Shawna Suckow, CMP is the founder of SPIN: Senior Planners Industry Network, which provides resources for meeting planners with at least 10 years of industry experience. Last year, Suckow launched a sister initiative called The Hive Network for hotel sales staff to help them engage better with planners.
The new network provides a curriculum of core classes and a revolving set of electives for various industry niches. Upon completion, participants earn a Customer-Certified Sales Expert (CCSE) certification. It shows planners that these hotel sales executives have given extensive time to learn about their customers, which in turn helps planners cull through the mass of sales pitches they receive on a constant basis.
One of the core Hive classes focuses on “social selling.” Suckow says there’s been a paradigm shift in hotel sales over the last few years, like many other industries, where brands are now engaging with customers as people first, and buyers second. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
Prevue: What was the motivation behind the development of The Hive?
Shawna Suckow: I find that veteran suppliers these days are really struggling, because what worked for them when they began their career maybe 10 or 20 years ago doesn’t work for them anymore. They’re frustrated and I found this out when I was doing research for my second book, Supplier Pet Peeves. I found out so much more about the supplier side and what drives them crazy that we as planners do.
I know the planner side from my perspective inside/out, and for my book, I researched over 1,000 suppliers and got a glimpse into what their frustrations are. So I feel like I’m kind of in a unique position to bridge that, and give suppliers insight and solutions into our world so they’re not so frustrated. In the end, they’ll be able to serve us better, and I think the whole tide will rise if we can just give them this insider information.
Prevue: How has the meetings industry changed to create a demand for The Hive?
Suckow: Sales calls and emails directed at planners have doubled or tripled in the last five years, because when the economy took a downturn, sales pools were cut, they couldn’t travel as much, and they couldn’t do as many trade shows. So we trained ourselves to ignore all of that because, meanwhile, we’re also working with pared down departments. We don’t have the bandwidth to just pick up the phone for politeness sake, so we don’t. And we can’t respond to every email anymore because there’s three times as many, so we don’t. So what’s a supplier to do?
Prevue: What is a supplier to do?
Suckow: Social selling is a whole new philosophy where you no longer approach someone as your company. You have to approach them as a person first, a salesperson second, and then your company last. If you think about it, every industry is approaching us with their sales messages this way, because they’re figuring out that these glossy ads don’t work.
The way I explain it, if you wouldn’t do it at a cocktail party, don’t do it in your communications. I wouldn’t walk up to you, not knowing you at a cocktail party, shove a brochure in your hand and say, “Hi, I have 40,000 square feet of flexible meeting space in downtown Chicago. Call me. Bye.” But most of the email messages we get these days are just that.
LinkedIn is more personable and it shows to me as a customer that they’ve taken the time to go and look at my profile. If they do it right. If they send me a generic message asking me to connect, that’s not right. If they’ve gone to my profile, mentioned anything to show me that they’ve done a little bit of research, and then connect with me and not sell at me—so at the beginning they come at me as a person—then I’m going to be far more receptive to that.
Prevue: What types of hotel reps does The Hive Network serve most?
Suckow: It’s for the front line of sales who are dealing with prospecting, access and then the act of the proposal. They are people in sales who are trying to interact with planners, while we have been putting up walls for the past five years. Putting up these walls to just keep them out.
If you’re a front line salesperson at a large branded hotel, most likely the process that you have been trained to do includes a certain number of cold calls per week, a certain number of client touches per week. And if you make a hundred cold calls a week, 97% or more of those are going to go to voice mail. We don’t return voice mail. We return zero voice mails unless we have an immediate need for what they’re selling, which is a needle in a haystack.
So they’re wasting their time. If they’d just tweak how they sell to us by just using some of the other tools, LinkedIn being one of them, they will be more successful. We’re going to have two courses focusing on LinkedIn alone because it’s a processing tool that planners are open to.
Prevue: Why do a lot of suppliers not understand how to engage with planners?
Suckow: We planners are our own species. We have these weird behaviors and these weird tendencies, and the suppliers are just constantly trying to figure us out, and it shouldn’t be that hard. The Hive is just about pulling back the curtain. I handpicked senior level planners and a couple of sales experts to be my instructors, and everybody I asked said yes. So I was really fortunate to get my first draft picks.
These are people who have a voice about a really specific niche in the industry, and they’re willing to be really candid with suppliers and say, “This is what you can do at a trade show that won’t annoy us, that will work for us. And stop doing this, and if you just tweak it and do this, you’re going to be so much more successful.
So rather than planners complaining about, say, trade shows for example, in our private little planner discussion boards where nothing changes, I want to help the people on the supplier side who are struggling the most.
Prevue: What are a few specific things that you and your instructors teach?
Suckow: We cover how to engage with us at trade shows, how to handle RFPs, how to proceed when we don’t answer the phone, how to craft an email that actually gets us to respond when we typically don’t anymore. So that’s really what The Hive is all about. Just giving them the tools that work for us today so that they can get into our inner circle.
Prevue: What are some of the others takeaways for suppliers?
Suckow: The Hive Network provides all of the planner-led instruction, and there’s a whole curriculum. After 12 classes, you get a new designation, which is a Customer-Certified Sales Expert (CCSE). Meaning, you’ve given extensive time because you care enough to learn how your customer wants you to do sales, and I think that’s really valuable. It’s also really valuable for planners.
Then once you’re a member of The Hive, which has an annual membership, you get access to all of this education that’s directly from the planners, as well as a couple sales experts who aren’t planners but they’re amazing.
My task now is to really create this critical mass of understanding among the planner community that these suppliers care enough to go through this, and it takes a lot of time. That’s my hope, that planners will start to let these guys in because they’re not going to pester them, they’re not going to shove glossy brochures into their hands in the first five minutes of meeting them.
Instead, they’re going to be more relationship oriented, which is what senior level planners want anyway. They complain all the time that the relationships are going away, but we are just as much responsible for killing the relationship-building process, and it’s time to change that.