship is doomed from the start and both the company and community are better off agreeing to walk away from an obvious bad deal. But, many times being dropped from the consideration list can be tracked back to a poorly executed sales process. The right information was never truly “heard” by the potential investor, even if you thought you communicated it.

Understanding the persuasive selling process can help you minimize those occasions when your community is exactly the right choice for a Company, but poor communication of the key benefits you offer derail your chances.

The first step is to embrace the idea that a key role of an economic development professional is to be a sales person.

I say that because about a year ago I was asked to provide some sales training to a group of 30 economic development professionals who were embarking on a trip to attend a major European trade show. As any good presenter does, I started my session with a question intended to help me assess the audience’s level of subject matter knowledge. I asked – “How many of you have ever sold anything for a living?”

Of the 30 economic development professionals in the session, only two hands rose. And when I asked them to clarify what their experience was, one had previously worked for a pharmaceutical manufacturer and had experience selling to doctors. The other had been a real estate agent selling homes to consumers.

None of the 30 acknowledged that their current job, as an economic development professional, meant that they were sales people. This is a real problem. If you don’t see yourself as a sales person, then you have no incentive to become a better one.

The fact is that every economic development professional is a sales person for their community. Some are face-to-face with potential capital investors trying to win the Second Moment of Truth, others are behind the scenes trying to gather data and answer questions. But, everybody contributes to winning the Three Moments of Truth and can benefit from sharpening their selling skills.

The Persuasive Selling Process

This is simply one of a number of formal selling processes used in the private sector. It is the process I advocated when I was the Sales Director in the Canadian Pharmaceuticals Division of Procter & Gamble. In my opinion, it is one of the processes most directly applicable to economic development. I have both taught it and used it successfully. It is a six-step process that is easy to understand, but takes discipline and practice to execute well. The reward for excellence in execution though will be winning more capital investment deals for your community.

Step #1 – Pre-call Planning

In this step, you need to establish a call objective. What do you want as an outcome of the conversation? A good objective should be specific, measurable, achievable and consistent with the overall strategy you have established for communicating the benefits of your community to the company. With a clear objective in mind, you are prepared to determine what information you need to have available in the conversation to share. For example, what demographic data, relevant articles, or labor statistics might be needed to reinforce the claims you plan to communicate in the conversation? Will you need any material, besides your business card, to leave behind?

Step #2 – Summarize the Situation

Describing the company’s business need or defining a business problem your community can solve are two great ways to quickly engage the person you are speaking with. You should gain agreement that the need you’ve identified is in fact valid and meaningful. If you find it is not, then your pre-call planning was incorrect and you will need to improvise. At this point, a good place to take the conversation is to clarify what the real need is so you can address something that matters during the balance of the conversation, and leverage the new insight in the pre-call planning of your next conversation with this person. The worst thing you could do is blindly execute your call plan knowing what you are going to say is not meaningful. But, if you nailed the problem or need, then execute the rest of your pre-call plan with confidence.

Step #3 – Share Relevant Features and Translate into Benefits

This is the step where you provide reasons to believe that your community can adequately address the company’s need. It is important to not only what is available (feature), but also why it matters (benefit). For example, the investor may be concerned about adequate skilled labor. The fact that your community has a nationally recognized University is a feature. It describes the asset in terms of what (feature) you can offer. The ability to access the best and brightest students in a relevant degree program because you can connect the company with the Dean helps explain why (benefit) it will address the need. Many people believe that by stating the feature, the listener will automatically understand the benefit. Most of the time that assumption is false. If you clearly articulate the benefit, then you have a right to assume you communicated your point. If the listener responds with a comment about the benefit, then you know you communicated your point. Mastering the translation of features into benefits is a key sales skill necessary for consistent success.

Step #4 – Reinforce Desirable Benefits

After you are confident the person understands and values the primary benefit you shared in step #3, you want to “sweeten” the pot by sharing an additional relevant benefit your community can offer. This helps the person more completely understand and appreciate the real value your community can deliver. Essentially you are saying: “Not only can you have your needs met by locating your business here, but you will also be able to take advantage of [blank] to help deliver shareholder value.” This additional benefit may end up being a tiebreaker when the final location decision is made. You want to be absolutely certain you communicate it so the benefit can be appropriately considered as part of the total value package.

Step #5 – Action Close

Always end the conversation summarizing your key benefits and seeking agreement to a next step that moves the person forward in the decision making process. An action close is gaining agreement to an observable behavior/commitment that signals the person is seriously interested in evaluating your community. It could be as simple as agreement to another meeting or as strong as agreement to put your community on the short list of locations receiving a Request for Proposal. The nature of what you decide to ask for is dependent on where the person stands in the capital investment decision process. It is important to have an action close after every interaction. This is your easiest way of assessing interest because it requires the person to “put some skin in the game”. If you are asking for a reasonable action and the person balks at agreeing to it, then you need to ask probing questions to determine the real cause for the hesitancy. There is no sense continuing a dialogue with a Company that is not truly serious about considering your location as an investment option. It is a waste of time and resources for both of you. If the Company is genuinely interested, the person will typically agree to any reasonable action step you propose.

Step #6 – Post Call Analysis and Record Keeping

This is one of the most boring, but essential steps in the persuasive selling process. It is boring because most people view it as paperwork. It is essential, because the output of this step becomes the input to step #1 for the next time you engage with the person. Document your key learning from the conversation, what you shared, any insights into the real need of the Company, commitments you made for follow-up and the action step you agreed to. Tools like SalesForce help make this task easier (not fun, but definitely easier). If you are in a team-selling situation, your colleagues will appreciate the thoroughness of your call notes.

It is that easy, and that hard.

As the saying goes, “If it were easy anybody could do it.”  A practical challenge everybody faces is finding the time to pre-plan each conversation with the capital investor or site selection consultant. Another challenge is resisting the natural tendency to see your community through your own eyes, and start seeing the community through the capital investor’s eyes. But, if you consistently apply this process, you will be far better prepared and will have much more meaningful conversations. You will be in a better position to win the Three Moments of Truth.


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