According to recent Forrester research quoted by Tim Riesterer in his excellent “Conversations that Win the Complex Sale”, prospect senior executives rate only 7% of the sales calls they take part in as being worthy of a follow up. You can explain some of the remaining calls away as being down to a mismatch between what the prospect needs and what the vendor had to offer. But I believe that most of the shortfall reflects a continuing problem with the quality of the average sales conversation...
Here’s another reason to be concerned: research by the Corporate Executive Board - also quoted by Riesterer - demonstrates that for complex, lengthy, high-value B2B purchasing decisions involving multiple stakeholders, by the far the strongest source of differentiation between vendors (53%) isn’t their marketing, their products or their pricing, but the quality of the sales conversation.
It leaves me wondering whether - for all the publicity surrounding the dramatic growth in investment by B2B focused companies marketing automation systems - we aren’t missing something fundamental. I believe absolutely in the value of making it easy for potential prospects to locate and review the information they need to support their buying decision process in whatever way they prefer.
The Critical Importance of Trust
But in high-value buying decisions - particularly those where some decision risk is involved - prospects tend to buy from people and organisations they trust. And in complex environments, they value their interaction with people who can cut through the clutter, get to the point and personalise the information so that it is relevant to their particular situation. Oh, and they would far rather learn than be sold to.
Your top-performing sales people probably do this instinctively. But with the best recruitment programmes in the world, it’s hard to think of a sales organisation that can boast more than 20% of its sales team in this “truly instinctive top performer” category. It’s the quality of the conversations that the rest of your sales organisation are having with their prospects that might be cause for concern.
Every Solution is Different
“20-Questions” approaches in solution selling simply don’t work in this environment. Great conversations involve interaction, and result in all parties learning something valuable from the discussion - and in being curious enough to want to learn more, and being willing to continue the dialogue. In fact, one of the fundamental tests of a great conversation is that both parties are keen to continue it.
If Forrester are right (and assuming I’m not reading too much into their findings) this fails to happen in more than 9 out of 10 sales conversations. The truth of the matter is that in a complex sales environment, every solution is different. Each prospect has a different set of priorities, motivations and concerns - and selling by rote cannot possibly hope to uncover them, or address them.
I suspect this is one of the reasons why (to quote research from another heavy hitter) McKinsey found that 75% of solution-selling initiatives were deemed to have failed within 3 years of their inception. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your whole sales team can learn from the winning habits of the top performers - and you can raise your average sales success rate - potentially dramatically- as a result.
No Alternative in Troubled Times
In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that in these troubled economic times, when your buyers are increasingly risk-averse and increasingly inclined to make the apparently safe, “do nothing for the moment” decision, you have no alternative other than to do whatever you can to systematically improve the quality of your average sales conversation. It will enable you to qualify out the opportunities that were never real earlier in the process, eliminating a raft of otherwise wasted sales effort, and to concentrate attention on those opportunities where you have the chance of creating a compelling reason to buy.
Identifying With Your Best Prospects
Here’s how I suggest you proceed: start by identifying the common characteristics of your most valuable prospects and by anticipating the likely priorities, concerns and motivations of the key stakeholders in the buying decision process. You can download a couple of useful templates to get you started here.
Then, make sure that your sales people are intimately familiar with the key issues, trends and trigger events in your key target markets. Equip them to have constructive conversations that articulate a distinctive and relevant point of view that stands out from the crowd. Share relevant anecdotes and stories across the sales force.
Perhaps most important, even after they uncover a need, coach your sales people to bite their lip and avoid the temptation to plunge straight into pitching their solution (some commentators refer to this habit as “premature elaboration”). The golden moment when a prospect acknowledges an issue, problem or need mustn’t be squandered on a product pitch. Instead, coach them to probe for impact.
What if Nothing Changed?
Get them to understand how the prospect has been trying to cope with the problem, and to learn who else is affected, and how. Seek to understand why any previous attempt to address the issue may have failed, and why the situation has become urgent. Perhaps most important of all, encourage the prospect to explain what would happen if the current situation were just allowed to continue. What would happen if nothing changed?
Equip your sales people to share new and relevant ideas with the prospect. Help the prospect to think differently, and to take a fresh perspective. Equip every sales person to share the collective experience and knowledge of every member of your organisation. Do this, and you’ll be well on your way to having dramatically more effective sales conversations - and having your prospects to want to continue to learn from you.
I encourage you to read Riesterer’s book - you can order it from Amazon UK here. But I’d also suggest that you spend time - soon - listening to the quality of your average sales peoples’ conversations. Compare them to the way in which your top performers conduct themselves. Put a programme in place that will serve to raise the standards. And do it now, while you still have the chance to lay the foundations for success in 2012.