I read an interesting blog posting from Peter Bregman on the Harvard Business Review website, How Not to Lose a Sale. In the article, Peter shares a recent sales experience we can all learn from. To summarize, Peter loses a highly qualified sales opportunity by jumping to a proposed solution too early in the sales process. A friend of Peter's worked with the prospect and sponsored the meeting. The prospect was expecting to gain a better understanding of his issues by exploring the underlying cause(s).
Once in the meeting, Peter, excited for the opportunity and eager to show his preparedness and expertise, began suggesting ways to solve the issue before allowing the prospect to discuss his view of the situation. Peter also ignored the recommendation of his sponsor to postpone an aspect of the discussion until a later time. As a result, the prospect was disappointed and failed to make a connection with Peter. Peter attributed his poor performance to a lack of “attunement”, a recent concept on persuasion that stresses the importance of appreciating the perspective of others.
There were a couple reasons I liked this story. First, the sales scenario described hit painfully close to home. I’ve had similar experiences several times during my career. Maybe due to personality type, over-excitement, or desire for recognition, I’ve made the same mistake. It's an easy trap to fall into when face-time with busy executives is brief and competitors are close behind. Regardless of experience level, we can all benefit from this lesson. The irony is that it was Peter’s confidence, experience, and preparedness that diminished his chance of winning the sales opportunity; one that was his to lose.
Second, Peter cites the recent research on influencing others in a book by Daniel Pink, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. Buyer alignment, a similar sales process concept to attunement, has been addressed by several sales experts and researchers over the years. It's one of the most important concepts taught to sales professionals. Although alignment is not identical to attunement, it also trains sellers to stay synchronized with the buyer’s thoughts and concerns throughout their buying decision process. While attunement may keep us empathetic with the buyer's perspective during the buying process, alignment reminds us that buying priorities and concerns shift throughout the process. Leveraging the two concepts will make you a better sales professional and improve your win-loss ratio.
Here is a chart illustrating the phases of buyer/seller alignment from Michael Bosworth’s book Solution Selling; Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets.
What Does the Buyer/Seller Alignment Chart Tell Us?
The seller must be aligned with the phases of buyer concerns to be successful. In
Phase I the buyer is most interested in thoroughly researching and understanding the issue they are facing. Accordingly, this must be your primary concern in this phase as well. In Phase II, the buyer is focused on possible solutions to their problem. This is the time to present and discuss how your offer provides the best approach to resolve Phase I issues. By Phase III, the buyer has decided on the best partner and is performing additional calculations on any risks associated with their selection.
Peter’s experience was a classic case of buyer/seller misalignment. In the meeting, the buyer wanted to gain a better understanding of the issues and root causes (Phase I). Peter was eager to talk about his past knowledge and experience solving similar issues (Phase II). Their expectations for the meeting were not aligned. The prospect became frustrated and felt pressured and “sold-to”. The seller was confused as to why a better connection was not made. The disappointed buyer will now have to look for additional sellers who might be in better alignment. If the next seller can stay aligned and attuned, they have a much better chance of becoming this prospect’s solution partner.
In Peter’s post meeting self-critique, he concludes that he should have taken a less prominent role in the meeting by, ”sitting in the chair he was offered, listening to the prospect tell his story, seeing the situation from his eyes, analyzing it from his point of view and feeling his emotions...” What I felt was needed (to borrow a phrase from a recent national foreign policy debate) was a philosophy of “leading from behind”--taking an ultra-patient, listening posture and judiciously reserving value-add comments and ideas until follow-on meetings. In doing so, Peter might have minimized the perception of being controlling or “pushy” until after his prospect had completed Phase I. He also should have followed his sponsor’s advice to postpone one specific topic until a follow-on meeting.
