I was pleased to be asked to contribute an article to the latest edition of Top Sales Magazine - a regular source of insight for sales professionals - there's a subscription link below. I chose to focus on the importance of contrast in complex B2B sales. I hope you find my perspectives useful:
In any competitive situation, establishing positive differentiation against our customer’s other options is one of the keys to winning their business. But there’s another form of differentiation that is critical to success in any discretionary purchasing environment: the degree of contrast between the customer’s current situation and the better future outcome they are looking for.
It’s probably worth explaining what I mean by a discretionary purchase: unlike an inevitable purchase, where the customer has to do something - such as choosing which electricity supplier to use - a discretionary purchase may never happen. The customer may simply decide to do nothing.
This is important, because the most common outcome of discretionary B2B purchase journeys - and our most powerful competitor - is a decision to stick with the status quo. The temptation to do or use what they already have is even more common in today’s uncertain business climate.
That’s why we need to identify and wherever possible stretch our customer’s “outcome gap” as a core part of our sales strategy...
The outcome gap represents the contrast between where our potential customer is today (or where they will end up if they continue on their current path) and the better future outcome they can confidently expect to achieve if they commit to change.
Whenever the contrast is low - if a potential customer sees this “outcome gap” as small and/or stable, they will be inclined to stick with the status quo. But when the contrast is high and they perceive this outcome gap as being large and/or growing, they are much more likely to take decisive action - particularly if doing nothing will expose their organisation to growing risk.
This effect becomes progressively more important with the size of the commitment we are asking our customer to make. Customers are unlikely to sign off significant purchases when there is little positive reason to change and insignificant downside risk associated with simply carrying on as they are.
A key qualification factor
The presence or absence of a significant high-contrast outcome gap is a key qualifier when deciding whether to invest significant sales resources in an opportunity. We must, of course, attempt to influence the customer’s perception and broaden the gap by drawing their attention to previously unconsidered issues and implications - but if our efforts are unsuccessful, the chances of anyone winning their business are low.
The existence and nature of a well-defined outcome gap is one of the two areas where the presence or absence of contrast is critical to our sales success. The other area is more conventional, but still benefits from fresh thinking: the degree of contrast between our proposed approach and all of the customer’s other solution options.
Different, not just better
In my experience, salespeople are far too keen to position their solution as being “better” than the competition. But these claims are so common - and so hard to prove conclusively - that most customers disregard or devalue them.
If we want to distinctively differentiate our offering - and increase the odds that our customer will choose us - we need to show how and why our approach is different before going on to prove that this will deliver better business outcomes. The idea of a better outcome is far more powerful than the claim of a better solution.
We need to start by explaining how and why we see the world differently from other suppliers. Maybe we see or anticipate things that other competitors do not. Maybe we see the same things but interpret them differently. One way or another, we need to help our customer to recognise the advantages of adopting our approach.
The great benefit of differentiating our approach rather than just our functionality is that features can be quickly copied, particularly in industries or sectors where a features “arms race” is underway - whereas adopting a distinctively different approach is harder to emulate and typically much more long-lasting.
This sort of differentiation, if appropriately chosen and effectively implemented, is likely to attract our ideal prospects more strongly and repel those organisations that are never likely to become happy or profitable customers. In this regard, adopting a high-contrast approach is a powerful and effective qualifier/disqualifier.
What really sets you apart?
Here’s a simple test - can we complete the following sentence “the one thing that sets us apart is [your differentiator]”, is our differentiator entirely buzz-word free and unlike what our closest competitor would claim, and is it relevant and attractive to the person and organisation we are trying to sell to? If not, we have work to do.
But of course, having a coherent high-level differentiator isn’t enough. We then need to tailor the theme in a way that is specifically relevant to the customer’s situation, by completing the following:
- What this means to their organisation is [key benefit]
- What this means to [the key affected departments] is [key benefit]
- What this means to [the other key stakeholders] is [key benefit]
We can even go further - by contrasting a “day in their life” today with what a day in their life will look like after implementing our proposed solution. This can be a highly effective tactic to reinforce our “why change - why us - why now - who will benefit” value story.
That’s why I believe that successful selling in the current business climate is a matter of establishing the widest possible contrasts between both the prospective customer’s current situation and their better future outcome, and between our approach to achieving that outcome and all the other options they might be considering.
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About the Author
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a founding contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation, a recognised Sales Futurist, an active member of the Sales Experts Channel, and the driving force behind Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading proponents of outcome-centric selling.
Following a successful corporate career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and market leaders, Bob now works as a strategic advisor, mentor, trainer and coach to ambitious B2B sales organisations - teaching them how to differentiate themselves through their provably superior approach to achieving their customer's desired outcomes.