I am often asked if Consultative Selling is still relevant. When Consultative Selling (customer-need based selling) became the predominant mode of selling starting in the mid 1970s, we thought it was the Golden Age of Selling. What could be better than customized win-win solutions? We thought we hit the “target” perfectly. But — the target moved…
Technology has rewritten the sales experience for sellers and buyers. The changes have been so dramatic that many of the sales methodologies that were highly effective just a short time ago are obsolete – and many will actually hurt sales.
Despite the magnitude of change, Consultative Selling remains relevant because understanding customer needs remains relevant. The big difference is that what customers need from salespeople has changed. Consultative Selling has not been replaced – it is still the foundation, but it does not go far enough. It is extended. It is not just how you sell, but what you sell, that must change. Before we consider the how and what, let’s think about why there is an urgency to change?
Why Insights in the Current Sales Environment
Customers today have unprecedented access to information and options. They are busy on-line doing research. They are laser focused on achieving business outcomes. To make a purchase, they want proof of value in financial terms. They are harder to reach. They are influenced by peers, product reviews, and references.
Some corners of the sales performance industry think this means customers don’t need you. Think again. We have all heard from CEB that customers are through 57% of their buying cycle before speaking with a salesperson. Some say as high as 70%. This data is several years old. And while it is true that 67% of customers begin their buying journey with on-line searches, that does not mean they are not at the same time reaching out to salespeople.
Hot off the press research from SiriusDecisions contradicts the idea that customers are at least half way through their buying cycle before speaking with a salesperson. In its survey of 1000 B2B customers in complex B2B purchase decisions within the past 6 months, Sirius found that B2B buyers interact with salespeople at every stage of the buyer’s journey. This certainly challenges the theory that customers don’t need salespeople.
These seeming contradictions stem from two simultaneous trends in buying patterns: simple customer decision making, in which customers know the answer, today no longer go through a relationship with a salesperson. Instead, most often that kind of transactional sales is handled entirely by the marketing function that is given a sales target. Marketing is taking over this kind of sale, as it should, and this is the sale they are talking about when they say selling, as we know it, is dead. But real selling, in which customers seek answers (from a variety of sources including salespeople), and where challenges are complex and varied, requires that salespeople work closely with customers and are intimately involved all along the buying chain in every single step.
What the SiriusDecisions research shows is that salespeople still matter. In complex buying decisions, the customers’ need for help from salespeople has grown. However, it has decreased for the simple sale. To be sure, customers come to the sale armed with information. But they are also looking for information and value insights. Because there is so much information available to customers, salespeople who bring expertise, introduce ideas, provide a new perspective, and help customers sort the music from the noise, will be the ones who are rewarded.
What it takes to sell to today’s customer exceeds anything asked of salespeople before. Customers are busy in a community of conversations, and it is your job as a salesperson to join in and ADD value to their conversations.
To complicate matters, much of your customer contact has shifted from face-to-face to telephone and email – except for key parts of the sale. You must not only find your customers and identify customers’ early patterns of interest, but you must help them find you by how to brand yourself. And on top of all this, you are selling against “silent voices” – voices that are silent to you. In the past, you knew who your competitors were and what they said about themselves and even about you. Tools like LinkedIn and Twitter are conversation machines and customers are tuned in and actively participate. Unless you follow whom your customers follow, read what they read, and engage with them where they live, and find new ways to gather information from them, you will not understand what is influencing their thinking. Without this knowledge, you are selling in the dark.
So what can you bring to the conversation that your B2B customers don’t already know that will help them grow their businesses? That is where insights come in.
Insights: Seeing from Within
Just about everywhere you turn in selling you hear about the importance of bringing insights to your customers. And rightly so, because insights are a mind-sparking tool through which you can bring value to knowledgeable customers.
An insight is just that: a sight from within. Insights provide a deeper understanding of a problem and offer a path from idea to a solution. They are what make light bulbs go off. When you share an insight, you bring two points together to trigger new thinking. Insights move customers to question the status quo, explore making a change, and enable you to help customers make better decisions. Insights are not ideas, they are not solutions, but they pave the way for ideas and solutions. They position you on the same side of the table with your customer as a problem solver.
Research, knowledge and experience fuel insights. So does intuition and creativity, and that is the magic part. You can develop insight more easily today, because there are more diagnostic tools. You must develop insights today, because customers demand them.
In seminars, participants are surprised to see how quickly, with a few searches on their cell phones about their customers’ business challenges, they are able to find data that they can use to craft insights. Once they identify insights, they enthusiastically share them with each other.
