In this era of iPads, iPhones, and apps, sales communications may be growing, but sales conversations are dying—and so are many sales. This book, the product of several decades developing hundreds of thousands of salespeople all over the world, is not about how to sell but about how to sell differently. It guides you in how to use the new links and technologies without losing sight of the very reason for making a connection in the first place—a chance to exchange ideas in conversations that lead to winning business and long-term relationships.
When I first began working with sales forces to improve their sales performance, sales talk had historically been a monologue. Salespeople talked. Clients listened. Salespeople had to know about their products but not much about their clients. This approach worked well enough for that era because clients had fewer options and no way to learn about their products other than through sales- people.
But as things progressed and competition started to heat up it was clear to me that salespeople had to become more client focused and solutions more customized. I knew the power of dialogue from my background in psychology and education. I was instrumental in establishing selling as a two-way conversation based on needs and customized solutions. Back then I talked with sales leaders about strategy and process and provided salespeople with skills and techniques to help them be more successful. The hot topic was creating a dialogue to uncover client needs and customize solutions. For most organizations, the transition to the need dialogue was not easy. Salespeople had to unlearn decades of making “one-size-fits-all,” standardized, and script-like product pitches and learn how to ask questions and tailor solutions to client needs.
I taught consultative skills and techniques because they worked and were instrumental in helping salespeople make the shift needed to succeed. The sales environment of the times supported this approach.
Clients were more patient—actually, appreciative—and would educate salespeople. Clients shared their needs, giving salespeople the information and time required to shape customized solutions.
Now something new has happened. You are aware there is a new sales landscape—one that is more complex and challenging than ever before. You know your clients are smarter and scoping out their own needs and solutions before they contact you. Yet, if you ask most salespeople today what their job is, they tell you something to the effect of convincing clients that their offerings are superior to their competition’s. Just a very short time ago that would have been a reasonable answer. But clients today have what seems like limitless quality choices, and product superiority is harder to prove. It is not what you know about your products that clients value, but what you can do with what you know to solve their business problems. Clients must believe you understand their business challenges and that you are prepared to drive results. They expect you to anticipate their needs and add to what they know. They look for insights, ideas, and know-how. For most salespeople shifting their conversations from product to business challenges is a leap, not a tweak. For decades there has been no fundamental changes to selling and no impetus to radically change selling models—but that is no longer the case.
Today both you and your clients have other ways of finding information about each other and no longer depend solely on dialogue. Every day you start your day getting ready for your calls, anxious about the pressure but driven to achieve. With one click on a website you can enter your client’s world. Your clients are doing just that to learn about your and your competitors’ offerings. Information is everywhere and everyone is tap- ping into it.
In the new sales environment the tough news is that you will fail if you do only the things that made you successful just a few short years ago. Some of those things will actually hurt you. The changes in how clients buy are profound. Today, sales strategy, process, skills, and tools are the province of anyone who wants to be successful. The boundaries between what sales man- agers and salespeople must know have blurred. The boundaries between selling and marketing have blurred. And most significantly the boundaries and expectations between you and your clients have blurred.
Clients were the experts in their business and you in yours. Today clients and their teams are searching the Web, spending hours at whiteboards figuring out their needs, studying their alternatives, and encroaching on the product knowledge/solution terrain that once belonged to you. Clients turn to the Internet and no longer solely rely on sales conversations to learn about the options available to them. They are not interested in hearing a delineation of your product capabilities. Differentiation is not in your products. It is your expertise. You have become the differentiator.
There is an immediate need for most salespeople to change their sales conversations. In this book we will focus on five strategies needed to move your conversations from product to business outcomes to succeed in the new sales landscape:
Call it prognostication. Call it clairvoyance. Today you have to be one step ahead of your clients. Every salesperson has some vision of the future. But in the past selling worked according to a different time horizon. Today’s clients are looking to you for insights and ideas to expand beyond what they already know to help them solve not just their current but also their emerging business challenges.
Heat-Mapping: Anticipating Client Needs
Your clients have done their homework. They’ve researched their issues, compared their solution options, and come to the sales table smarter. The days of their answering a long list of discovery questions are gone. Diagnosing needs is no longer the conversation starter. Your role is to turn up the heat by raising the visibility of priority business challenges and demonstrating that you understand their world. From your first client conversation clients expect you to show that you can add value. You too must be smarter and engage them with questions that move from discovery to collaboration. The new need conversation is one in which you teach and learn.
