A few years ago, a media company was trying to sell advertising to a large Indian telco. The client contact, Manoj, confirmed to Chandran, the vendor, that a big deal was approved but that they just had to wait a bit of time for his department to clear a couple of other projects.

All looked well. Six weeks later, Manoj told him the other projects were nearly cleared and he should be able to get full sign off very shortly. Two months later, Chandran received a similar optimistic message. 

A few more months passed and Manoj was no longer with the company. Chandran managed to secure his first meeting with Manoj’s boss who told him that he had never heard of their company and had never had any discussions about the large deal that they had been promised. 

So what went wrong? For inexperienced salesmen, there is a natural inclination to focus attention on people who are junior staff like themselves. Even experienced salesmen find it challenging to get through screening and speak directly to the chief executive officer.

Strategic positioning

To have any chance of success, the vendor needs to communicate on a strategic level about his product or service. And companies are certainly getting smart about how they position their services. Using thought leadership, which, put simply, is to position yourself as a trusted and innovative leader in your field or the "go-to" expert.

Courier and logistics company DHL has commissioned studies to examine the correlation between a country’s policy on supply chain management and its propensity to serve high-value industries. DHL has used the findings to gain political traction at economic forums in the region.

Fuji Xerox, a printing and document management company, produces thought leadership works that show how more effective document management can create operational efficiencies and cost savings for companies.

The company then positions its salesmen as knowledge managers who can reengineer a company’s document management process to increase efficiency and security while reducing costs. It certainly makes for a more compelling business case than a straightforward gadget sell.

Recruitment companies position themselves as essential links in the search for talent, by producing studies that demonstrate how leadership or innovation are critical for a company’s success.

Thought leadership

Smart companies use thought leadership to direct a discussion in a more favourable direction. Tobacco companies like to champion the cause for corporate social responsibility by creating dialogues about best practices used for community development.

The reasons are clear. If they can host discussions about the positive contributions that corporations can make in society then they will turn attention away from the traditional negative press that follows their industry.

For all these companies, the approach is to get a discussion going at high levels by offering a discussion that centres on an original study created by a neutral third party.  So how is this done in practice?

At a simple level, this can be a conventional quantitative survey of business buyers in a given geography. The more senior the sample group, the more likely it is to appeal to a senior audience. The number of respondents is also important. Large global surveys and indexes tend to gain a lot of interest in the media, which further helps in gaining the attention of a select audience for a briefing or discussion group.

The key to developing an interesting and neutral thought leadership piece that works for the vendor is to consider the research from the position of the sponsor’s value proposition.

Hence, a relocation company with offices all over the world may commission a global survey showing cultural differences in adapting to new postings. The implied message would be that the sponsor can help relocated staff to make the necessary adjustments through their large network of offices and long experience.

Going back to the original example of the media company — a lot of time and effort was wasted by not using a strategic approach. And what was the final outcome in Bangalore? Sadly, there was no happy ending for the vendor. Manoj went on to perform a similar job for a competitor. His boss Ramamurthy employed a new gatekeeper to deal with Chandran who never got to sell them anything. Meanwhile, for the CEO of the Indian telco, it was business as usual.