Is your sales process characterised by lengthy buying cycles with the involvement of multiple decision makers? Are buying decisions frequently delayed or postponed? Are you finding that you are losing to a decision to “do nothing” as often as you lose to a conventional competitor? Then you’re not alone...
We live in a world where the balance of power is clearly in the hands of the prospect, rather than the sales person. But recent research has both confirmed the problem and shown that the winning habits and behaviours of top sales performers - the ones that have adapted best to the new world of buying - can be developed and taught.
Fewer Than 1 in 8 Meetings with Sales People Create Value
Before we explore some potential remedies, let’s confirm the problem. According to research published earlier this year by Forrester, fewer than 1 in 8 meetings with sales people are rated by the prospect as creating any value or helping to advance their buying decision process - and it’s clear that they resent their time being wasted.
Our own research into B2B buying behaviour consistently throws up the following response from prospects: “as long as I’m learning something, I’m listening, and prepared to invest more of my time. But the moment the conversation turns into a sales pitch, you’ve lost me.” When that happens, your sales people might not get thrown out of the meeting straight away, but their opportunity to influence has been lost.
The Problem with “Solution Selling”
Naive implementation of “solution selling” principles isn’t helping, either. In all too many cases, it follows a game of 20 questions in which the sales person is desperately trying to get the prospect to acknowledge a problem the vendor can solve, at which point they immediately switch to proposing their “solution”. They switch to pitch far too early in the conversation.
According to our observations, top performing sales people behave differently. First, they play a game of “give and get” with the prospect, sharing valuable information in response to the prospect’s answers. Second - like a well trained doctor - they hold off prescribing the cure until they have worked with the prospect to fully diagnose the problem, and understand all of its effects and implications. Finally, they make their points through educational stories and anecdotes that the prospect can relate to.
Learning from the Winning Habits of Top Sales Performers
This ability to “sell through storytelling” is a consistent characteristic of top sales performers - particularly in new market categories or high-value considered purchases where the prospect often simply decides to “do nothing”. Prospects clearly prefer working with educators rather than pitchers and with advisors rather than order takers - and they vote with their wallets.
Top sales performers appear to understand this instinctively. The weakest sales performers will probably never be able to master the subtleties. But we’ve found that there is tremendous scope to elevate the performance of the vast majority of middle-of-the-road sales people through training, development and the provision of appropriate sales tools.
Their Situation, Not Yours
Compelling sales conversations are focused on the prospect’s situation, not the vendor. Yet way too many unsuccessful sales meetings start with a presentation of the vendor and/or their offerings. If they are asked to set the scene by introducing their organisation, top sales performers do it instead by explaining how they have helped their customers to deal with business issues that they are confident are likely to be relevant to the prospect. And they do their research up front.
Their Language, Not Yours
Few things destroy conversations faster than a sales person’s use of product-related acronyms or terms that are unfamiliar, irrelevant or uninteresting to the prospect. Top sales performers understand that they need to use language that is familiar and relevant to the prospect, and to be able to talk about the issues and trends that are relevant to their prospect’s industry.
Share Something Remarkable
In a widely-acclaimed recent Harvard Business Review article, a number of authors - including Geoffrey Moore of “Crossing the Chasm” fame - made a compelling case for the power of provocative selling. They explained how vendors that were able to develop a distinctive, provocative point of view were able to disturb the status quo and to help their prospects to see things from a fresh and interesting perspective.
Equipping your sales people with well-researched, provocative points of view that reflect important changes that are underway in their prospect’s environment can enable them to take the sales conversation in an unexpected and (to the prospect) stimulating and interesting direction. It helps to make the conversation that follows remarkable, in the sense that the prospect is far more likely to remember it and share it with others.
Visualise - but Don’t Hide Behind PowerPoint
Strong visual images are far more powerful and memorable than words alone. But we’ve observed that PowerPoint is more of a hindrance than a help in most small group situations. The use of white boards or flip charts to interactively build up strong visual images is far more effective. It’s also an approach that encourages discussion and debate.
When top sales performers do use PowerPoint, they use it to stimulate discussion, rather than to deliver an unbroken stream of information. Rather than broadcasting, they use it as a catalyst to help stimulate interaction. How can you help? By reviewing your corporate sales presentations, and stripping out any detailed bullet pointed lists that simply invite the presenter to read off the screen.
Dramatise the Story
The best stories involve a dramatic contrast between before and after, and many of the most effective sales conversations revolve around the contrast between the prospect’s current situation and a desired future state. Top sales performers add another dimension - they help the prospect to acknowledge the potential issues associated with simply sticking with the status quo.
When we looked at winning sales behaviours - and in particular how top performers helped to reduce the chances of otherwise well-qualified sales opportunities ending in “no decision”, we found they invested more time at the start of the sales cycle exploring the consequences of the prospect’s current situation, and on helping the prospect to elevate their own awareness of the potential costs and consequences of inaction.
Build up Your Anecdote Collection
Your top performing sales people will almost certainly have a fund of stories - a pool of anecdotes - that they use, sometimes without thinking, to put their point across and advance the sales conversation. One of the first steps in improving the storytelling skills of the rest of your sales people is to gather up these anecdotes, and record them in a form that can be shared with others.
There’s a natural narrative flow to many of the best anecdotes - they:
- Describe the customer, and their situation
- Share the symptoms they were suffering from, and the consequences
- Explain how the vendor helped the customer to solve the problem
- Share some of the most important lessons learned along the way
- Highlight the outcomes, and the business benefits achieved
The idea is not to force your all other sales people to tell these stories word-for-word, but to equip them to tell consistent and relevant stories in a way that is natural to their own style of conversation. As you build up your collection of anecdotes, you’ll want to make them available through your sales enablement or CRM system, and to tag them so that sales people can quickly find stories that are relevant to particular offerings, industries and customer situations.
Role Play the Stories
We’ve found that having group role playing sessions can help sales people practice their storytelling skills and learn from the techniques of others. We often find that the anecdotes are improved as a result. If accompanied by a storytelling skills workshop, these anecdote-sharing sessions frequently rank amongst the highest-rated sessions in any sales training programme.
The Unexpected Benefit
I hope that I have convinced you of the importance of storytelling skills, and persuaded you that they can be learned. But I thought I’d leave one successful storytelling tip to the last: the unexpected benefit.
I’ve described a five point narrative framework when talking about building up your anecdote collection. The story doesn’t end there. If your sales people, after highlighting the benefits achieved, round off the story by saying something along the lines of “and on top of that, the unexpected benefit was....”, they will find that their anecdotes are even more memorable.
So here’s my unexpected benefit: if you adopt this approach, not only will your sales people be more effective, they will feel more engaged and involved - because the materials they are using will have been created as a joint effort with their peers.
Compare that, if you will, to the typical sales reaction to the latest marketing-created datasheet...
This article was originally published in the July 2011 edition of Entrepreneur Country magazine. You can download a pdf version of this article here.