Value-Tracking: Shaping Solutions
Just a short time ago clients defined value in terms of the quality of the performance of products. They compared how well competitors’ products satisfied their needs. Today value is defined in terms of outcomes and financial impact. Differentiation is what you bring to the table. The bar has been raised on the expertise you must have to sell and on the breath and scope of what it takes to configure a winning solution.
Phasing: Controlling the Process
Your clients’ buying cycle has changed. Clients now control the sales process. From their perspective buying has become a problem-solving cycle. When you enter their buying cycle determines in large part how much influence you have and your success in closing. A defined sales process gives you a strong competitive advantage. It is key to moving deals through the pipeline quickly and to forecasting accurately.
Linking: Connecting Emotionally
Linking is more than ice breaking. Linking is the thorniest of all of the strategies; it is not only the one everyone takes for granted but it also connects all of the above. In a world where it is easy to think technology and information rule, your clients are still looking for something you won’t find in their requests for proposals. Certainly they demand expertise and metrics, but the role emotions play in their decision-making cannot be underestimated. Yes, you must connect the dots, but you must also connect person to person. It is the art of being both client-centered and human-centered.
The five strategies in this book are about adapting quickly to the sweeping changes in today’s selling landscape. This book has one overriding goal: to provide you with the know-how to solve your clients’ business challenges and help you reach your goals on the new sales map.
Globalization, the economy, and emerging technologies have unhinged selling and profoundly changed how clients buy. These factors have converged to create the new sales landscape:
With more than 200 sovereign nations in the world, each with some ability to market something virtually, globalization, conservatively speaking, has doubled the number of competitors. Client choices have exploded geometrically, making it more difficult for you to differentiate on product, quality, or price. Additionally, competitors can come from anywhere in the world. In the past, what law firm could have imagined, for example, that it would be competing for business and would lose 40 percent of its legal research billing to a competitor in another country?
The Path of Knowledge
The real significance to you of the explosion in competition goes beyond navigating a tougher and more crowded competitive land- scape. It has made the old model of selling, which relied on selling the better mousetrap, irrelevant. Clients believe any number of providers can meet their needs equally well. Differentiation, not product quality, is the pressure point.
In the old days the sales message, for customized and non- customized solutions, was, “Let me tell you about my product and why it is better.” Clients have other resources and no longer depend on you to learn about products. Moreover, a major study by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) tells us that clients are 57 percent through their buying cycle before talking to a salesperson. Clients are conducting their own research and then turning to their peers and social networking for unbiased information before turning to you.
But what does this really tell you? For starters, clients are more informed and there is the danger of their treating your solution as a commodity. But it does not tell you that clients no longer need you. Access to knowledge goes both ways, and you can be just as informed as your clients and more so. Even though clients have unprecedented access to knowledge, they face the difficulty of sorting through what matters most and finding the value among all the options. Knowledge and know-how are two different things. That is where you come in. Even with clients who are deeper into their buying cycle, you can bring expertise, relevant insights, and ideas that reshape their thinking and influence their buying decisions in your favor.
The best salespeople have always brought ideas and created value for their clients. But now the ability to deliver superior value cannot be limited to a select few. It has become a requirement for any sales- person who wants to succeed in sales.
It is no surprise to you that the economy has changed how, why, and when your clients buy. Because of the uncertainty of the economy clients are highly risk averse. Decisions are being made by consensus. To avoid mistakes clients are tapping into trusted col- leagues, consultants, and advisors to narrow down the providers they will contact. They are demanding proof of value not in terms of product superiority but financial impact. Spending is under a microscope and solutions must not only satisfy the client’s direct needs but also meet cross-functional objectives and support corporate goals.
The concern about risk has in turn elevated the buying decision to the executive suite. Decisions formerly made by midlevel managers are now in the C-suite where the language of risk and value, not features and benefits, is spoken. Executives are getting involved in deals far smaller than ever before, and you face the challenge of engaging them at a strategic level. Clients are demanding more consulting and support but at the same time demanding pricing more appropriate to transactional sales where no or little innovation, advice, or implementation support is needed.
The Internet and emerging technologies have had a profound impact on how clients buy. Your clients have embraced technology. The convergence of technologies has created the single most transformational change in the history of selling. It has altered how information is exchanged, making it possible for people to talk to each other at any time in multiple formats and get almost any information they want in real time. It has disseminated knowledge, making clients smarter and more independent. It has raised their expectations. It has redefined how they buy, how they acquire knowledge, and what they value from you. It has created a knowledge explosion that has turned knowledge into a commodity and put a premium on your ability to bring clients relevant insight, ideas, and solutions.