Learnings From Peter's Experience
Learn from, but don’t overreact to, a single experience. Every interaction will be different. When in doubt, ask what you wanted to ask and say what you wanted to say while you’re there--it may be your only opportunity. You can’t practice chemistry. Be authentic and try your best to be attuned and aligned. In spite of what some “experts” say, don’t try and change who you are for each prospect. Your next prospect may appreciate the confidence and strength of your style. Chair size and heights don’t matter, new ideas and situational knowledge does. Just don’t risk taking the seat at the head of the table...
I was looking through some of my papers the other day and I came across one of my favorite articles written by a close friend of mine, Jerry Kanter, titled: “Planning and Managing Your Career." Although this subject is not something that I typically write about, I thought it would be helpful for anyone in transition.
Jerry was the director of the Center for Information Management Studies at Babson College. He was a prolific writer and authored nine books and countless articles on computer and information technology. He was also an accomplished teacher, philanthropist and athlete. (He was a star on the Harvard University football and track teams--a track award for Most Improved Performance bears his name.) Jerry passed away in 2010. Re-reading his article made me think of what a great mentor he had been, not only to me, but to many others.
What I like most about the article is Jerry’s insights into how to achieve your career goals while purposefully maintaining balance in your life. One day, we were talking about careers and he pulled this essay from his drawer. I read it and ask him if I could forward it to a colleague that was considering a career change. Jerry was a very private person and was initially slightly embarrassed by the request; he thought it was too “soft” compared to his other writings. After a little encouragement he conceded and was pleased to hear of the articles' positive feedback.
I have shared his essay with manyrecent college graduates and colleagues that were reassessing their careers. I hope you like it. If you do, please share it with your friends and followers. I think Jerry would be pleased to know his quiet perspective on career and life helped guide someone in your life.
What do Neil Young, Betty White, Bob Hope, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Paul McCartney all have in common? Great comic timing? A villa in Tuscany? A love of the Classics? No, they were all victims of a premature obituary. It happened to Mark Twain twice, resulting in the now famous quote: ”The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Based on a recent Harvard Business Review article: ”The End of Solution Sales,” we can now add Solution Selling to that list.
The article was written by the members of the Corporate Executive Board and discussed the CEB’s recent study of 1,400 B2B customer transactions, which included 6,000 salespeople and 700 customers. The title caught my eye; anything sales-related is in my wheelhouse, so I was looking forward to a good debate. I was disappointed. The article had interesting research and good insights into the workings of a top salesperson, but it inadequately defended the title claim due to a fundamental lack of understanding of Solution Selling and how it is being implemented today.
So, for all of you Chief Sales Officers and VPs of Sales out there--who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars implementing a Solution Selling sales environment--there’s no need to panic. Insight selling is not a replacement for Solution Selling.
The article proclaimed that a “novel, even radical sales approach is needed” (insight selling) to replace Solution Selling. While the underlying premise is correct [With the abundance of online information, buyers are better informed and have a more thorough understanding of offerings prior to any formal seller contact], their belief that insightful selling is radically different from Solution Selling, is not. Not only are the concepts of insight selling not radical, they are not new. Solution Selling (done correctly) incorporates many of the concepts presented in the article. We have been implementing insight concepts with our clients for years-- as have all good sales organizations. To be a good sales person, you always had to sell insightfully. The article is faulting Solution Selling for an organization’s poor sales methodology.
Insight Selling vs Solution Selling: Much More Similar Than Different
There were several major areas where I found the two approaches overlapped:
Avoiding established demand. The authors speak of how top insight sellers avoid established demand. Solution Selling also targets emerging, yet unknown business needs. In Solution Selling, any opportunity where the prospect has a well-defined vision of the solution is discounted. Early access to buying stakeholders is key. If you are unable to enter the buying process early, a secondary approach(with a greatly reduced probability of winning)called Re-engineering Vison is recommended. Receiving a detailed RFP that your organization did not help shape, would be an example of being late to the process. In this example, your only chance of success would be to try to change the requirements so that they more closely align with your offerings.
