I must have conducted hundreds of voice of the customer surveys on behalf of clients over the past few years. Speaking with their recent past prospects, covering the spectrum of wins, losses and “no decisions”, I’ve been helping vendors to understand their prospect’s decision making processes, and how and why they chose to buy - or why they decided to do nothing.
The conversations typically throw up some remarkably consistent patterns, and two in particular stand out...
- These prospects frequently say something along the following lines: “for as long as I’m learning, I’m prepared to listen, but the moment the conversation lapses into a product pitch, they’ve lost me”
- The other common comment (and a variation on the same theme) is a complaint about having to answer a series of questions from the salesperson without ever getting any useful insights in return. Prospects have come to hate this sort of one-way traffic
Preparing to have Remarkable Conversations...
Top-performing sales people rarely have these issues. They have the ability to conduct conversations with prospects that help to facilitate the buying decision process without ever coming across as pushy, or creating the impression they are ineptly following a formula they have been taught in sales training. But let’s not forget that these gifted top performers represent - even if you’re been lucky finding, recruiting and retaining them - no more than 15-20% of the sales population.
The good news is that I’ve seen it repeatedly proven that average sales people can raise their game, and it’s not all down to sales training. In fact the majority of the gains have some from meticulous preparation for the sales conversation - and the top-performing marketing organisations are making an invaluable contribution to the process.
Identifying With the Issues...
Remarkable sales conversations are built upon the foundations of a profound understanding of the issues that are most likely to affect the prospect’s business and the industries within which they compete. This is not just down to identifying the issues - it’s about identifying with the issues and anticipating their likely impact on the prospect organisation.
A blend of respected independent industry research together with the shared experiences of the vendor’s clients seems to work best. This doesn’t all have to be in the form of published case studies - anecdotal stories can be even more powerful in the context of the sales conversation. In fact, we’ve long promoted the case for selling through storytelling as one of the most powerful skills in the sales person’s armoury.
Stimulate Your Prospects to take a Fresh Perspective...
It’s all very well showing that you understand their issues. But if you simply tell them what they already know then you’ve achieved nothing memorable or remarkable. The key skill here is the ability to get the prospect to see things from a fresh perspective - to challenge existing perceptions, to open their eyes to something they may not have been aware of, or to alert them to the unexpected consequences of something they may already know.
There’s a strong argument to be made for provocative selling. But please don’t confuse this with aggression, or a confrontational approach. As Geoffrey Moore and others pointed out in a recent Harvard Business Review article, provocation works best when, rather than focusing on easily recognisable and well defined pain points, it focuses instead on problems that the customer is experiencing but cannot not yet put a name to.
Encourage them to take the Next Step in the Process - With You...
Remarkable sales conversations start with the end in mind - and that is, as long as what you’ve learned qualifies the opportunity as something you can deal with, and want to pursue - to encourage the prospect to want to take the next step in their decision making process with you.
So each sales conversation needs to have a clear outcome in mind - backed up by reasons why this is the obvious next step, and clarity about exactly what will be involved, and what the prospect will learn from taking part in the process.
Take the Next Step - by Creating Conversation Planning Frameworks...
Here’s how organisations can prepare to have truly remarkable sales conversations - and what marketing can do to help. First, research the issues and their consequences. Visualise the problem. Create PowerPoint slides that are designed to be discussed, rather than presented - having printed hard copies works best in most situations.
Back your position up with anecdotes and case studies. Use mind mapping techniques to create questioning frameworks for your sales people - mind mapping is far more effective than 20-question lists in creating flexible frameworks to support discussions. Seek to find a way of establishing a fresh or unique perspective - and make it easy for your prospects to understand what they might gain from continuing the process.
And last, but by no means least, coach your sales people to delay coming up with a proposed solution until they have completely explored all of the issues, identified who else is affected, and understood why maintaining the status quo would be the worst outcome for the prospect.