Insights introduce topics and issues that you believe are (or should be) a priority for your customer. They are a great way to start a conversation, because they allow you to show customers you know their world, you have been thinking about them, and likely have something that will help them solve a problem. Insights can focus on an issue that is not on the customer’s agenda where you believe you can add value, or on an issue already on a customer’s agenda, by broadening his or her perspective.
Most importantly, insights help you engage customers at the business challenge, not the product, level. Insights aren’t confined to starting the sales conversation. As you learn more, you can share additional insights to continue adding value to move the sale forward.
Insights Are Not Sales 101
While finding the data to craft insights may be relatively easy with research at your fingertips, executing insights can be difficult – but well worth the effort. There are two major challenges surrounding insights in sales. The first, and lesser problem, is where to gain information needed for insights. The second is how to construct them.
Developing an insight takes effort. There is absolutely no excuse with search, alert tools and apps, not to build deep and current industry, company, and stakeholder knowledge, which form the basis for developing relevant insight. Experience and knowledge sharing add to the mix. It takes putting together the business challenge and the data, experience, intuition, and appropriating ideas that make light bulbs go off. Certainly, it is more challenging for salespeople who cover multiple industries with broad product lines, but there is no escaping the need for you to bring expertise to your customers, directly or through your team, in the form of insights, knowledge sharing, and ideas.
With that said, you shouldn’t be alone in building expertise and developing insights. Another important role for marketing is disseminating enticing content, not only to customers but also to the sales force. Marketing’s role cannot be overstated. Ralph Lauren expressed it clearly: “What was three years ago is not how the world is running anymore. If I don’t have my marketing people up and running, I don’t have anything. They must be ready before the product is here.” Marketing should be hand-feeding insights to make you smarter, save you time, and help you add value to your customers.
An Insight Template
There are steps you can take to develop relevant insights:
- Start with Your Customer’s Business Challenge — leverage your experience, research, and knowledge to focus the conversation on the business issue you believe the customer is concerned about, or should be concerned about, that leads to your organization’s strength.
“I’ve been thinking about your….” or “Some of our customers are finding (or focusing on)…”
- Articulate Your Insight/Validate with Data — based on your research, experience, intuition, you teach/introduce a relevant issue that is not on the customer’s agenda or trigger new thinking about something already on the customer’s agenda that challenges the status quo.
“Forrester research has found that….”
- Make It Real with a Success Story — share a concise, credible success story ideally with quantified outcome.
“Our customer was experiencing…(problem). We worked with them to… (quantified result)”
- Ask a Question to Gain Customer’s Experience or Perspective — learn how your customer feels about the insight – do not ask for commitment.
“I would like to understand what your experience (or What is your perception of… (the insight you shared)?”
The fourth step is a critical one. The big question is how does the customer perceive the insight? If the customer doesn’t find it insightful, it is not an insight — at least for this customer. The customer’s feedback on the insight has equal weight with the insight itself. You must find out if this is this something the customer has thought about or rejected, are there political obstacles, is there a deep-seated bias against it? And so on.
I consistently see how hard it is for salespeople to actually share their hard earned insights with customers. Invariably they turn insight sharing, which is designed to put them on the same side of the table as a business colleague, into a sales pitch. They make two mistakes: in the second stage of the template, the insight sharing stage, they pitch their idea instead of supporting it with data. For example, they start to pitch their offering (“Our system provides…which …) instead of validating the insight with research (A recent study by … show that … with a 10% increase in…). In the fourth stage of the template, customer’s perception, they ask a question to get commitment (What are your thought on using … for your organization?) Instead of asking a question to get feedback and open up the business challenge dialogue (What is your perception of? or What has been your experience with…?).
Delivering insights takes confident delivery. But there is a trap. It is important to recognize that, as David Brooks points out, “biases and overconfidence tendencies are infused into our nature”(and don’t forget your customers’ too). Insights you bring are part of the canvas, but you need the landscape view.
All of the preparation and expertise can lead you to think you have the answer. Rather than the answer, what you actually have is a conceptual framework that is a theory that must be tested. Confidence and knowledge can easily drift into assumptions and, worse yet, arrogance. Collaborative confidence is needed to engage the customer in the open and honest dialogue that customers are pining for. You must invite customers to share their reactions to the insights, and then follow that up with informed questions to really understand the business challenge such as the outcome is the customer looking for, what must be in place for that outcome to be achieved, who in the company would be impacted by a change and so on… before understanding and probing a sales opportunity. When that happens, you are engaging in a business conversation between equals. When insights are relevant and lead to your strength, you are on your way to opening the door to a sales opportunity.
Sell with Insights
Insights can help you succeed in the new sales environment. This new environment raises the value of expertise, research and data — all translated into insights, ideas and solutions. If you are in even moderately complex B2B sales, your customers need you. Identify their business challenges and do the hard work it takes to solve them.