Most traditional sales methodologies stress the importance of asking good questions, and there’s no doubt that the ability to ask relevant and effective questions is a critical sales skill.
Unfortunately, the essential matching skill of actually listening to the customer’s answer, interpreting what they have just said and adjusting what we choose to say and do next gets far less attention than it ought to.
And even training our sales people to be both good questioners and good listeners still isn’t enough, because our customers expect more from us if we are to win the right to continue our conversation with them...
Effective questioning is only one of three key conversational skills that every B2B sales person - particularly those in complex sales environments - needs to master. In addition to having great questioning technique, today’s top sales people also need to be able to share genuinely relevant insights and to have highly developed storytelling skills.
One of the tests of a successful sales meeting or conversation is whether the customer looks back at the end of the session and thinks something along the lines of “that was a really valuable conversation, and I learned things that will prove highly useful for the future”.
Our customers are much more likely to want to continue the conversation if that is how they feel about the interaction. We can achieve some of this by asking carefully crafted thought-provoking questions that cause the customer to stop, think and reflect before they answer.
Another key way of stimulating really valuable conversations is to share relevant insights with the customer. By insights, I don’t mean facts or statistics that they could and probably already have heard from dozens of other sources. Genuine insights offer the customer an unexpected perspective on an important issue.
We need to not only share relevant facts, but also to interpret them, and to provide a fresh perspective and a distinctive point of view. Our real value lies in helping our customer to recognise the relevance of a given set of facts to their specific situation and environment.
Simply equipping our sales people with a collection of in-house or third-party insights, white papers, etc., is nowhere near enough: it is also our responsibility to coach and equip them to use these insights as the springboard to a properly customised customer conversation.
Our brains have been progressively wired since the dawn of language to learn through stories. Storytelling is another of the essential selling skills that have often been ignored or underplayed as a consequence of over-emphasising questioning technique.
Fortunately, there’s a growing recent recognition of the essential importance and power of storytelling in B2B sales and marketing. Company founders and top sales performers, in my experience at least, have often been particularly effective storytellers.
But it’s a skill that every revenue-responsible individual across the organisation can and must develop, and a growing portfolio of sharable stories is a resource that every sales organisation can and must establish.
Unfortunately, the standard and simplistic case study sequence of “the customer had a problem - we delivered a solution - they achieved the following benefits” is a numbingly bland and ineffective way of telling a compelling story. That over-simplified formula lacks any complications and isn’t reflective of real life.
The most effective stories acknowledge that the world is complex and that solutions can be hard to achieve. They lead the listener through believable twists and turns on the road to resolution. Most important, they allow the listener to see themselves in the hero of the story’s journey.
I find it shocking that most conventional sales methodologies pay little or no attention to this critical sales skill. Compelling and relevant stories are an invaluable lubricant of effective sales conversations, and raising standards in this area can have a dramatic impact.
If you’re looking for guidance, Mike Adams has created an outstanding handbook for developing individual and company-wide storytelling skills in his recently published “Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell” - I thoroughly recommend his book.
Questions, Insights and Stories
I’ve come to believe that questions, insights and stories are the three essential elements of a compelling sales conversation. If any of these elements are missing or if their combination is not well-balanced, the conversation itself is diminished - each element serves to support and reinforce the others.
I encourage you to reflect on how you are currently training and equipping your sales people to have highly effective sales conversations. Does it feel as if any of these three elements might be missing or undervalued? Have you perhaps over-focused on the questioning aspect?
There’s a reason why the minimum number of legs for a free-standing stool is three. If we want our sales people to have properly balanced conversations, we need to ensure that their questions, insights and stories provide equally effective foundations...