One of the more intriguing aspects of investigating green companies is trying to work out the extent to which they are different to conventional firms.
There are two schools of thought.
The first argues that green firms represent a completely different way of doing business, requiring different priorities, different skill sets, different management techniques, different managers and even a different understanding of what a business is and does.
The alternative view, and the one I generally ascribe to, is that green businesses are not really different to conventional firms at all. They follow the same business principles that have always existed, it is just they are the ones adapting fastest to the changing social, political and economic landscape around them. So old-fashioned business rules governing risk mitigation and cost control explain the focus on cutting energy use, while entrepreneurial nous and the ability to spot a gap in the market explains investment in developing new green products.
However, while the business principles that define green and conventional firms are much the same there are still differences to be detected in their operational approaches, and perhaps the most important of these is found in their differing sales strategy.
I recently met with Simon Francis, vice president for energy solutions at PC management software outfit 1E, who was convincing in his argument that firms selling green products to business customers needed to develop a whole new sales approach if they are to find a receptive audience.
"If you've got any sort of green message you need to get higher up the management chain than your traditional market," he argued. "Green products of any type need to be pitched at the highest level possible."
It is a lesson Francis claims 1E has learnt with its automated PC turn off system Nightwatchman, which it now frequently pitches at CEOs and CSR officers rather than its traditional target customers in the IT department.
It's not that IT managers aren't interested in the technology and the energy savings it promises, he claims, it's just that their priorities are more likely to lie elsewhere or they are reluctant to assign their budget to a product that tends to deliver the bulk of its cost savings to the facilities department.
In contrast, the CEO cares about the overall budget and increasingly cares about the environmental implications of energy saving measures, making him or her a far more receptive target for the sales pitch.
It is a model that can be applied to any number of green products and services: a green car company is better off targeting a CEO than the fleet director who will have to deal with any staff disgruntled at getting a less powerful company car; a salesman for energy efficient air conditioning systems will probably find the COO provides a more receptive audience than a cash-strapped facilities manager balking at the prospect of a sizable upgrade project; while a green energy firm is better off talking to the managing director about risk mitigation and marketing opportunities than a finance director or energy manager who can't see beyond the raw cost implications.
The simple fact is that green products tend to deliver benefits that stretch far beyond the departments that procure them and as such sales staff need to get beyond the operational managers who, through no fault of their own, tend to have more immediate concerns on their mind.
Of course, getting access to those in the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy will test any sales team's mettle. But then again, when it comes to green products the more senior the exec you pitch to the higher the chances of success.
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