What it Takes to Sell Large Projects

I have been asked to write blogs and articles about my area of expertise which is digital signage, or more specifically, digital menu boards. Because I have been spending so much time working on a very large project I have not had time to write anything recently. Most of us write about important things we have learned because we hope it will help others. Working on my large project gave me the idea for what I’m about to write.

When I look back over my 40+ year career in displays and menu boards I realize what I get the most excited about is selling very large projects. Every time I think about one it is like remembering a great exciting story. So, I thought it may be helpful for some people to pass on what I have learned about selling large projects. Following are some of the most important elements.

1. Your product is the most important. You must have a viable product at a competitive price that your prospective customers need or is a good investment for them.

2. The company you are selling for is also very important. The best sales person in the world cannot sell a large project without a good company to support what they sell. Good companies want to hire the best employees and good employees have to be very selective about the company they work for, especially top sales people.

3. Honesty is much more important on large projects than small projects. It is also more important when you sell a new technology. You can’t sell a large project unless your prospective customers know they can trust you because their jobs will be on the line. People responsible for making large purchases are very skilled at determining how honest you are. I’ve been on sales calls with sales people that always seem to answer “yes, we can do that’ or “my company is the best at that”. Those answers hurt you much more than a simple “I don’t know for sure but I will find out”.

There are times when this can be difficult. As an example, top management at one of the last companies I sold for told me to tell my customer something I knew was not true. I refused to do that and eventually lost my job because of it. However, there has never been any doubt I made the right decision.

4. You must be a good communicator and ask good questions, then listen well to the answers. You must also remember communication is not just the spoken words but also how they say them. It’s critical you know exactly what your customer wants and as much about them as possible. You need to know the decision maker(s), all the influencers and the roles of everyone involved in the project.

Many sales people tend to be so worried about what they are going to say next they don’t listen well to what their customer is saying. I have trained many sales people and the first thing I do after a sales call is ask them what the customer said they wanted and what were some of their concerns. It is usually shocking how little they can remember about what the customer said.

On large projects it may necessary to understand the political situation in large companies in order to plan a good strategy and stay out of trouble. As one example, most QSR restaurants are owned by franchisees. However, if you try to sell a large project to the franchisees without corporate approval you will make enemies of the corporate people responsible for approving your project and it will go nowhere.

5. You must understand the financial resources of the company you are selling, how it will be paid for, who will pay for it and when. A good knowledge of this saved a couple of the largest projects I have ever sold.

6. Don’t ever sell a bad job! You can spend 20-30 years building a great reputation and lose it on one bad job. If you are not sure the product will do what your customer expects it to do, don’t sell it until you are sure. It will cause you more damage than any gain you will ever receive. I can give many examples of this in my industry.

7. On large projects you must plan very carefully and have a great strategy for making the sell, then work very hard to follow it. You will need backup plans for when something goes wrong. This will help you when you have to think on your feet and make decisions quickly and confidently. This may seem like a lot of work but it’s something I enjoy. It’s like a military leader planning a large battle strategy.

8. Last but maybe the most important, you need confidence. You have to decide and KNOW you are going to make the sale or you’ll never make the big ones. If you don’t have the “I’m going to do this or die” type of attitude you will not give it your very best when things go wrong, as they always do. Any doubt will affect your performance negatively. You will not get the best out of your team that is always involved in large projects without such confidence.

9. After you sell a project remember what you did right so you can use it on the next project. If you lose it do your best to find out why. Unfortunately we seem to learn more from our mistakes than we do from what we do right.

Know Your Customers

One of the fundamentals of providing great service to your customers is to get to know them well. You have to understand their needs as well as how they operate. I’m sure most of you have heard this many times and many of you business owners practice it well. However, I want to share with you some examples where this basic rule was not followed and the problems it caused. Although I’ve seen these problems many times in several markets I will limit my comments in this post to the market I know best; the Quick Serve Restaurant market(QSR) and the product I know best; digital menu boards.

