It’s not a very edifying sight, but it happens way, way too often. A prospect gives the faintest acknowledgement of a potential issue, and the impatient (not to say desperate) sales person simply can’t wait to respond by presenting the features, advantages and benefits of their proposed solution in glorious detail. They may even offer to follow up with a costed proposal. All this before the poor bewildered prospect has even come to terms with whether they need to do anything at all. The sales person has pitched their product way too early. This uncomfortable condition is called "premature elaboration" and, trust me, your organisation doesn't want to be seen to be suffering from it.
I referred to the underlying problem in a recent article “3 critical questions for B2B sales: Why Change? Why Now? Why You?” but now I want to develop the idea and share a way of progressively telling your story in a way that has a far greater chance of persuading a well-qualified prospect with a must-solve issue that you can satisfy their needs better than any other option open to them.
You may think the story-telling sequence I'm about to share with you over-complicated, and it certainly is for low value transactional sales - but for high-value, discretionary purchases where the prospect has to be persuaded of the need to change before they will ever invest significant money, time and resources in evaluating and implementing a solution, missing any one of the key elements - or moving on before you've truly made your point - could derail your sale later.
There’s no getting away from it - organisations and their sales people who seem to really understand what’s going on in the prospect’s environment, and who are capable of bringing fresh insights and a new perspective that could cause the prospect to think differently have a far better chance of initiating a constructively provocative sales conversation than a vendor whose perspective appears to be restricted to their own company and its products. You need to apply your organisation's collective expertise and accumulated learning to develop genuinely thought leading-ideas and unique points of view. But that just earns you the right to continue the discussion...
Having started to establish trust and respect based on your insights and expertise, it's time to start focusing in on critical issues that your experience tells you are likely directly to affect the prospect organisation - and cause them to recognise that they may need to change what they are currently doing. The issues you choose to raise must, of course, be directly connected with some of your unique strengths and capabilities as an organisation. But bite your tongue, because it’s far too early to make the connection…
… because the next thing we want to focus on is the potential impact on your prospect organisation (and, of course the key stakeholders in the buying decision process) of failing to address the issue. The issue could be a problem they realise they need to solve, an opportunity they need to realise, or a goal they need to achieve. Failure will have a cost. You can’t - and shouldn’t - calculate the cost for them, but you need to help them calculate the cost of inaction for themselves.
This is a critical moment in most complex sales. If you cannot help your prospect see for themselves that there is a strong case for change, they are unlikely to do anything. You should seriously consider qualifying them out from your active sales pipeline and carefully nurturing them until the time is right.
So - if the impact is so obvious, and the case for change so compelling, why haven’t they - and organisations like them - solved the problem already? It just could be that the issue is new, but it could also be because of the barriers to change that afflict so many otherwise highly justifiable projects. Help them identify and anticipate the roadblocks and landmines that could stand in their way. Explain why and how they have stopped other organisations like theirs from dealing with them - and show how you have helped your clients to successfully navigate them.
Are you itching to propose your solution yet? Well continue to suppress that temptation for the moment, because the next thing you can most usefully do is to share your vision - and by that I don’t mean the hallucinations that often emerge from feverish marketing-led corporate vision sessions. In plain language, and in their terms, without a whiff of corporate-speak or mumbo jumbo, show why your company chose to set out to solve the issue you have helped them identify. Show them you truly have a vision of what they could achieve.
If you want to craft a compelling answer to “why change?”, “why now” and “why us”, it’s still too early to pitch your product. Before you go there, you need to explain how your approach is different - and thus more effective at addressing the issue - than any of the other options open to your prospect. Don’t promote your products, promote your approach. Describe it in terms that it would be difficult for a competitor to copy. It’s still too early to talk about features - it’s a time to talk about architecture instead. Some organisations refer to this as their "secret sauce".
At last! If you’ve followed the path that I’ve suggested in your messaging, you will have successfully built a case for change and strongly differentiated your approach. Now, in a deliberately selective way, you can introduce the most valuable features, advantages and benefits of your “solution” and align them directly with the issues that you introduced into the conversation at the start. If you do this right, each capability you describe will seem directly relevant and necessary to solving the prospect’s issue.
Now’s the time to help eliminate any vestige of risk or doubt from their decision making by showing how you’ve helped similar companies solve similar problems, and proving how you are going to be able to help them address their issue better than any other option available to them - including the always present potential for them to simply decide to “do nothing”. Help them believe that you are their least risk option.
One conversation - or many?
I’m not suggesting that you should attempt to cover all this ground in one session. And you'll want to tune the story for different stakeholders. But if you start with the end in mind, and progressively build the case for change - and the case for your company - step by step, each stage building on the one before, you can avoid the unpleasant consequences of premature elaboration and dramatically improve your win rates at the same time.
And - by the way - you'll have the raw material for generating a compelling proposal that will make the case for change as well as showcasing your solution in the best possible light.
A joint effort
Putting this approach into practice requires a truly collaborative effort between sales and marketing to craft marketing messages and sales tools that strongly support the progressive "telling of the tale". If you already have this level of collaboration, the benefits of the approach should be obvious. But if your sales and marketing organisations are not yet as well aligned as you would wish, this project could act as a tremendous catalyst to get things moving in the right direction.