Many clients may be ahead of you in maximizing technology, and they are getting better and better at buying. If they have surpassed you, you must vigorously embrace technology and choose the key sales tools needed to respond, build your knowledge portfolio, and maximize your time.
Conversations to Teach and Learn
With such dramatic changes in how clients buy, it would seem reasonable to tell you that there is an entirely new way to sell and it is time to leave everything you know about selling behind. But that’s absolutely not so. Yes, selling, as we knew it is gone, and the parts that have changed are so significant that if you don’t master them you will struggle to be relevant to your clients. There is no question—you must sell differently. At the same time though, you must not lose the consultative skills that helped you communicate and build relationships with your clients. Your consultative selling skills are still relevant—they are the platform for reaching the next level.
Clients have evolved so quickly. There is an urgency for you to change many of the sales models that have been baked into your sales approach. A recent research study by Forrester reported that a scant 15 percent of senior decision makers interviewed felt their meetings with salespeople were valuable. This is a serious incitement.
What clients were looking for and not getting is business acumen and deeper expertise to solve their current and future business challenges. Today’s clients expect dialogues brimming with subject matter expertise—but the subject has changed. Expertise on your product capabilities is the price of admission, and so are your skills. The expertise that matters is around insights and ideas and what you know about your client’s industries, their companies, and them. Teaching now holds a high place in your portfolio of skills. But the teaching must be collaborative, positioning you as teacher and learner.
Based on my extensive experience in working with hundreds of thousands of salespeople, salespeople who serve up insights and ideas have always existed—but they have always been in the minority. These top performers consistently have made up about 10 percent of a sales force. This elite group are the leg- ends and luminaries who bring value to clients far beyond their product capabilities in the form of advice and problem solving. No longer can that kind of performance be the province of only the legends and luminaries. In the new sales environment, there is little room for the average performers that sustained sales organizations for decades. Google’s mantra that “great is not good enough” is the message of sales today. You must demonstrate greater expertise, stronger skills, more creativity, and deeper motivation. The new sales conversation is no longer a Q&A between buyer and seller. It is a conversation between business equals in productive collaboration.
Your sales conversation is still your most important sales tool. Technology is the vehicle. Knowledge is the content. Clients’ voices are loud. Context and content are king. But you are the connector.
Perhaps your sales organization is grappling to find answers and make the changes needed in its selling system. Ideally it is supporting you with knowledge sharing, messaging, and sales tools. Firms such as Aberdeen Group, Bersin Deloitte, CSO Insights, ES Research Group, Forrester, Sales Executive Council, Richardson, and ZS Research document what best-in-class organizations and salespeople are doing. Everyone in sales is bombarded with unprecedented mounds of data about client behavior, buying practices, and best practices in selling—much of which is insightful and helpful, some of which is contradicting. But all of the data shows there is no turning back the clock. The paths of knowledge will continue to change, but your role as a salesperson will be even more important as you bring relevant expertise, insights, and ideas to your clients.
Change and Challenge
This is a time of great opportunity. In a sense, all sales organizations and salespeople are in “start-up” mode on an equal footing in this new world. There are many salespeople who are clinging to their glory days and the ways that worked for them in the past. Others are experimenting with different ways of relating to clients. Undoubtedly, if you are successful, you are already using many of the new ideas and skills I present in this book. You may be using them without ascribing a name to them. This book will help you understand and master the five strategies that will enable you to engage in meaningful conversations your clients value and for which you are well rewarded.
Today’s economy is facilitated by technology. The technology available to you is game changing. But this book is about you and your expertise, passion, and commitment to build relationships in the true sense of the word relationship—a series of sales based on the value you bring and the trust you earn. This book is about adapting to the present and looking into the future. It is about understanding the changes happening in sales and acting differently because of them. It is about connecting on a business and personal level, collaborating as an equal, and closing more business every day. It will help you tweak what needs tweaking and change what needs changing to succeed in your sales role as an advisor your clients trust—a problem solver, teacher, and learner.
Your smarter clients are already out there—savvy, busy, pressured, risk averse, and in need of guidance to make the best business and personal decisions. Transformation comes from change, not the other way around. Your clients have already changed. Buyers’ habits are changing fast. You too have been making adjustments. The sales conversation and scorecard are new. Now it’s time to challenge yourself to change— for your clients, your sales organization, and yourself. There is a new breed of buyers and sellers. It is now time to start to change your sales conversation. Let’s begin together.
This is the introduction from “Changing the Sales Conversation” by Linda Richardson. It is reproduced with kind permission of the publishers, McGraw-Hill