Upending your customer’s way of thinking. Much like the insight selling approach, open-ended sales questions in Solution Selling are also designed to uncover and discuss unrecognized needs. Regardless of which executive buyer/influencer they are speaking with, competent sales people use “what if”, “have you considered” or “has this come-up yet” questions very effectively. Knowledge of the prospect’s industry and market position are critical. Solution Selling models provide conversation planning models for team approaches, as well.
Buying triggers. As a consultative sales person working within highly leveraged compensation plans for many years, I can tell you that organizational buying triggers have always been one of the most productive ways to allocate sales time. This is not a new concept exclusive to insight selling. All great salespeople look for the fastest path to a sale—and the resulting financial reward. Solution sellers, like insight sellers, rely on defensible, creative value propositions to justify expenditures, thereby minimizing a buyer’s request for price cuts.
Opportunity pursuit scorecard. Variations of the go/no-go sales opportunity pursuit scorecard presented have been used by thousands of sales organizations over the years. Few sales opportunity pursuit models would recommend investing resources in any sales opportunity with less than a 50% chance of winning--especially if the selling organization was not present to help shape the vision of the solution. If you’re not winning (Column A in Solution Selling parlance), save the effort and cost of your sales resources and re-allocate them to more exclusive opportunities with earlier access to executives.
Best practices. The CEB cites three best-practices from insight selling—all are commonly used within the Solution Selling framework:
Incorporate Insight Selling Concepts Into Your Solution Selling Environment
Add a very early “share insights” step to your Solution Selling sales process. In a recent client sales process re-design, we added a Vision Creation step at the beginning of their formally defined sales process. We designed this step to include discussions on a variety of wide-ranging issues concerning the customer’s business including: industry direction, innovations and challenges, market trends and opportunities, and organizational/industry points of view. The success of this step was measured by the ability to schedule follow-on meetings with additional prospect executives (verifiable outcome in many Solution Selling models).
Targeting the harder to reach mobilizers is good advice from CEB. As always, it is the key to the successful sales relationship. The top sales performers have always offered the best solution insights, ideas, and vision to prospective customers. It’s usually the reason they have gained access to decision makers ahead of their competition. Decision makers have always been tough to identify, meet and influence; they don’t grant access or share time easily. As one who has made thousands of sales calls and built and executed hundreds of sales opportunity plans, the phrase “easy to understand does not necessarily mean easy to do” comes to mind. Salespeople who lead with insights can’t do it alone, they will need the entire organization’s knowledge, creativity, and support to successfully engage and sustain executive mobilizer relationships over time.
Read the article for the insights into the characteristics of a star sales person. I agree that there has been a natural progression to insightful selling or whatever term you want to use to describe it. The value of a sales person is their ability to put forth new ideas and insights. Any seller who can share cross-industry concepts, transferable best practices, and fresh ideas will have a competitive advantage. The best ideas, shared earlier in the buying process--not product and service differentiators--make the difference between winning and losing, and always have. The insights in the article are valid, but they are not novel--nor are they radically different--and they by no means mark the end of Solution Selling.
I was recently speaking with a friend who manages a professional services company. He was contemplating how much faster his business would grow if only he could more fully leverage the professional delivery staff. I’ve found this to be one of the greatest challenges facing professional services firms. I personally encountered the issue while leading the sales and marketing organization for a Big 6 information technology consultancy. With a technical staff of 1,800 consultants and a sales staff of 100, I realized that the key to our success would be our ability to leverage our secret weapon-- the large billable staff.
The technical staff often has the most credibility, the closest relationships, and the most thorough understanding of the client’s business. My mantra became: Everybody Sells. But given our staff profile, I knew this would be a difficult cultural change. They were hired for their technical competency, not their sales ability--most would have preferred a root canal to asking a client for a referral.