Most of the digital menu board suppliers are new to menu boards. When the industry started switching from the old style menu boards to digital, most of the digital suppliers came from the audio video industry. Many are also new to the QSR market where most of the chains are franchise systems and they don’t fully understand how franchise systems work.

I’m always surprised at how many of the suppliers think if they sell their system to a 10,000 site chain they will receive an order for all 10,000 sites. That’s almost always not the case. Most franchised chains are about 20% corporate owned and 80% franchisee owned. In most cases the corporation cannot force the franchisees to purchase what they purchase, when they do.

Some suppliers still think they can get into the system by selling a franchisee. In most chains this can be the kiss of death. Corporate understandably wants to control something like a digital menu board system to make sure they end up with the same system at all sites. Therefore suppliers trying to sell franchisees without corporate approval immediately becomes an enemy of corporate.

In a typical example; when an order is placed it’s usually just for the 20% of the sites that are corporate owned and maybe 10% of the the top franchisees. Many times it can take several years to sell the remainder of the franchisees and the supplier has to sell them one at a time. Many suppliers are not set up to do that and they may have trouble handling new sites as they are opened.

Another problem I have seen in a recent roll-out of a digital menu board system is the supplier assumed their system would be installed at all sites. They sold a standard system consisting of four 46″ displays but the standard system could not be installed at all sites because some did not have the physical space for them. Some could only use 2 or 3 of the displays. Also, many of the franchisees wanted something different than what the corporate people ordered. The supplier was certainly not prepared for that so they had some severe problems.

Another problem is the assumption by the supplier that all franchise chains are the same. That is certainly not the case. The control franchisors have over their franchisees range from very tight to very little. The chains can be set up to operate very differently from each other also. You can imagine the problems a supplier would have if they sold a standard system for the entire chain and many of the franchisees ordered something different.

We all must learn as much as we can about our customers when we design something for them. It’s also very important for the customer to share this information if they want the best from their supplier. This may be difficult at times because the customer may assume the supplier knows all they need to know or the people the supplier deals with may not know or understand all the important considerations.


Digital Menu Boards VS Computers

To begin I would like to state I am not stupid enough to believe the development of digital menu boards or digital signs are nearly as important as the development of computers. However, I do believe it is valid to make some comparisons.

If you are old enough to remember when personal computers first became available you know it took a long time for most people to start using them, even in business. In the beginning we were told the primary benefit was to save time and reduce cost. What we later learned was they did not save time. Instead, they greatly increased our individual capability, capacity and quality of work. They allowed us to do much more, more quickly and more accurately. Computers allowed us to do many things we could not do without them. I delayed using them because it seemed like too much work to download the data and get the programs set up. Today I don’t think we could survive without personal computers. Try taking them away and see what happens.

I can remember a few years ago when every executive had a secretary, now there are very few. As an example, it would take me all day working with my secretary and several other people to get a large proposal or important document composed, typed and ready to be delivered by overnight service to a customer. I can do the same thing today by myself, do it better and have it delivered in a matter of minutes.

Now let’s compare personal computers to digital menu boards. Think about how much time and how many people it takes for a restaurant chain to make changes to the content in a traditional menu board system and have it displayed properly in the restaurants. It takes several weeks or a couple months. With digital menu boards it takes a matter of hours. One person can do it easily, better and the content is more effective. Consider how much more you can do with digital menu boards than with traditional boards. I won’t list them here but the list is long. These are features you can compare with computers.

A true test of the value of a new technology is to see what would happen if you take it away after people have used it long enough to utilize its full capabilities and have them switch back to the old technology. Consider what would happen if you took away personal computers today. It would be a disaster. Although it would still be difficult to find someone utilizing the full capabilities of digital menu boards, how do you think they would react if they had to switch back to the old technology? Although I would say McDonald’s has not used their digital menu boards long enough to utilize their full capabilities, it is the best example I can think of. Ask their management how they would feel about replacing the digital boards in their McCafe units with the old menu board technology. It would be a huge problem.

I believe digital menu boards will eventually replace all the old boards and many new capabilities will continue to be developed and utilized.