I first published this a few years back. I'm convinced it's just as relevant now - maybe even more so. What do you think?
You’ve probably observed a huge difference in conversational fluency between your most and least successful sales performers, and wished that you could bridge the gap between the best and the rest. If you haven’t, I can only conclude that you’ve either worked a miracle with your sales force, or you simply haven’t listened to enough sales conversations recently.
Let’s start with the good news: there is abundant evidence to prove that the appropriate programmes and materials can equip averagely competent B2B sales people to have dramatically and permanently better sales conversations.
But there’s also some bad news: there is no easy short cut. You can’t develop conversational fluency by expecting sales people to follow a rigid predefined script. In any complex sales environment, conversational frameworks need to be skeletons, not cages.
Anticipate, plan, guide, listen, adapt and react
Rather than confining your sales people to a rigid process, these frameworks need to provide a flexible skeleton that helps them anticipate, plan and guide the interaction but also allows them to listen, adapt and react to what the prospect has just said to them.
Let’s assume that you, like me, have been on the receiving end of far too many inept scripted cold calls to have any enthusiasm for rigid call plans. But I’ll also assume, if I may, that simply leaving every sales person to “make it up as they go along” doesn’t fill you with much enthusiasm, either.
Going for the middle ground
There’s an obvious need to find a middle ground that combines an appropriate level of preparation and planning with the ability to continually adjust the thrust and direction of the conversation as it evolves.
Even if you have no intention of using the resulting conversation frameworks as a script, there’s an argument that organising them in a linear fashion implies an unintended rigidity. That’s why I typically prefer to use mind-maps or bubble diagrams to present the information.
So what sort of information ought to be included in these flexible conversation frameworks?
Do your research before you engage
The quality of the conversation is often influenced by the quality of preparation prior to the meeting or call, and that’s why the most effective conversation planning frameworks start by identifying the research that needs to be conducted before the first words are spoken.
Next, it’s usually helpful to identify a handful of potential opening remarks that - once the initial niceties are over - help to steer the conversation is the direction of issues that, if acknowledged, you are in a really good position to address.
Unless you represent a systems integrator and are talking to a prospect with an unlimited budget, asking the prospect “what keeps you up at night” or some hapless variation on the same theme is unlikely to elicit a helpful answer.
Educate, qualify and lead
Your questions - and your supporting comments - need to be thoughtfully constructed so as to both educate the prospect about something interesting to them, and help you qualify their potential and, if promising, to lead them towards your solution.
Note that I talk about leading towards, and not with the solution. One of the most profound differences between top sales conversationalists and the rest is that they have the confidence to spend time exploring the problem and its implications, rather than prematurely presenting their solution.
I still find Neil Rackham’s SPIN questioning model incredibly useful in complex b2b sales environments: systematically following the situation - problem - implication and need-payoff sequence can make for highly productive and valuable conversations.
Anticipate their concerns
But you’ve got to anticipate that the prospect is going to come back with some challenging questions of their own - and here’s another transferable skill. Top performers have learned how to respond to the tough-to-answer questions that get thrown at them.
Gathering these frequently-asked yet tough-to-answer questions together, together with thoughtful and effective responses that sound considered rather than glib, is another way of transferring key skills from the best to the rest.
Be ready to respond
Far from caging the conversation, these flexible frameworks actually have the opposite effect: because the sales person has anticipated both where they would like the conversation to go, and how to deal with the most predictable questions, they are in a much better position to adapt and react to what the prospect is actually saying.
Conversation planning frameworks can be incredibly effective, particularly when supported by regular coaching and are regularly revised to reflect the latest winning habits. So here’s the inevitable final question: how are you preparing your sales people to have the most productive conversations?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales and the founder of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, home of the Value Selling System®. Following a successful career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and corporates, Bob now works with a growing client base of tech-based B2B-focused high-growth businesses, enabling them to systematically establish their distinctive business value in every customer interaction.