The longstanding compact customers once had with salespeople is broken and it’s not coming back. Just a short time ago customers relied on salespeople to learn about services, products, and solutions. But now customers are advancing in their buying cycle without salespeople, going it alone until they are mid-way through the sale—or later. This clearly has changed the face of selling and with it the sales conversation.
This problem is relatively new. The change has come quickly, and to succeed in the new sale environment, salespeople must move just as quickly to begin building a new sales dialogue that is insightful and compelling.
As I think about the new narrative, I think back several decades when I pioneered Consultative/Need Based Selling. As I worked to develop a new sales conversation framework and models that salespeople could use to meet the new needs of the then new customer, it was clear to me a linear process was not the full story. I developed a sales framework that mapped the dialogue from opening to close and supported that with models. But something was missing—the engine to move the dialogue.. And the Six Critical Skills—Presence, Relating, Questioning, Listening, Positioning, Checking — became that engine to execute the framework and create a lexicon for the new sales dialogue.
How relevant are the Six Critical Skills today? As relevant as ever. But each one must be torqued up to meet the challenges of “new selling.” I think of the new selling as I-Selling, Internet -influenced Selling, because the Internet has been a true game changer. Let’s compare the Six Critical Skills Pre I-Selling with the refinements needed for the New Six Critical Skills:
Presence in Pre I-Selling era was primarily external: eye contact, handshake, demeanor, body language, attire to create a message of confidence and identification. These remain important of course. But presence today has many more dimensions. It is as much inside as outside.
First there is the mind-set. Presence has always been about projecting confidence but the bar on confidence has been raised. Customers want to speak with salespeople who come to the table as business equals with the depth of business acumen, industry, company, and stakeholder knowledge needed to solve business problems.
Presence isn’t limited to face-to-face, phone, and email conversations. . One speaks now of having an “Internet presence,” meaning how much of an identity a salesperson has online. There is even a service “Klout” that gives you a number for it! In this environment,
salespeople must curate their brand through social networks such as Linked-In, Twitter, and Facebook. Just as salespeople research their customers, customers return the favor and on-line presence whether blogs or videos are a part of the new credibility.
While customers are using analytics to make decisions, their emotions are busy at work.. A new research study by McKinsey showed that number one thing that customers value from their providers is honest and open dialogues. For customers to feel that the conversations they have with salespeople are honest and open, salespeople must communicate in a way that is authentic and transparent. And this means backing up words by taking the extra step and be willing to give before getting.
In the not-too-distant past, relating was about breaking the ice and connecting on a more personal level. Today establishing rapport and connecting remain important but there is a new key to it. Relating today means more than making interesting chit-chat—it means establishing trust. Customers are risk adverse and without this vital factor, they lack the confidence needed to buy.
It is no secret that salespeople are expected to add value to even their most knowledgeable customers if they are to gain access. They need to bring value from the first conversation. Customers are not interested in backing up to explain what they think salespeople should already know. They are not keen to listen to what they already know or think they know. Because there is a surpluss of knowledge,, an expertise explosion of sorts, it is more difficult to add value.. Therefore, the level of preparation that salespeople must do today is greater than most have done or was even possible or practical before the Internet.
So what has happened to questioning in this new sales environment? Is there still a role for asking questions if you are supposed to know so much before you meet with a customer? Questions remain important—and in fact are more important. But the nature of effective questioning has changed. In the past, the primary purpose of questioning was discovery. The discovery model has become by a teach and learn model in which insight, expertise, and knowledge sharing are used as a lead-in to questioning to engage customers in a dialogue they value.
There are two key changes in questioning that will help salespeople engage smart customers in a need dialogue: 1) Insight-led questions: These questions open sales conversations by providing an insight on an issue the salesperson believes is a priority for the customer . The insight opens up probing into the customer’s perceptions or experience with the insight and moves into a business challenge and outcome dialogue , and 2) informed questions: These questions are based on business acumen, industry, customer, or stakeholder knowledge and show that the salesperson knows the customer’s world. For example, How have the October call center regulations … impacted your calling strategy? vs. What is impacting your call center strategy?” Combining these two kinds of questions builds a productive dialogue and leads to a collaborative solution.
The flow of questions in the new Need Dialogue Model moves the focus fom product needs to business outcomes and looks like this:
- Position Insight
- Explore Business Challenge
- Explore Opportunity
- Position High-level Approach
- Set Next Step
Listening is the ability to understand customers, influencers, or team members’ direct and underlying message and communicate that understanding verbally and non-verbally. Listening has expanded beyond person to person, face to face , phone, and email to include social media such as blogs and twitter … and not only to what customers are saying but what they are reading, viewing, and following. There are “silent voices” that customers are listening to that salespeople must be privy to before they can fully understand where their customers are in the buying cycle, what they know, and what they value.
Positioning is the ability to customize solutions to meet customer’s need. The story that most salespeople told in the recent past was about product superiority and fit. Still important, this message is far from enough today. The selling message today tells a story of understanding and solving business problems and proof of value. It must include elements that build consensus and drive home the theme of the business outcome.
Checking has been and remains a key skill for keeping the dialogue interactive. It is a skill in which a salesperson asks for feedback on something the salesperson has just said—for example: How does that mesh with your plan? What are your thoughts on that?
Of all the Six Critical Skillschecking has been the skill that most salespeople consistently identify as their weakest skill, meaning the one they rarely do. Especially when a salesperson comes to the table with greater expertise, fresh ideas, and insights, being skilled at checking to gain the customer’s perceptions and experience is essential to creating collaborative conversations and not drifting into lecture mode.
Six Critical Skills for You
The Six Critical Skills in name are the same but what it take to execute them is different.,more demanding. Your customers expect more across a variety of venues. The Six Critical Skills remain vital to effective communication, but they must evlove supplemented with expertise, insights, and ideas. Customers want honest and open dialogues. Your sales conversations are your most important sales tool for delivering this and building lasting relationships. Selling at its heart is dialogue. The Six Critical Skills are tools for getting your message of value and heart to your customers.