So what can you do to educate and motivate your technical staff to leverage more business? Help them become better networkers. To follow is an outline of what they need to know to be successful:
Networking for Increased Sales: Fear Not
Networking, at it’s core, is asking friends and business associates for referrals. Professional networking is common practice. It’s most often the way that new business opportunities are surfaced. Some people feel that asking for a business favor may be perceived (inaccurately) as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. They fear rejection (failure), believing that their request will alienate a friend or business associate. While these fears are unfounded, it’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult--even for the most confident professionals. Remember, if you’ve done a good job for the client, it’s only natural that you would ask if they know anyone else who could benefit from your services. If they do, they would be more than happy to give you a lead. Not only are they helping you, they'll be helping a colleague that would benefit from your offerings. It’s the way business is done.
Getting Started: A Step-by-Step Process
It is never too late to get started. It’s important to approach building your personal network with commitment and discipline. If you harness your inner altruism, and commit to listening closely to the challenges of others, your efforts will be rewarded.
Step 1. Assemble a master personal networking list. Make a list from all your contact sources: email address books, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, alumni directories, past clients, Christmas card lists, etc. Don’t be discouraged if your list is short when you first start--with continued focus, it will grow quickly. Quality, not quantity, is the key. Determine what method of interaction will best suit each contact (face-to-face meetings, phone calls, emails, or via social media). Also, create a second list of contacts you’d like to connect with. Be prepared to mention their names to your contacts and ask for introductions.
Step 2. Allocate a few hours a week to grow your professional network. Prioritize your contacts and then determine the frequency and method of contact. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the creator of the “Dunbar number”, claims that humans can only maintain 150 stable relationships--even if utilizing all the social networking platforms. Recent research on the optimal number of first level connections in LinkedIn seems to support his theory.
I recently met with a sales professional who was between jobs. He said his work-life balance had eroded so much due to work pressures that his network had narrowed to just a few relationships in his assigned accounts. As a result, he had lost contact with those who could help him the most. The lesson: Maintain discipline and nurture your network. Don’t allow external factors to steal your networking time, regardless of what is happening in your career.
Step 3. Prepare a few brief stories about how your company helps others. Your short verbal descriptions will help others envision how they, or others in their network, can use your products or services. Share recent examples that discuss your own personal experiences. Tailor and deliver your stories based on the industry/role/issue of the network contact you are speaking with.
Step 4. Find your personal style. Be authentic. Practice a dialog that is natural and comfortable. One of the best networkers I know used to call me every few months and leave this message: “Hi Mike, John Smith here--no need to call me back if you’re busy. I was just curious how you were doing with that _________ issue you were wrestling with last time we spoke.” or “Just had a quick idea for you regarding that _________ issue you mentioned." By leaving such a message, there was never a question if I would return his call, but how soon.
Step 5. Join an affinity group as a watcher. Volunteer to represent your firm by joining an industry association or trade group. It’s a great way to expand your network. Establishing face-to-face connections will also increase the probability of having your initial networking call accepted. Make sure to periodically prepare a formal presentation to report your observations to your firm; it’s a great way to hone your presentation skills.
Note to Millennials: Join LinkedIn
Recent research from the Student Advisor shows that millennials (ages 18–32) have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country today. In a recent survey, over 200 students from across the country were interviewed about their career goals and how they were preparing for their professional lives after graduation. Even though all students surveyed were active on Facebook, only one-third had a presence on LinkedIn, the primary online resource for networking professional opportunities. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed were unaware of the career importance of building and maintaining a professional brand online. An account on LinkedIn is a must for anyone looking for employment.
You may also be interested in reading this related post: Planning and Managing Your Career: Lessons From a Master
Remember the person you are attempting to network with, regardless of title, is doing the same to grow their business. Be authentic and altruistic. Commit to a disciplined approach and get started. Don't worry about the number of initial contacts you have, quality not quantity is key. Do your best to help your clients build their network and your efforts will be rewarded. If you’ve done a good job and have earned their respect, clients are more than happy to help.
image credit: kbunge.wordpress.com
Mike Peters is the managing director of the Whitespace Consulting Group, a global business development strategy firm. The Whitespace Consulting Group has been helping multi-cultural clients optimize their business development strategy since 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.