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...
Sales Rule #1: Know your buyer and what they want to achieve.
It’s a simple rule but one that is often overlooked by the most experienced and successful salespeople. I’ve worked with over a hundred account teams, facilitating sessions to help strategize their organization’s highest-potential accounts. Periodically, the session is hijacked by a sales opportunity so significant that it warrants reallocating some time to the strategic planning of the opportunity. Yet I’m often surprised at the lack of basic understanding of even the largest, most significant sales opportunities.
Seller organizations must thoroughly understand, from top to bottom, the customer’s context and vision before spending any time or resources on a sales opportunity.
When The Customer’s Vision Changes
I recently, worked with an experienced, cross functional account team for a high-tech, B2B products and services company. The 15-member strategic account team had well over 200 years of combined technical sales, support and product engineering experience. Only two years prior, it had unseated the industry leader, a company 100 times their size, as the strategic global supplier for a customer midway into their competitor’s five-year contract. Winning the deal was a true David and Goliath story.
Just two years into the contract, though, the team was mired in an endless stream of out-of-the-blue customer queries, ideas and requests. After a very synergistic two-year relationship, the account team had spent the last few months (including weekends) responding to multiple disjointed and seemingly unrelated mid-contract proposal requests. It was as if the team was intentionally being dragged through rings of fire to prove their loyalty or worthiness. The information requested by the account team’s primary contact seemed very long term and visionary--way beyond their area of responsibility. The relationship with this account, a Fortune 50 company and global leader within their industry, seemed to be spinning out of control before the team’s eyes.
“Who do you think is really making these requests?” I asked. Before we spent any more time and resources responding to ad-hoc requests for complex information and hypothetical “what-if” pricing, we needed to know who was behind them. It was apparent someone in the organization was formulating a new vision, and we needed to find out whom as soon as possible. Until we were confident in our understanding of the vision to which we were being asked to contribute, it made no sense for the team to spend more time and resources responding to possibly unapproved and probably unfunded requests. I didn’t think the team’s current whack-a-mole approach would result in a positive outcome.
What Was The Source Of This New Vision?
• A competitor planting seeds?
• A newly hired executive with fresh ideas from a previous company or industry?
• The IT organization trying to push their internal customer organization to new frontiers?
The possibilities seemed to go on and on.
A recent CEB study concludes that due to the vast amount of online information available, approximately half of B2B buyers’ due diligence has been completed before any first formal sales contact (HBR-The End of Solution Sales). Prospects know what the solution to their problem looks like and how they might achieve their vision long before any formal sales contact with a potential solution provider. In this case, even though this team was the incumbent, on-site vendor, there was no assurance they were receiving preferred access to the executive decision makers. After all, they had been hired midway through the previous vendor’s contract;was the same thing happening to them?
I recommended the team pause and briefly step back with this customer, treating it as if it were a new account opportunity. I asked the team to create a formal sales project plan to acquire the necessary information. Before responding to additional customer requests, they needed to thoroughly understand the answers to these three critical questions:
It’s So Simple. How Does It Still Happen?
This is a back-to-basics issue that is too often overlooked and, I suspect, adds greatly to the recent downward trend in forecasted sales losses, now greater than fifty percent. See CSO Insights 2014 Sales Performance Study
Easy on-line access to relevant, comprehensive information, customer request complexity, decreased salesperson competency, and first-line sales manager to sales representative management ratios all contribute to the potential lack of understanding of the client/prospect's vision. Difficulty gaining appointments with executives responsible for shaping the future vision often compounds the problem.
Many times, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the strategic significance of the sales opportunity to the buyer and the sellers’ lack of knowledge of the customer’s vision. The teams often seem to know the least about the largest, most strategic opportunities. I suspect the breadth and complexity of the most mission-critical sales opportunities can overwhelm even experienced pursuit teams. No account team will win a significant sale though without a thorough understanding of the customer’s goals and vision for the future. You must discover whose vision it is and how and where it was developed. A stringent, formal internal sales process that qualifies sales opportunities for resource investment may be the best method to ensure your sales teams have a thorough understanding of their customer’s vision.
If your team can’t identify the true buyers, and motivate them to share their vision with you, stop your sales investment and lose early. Use the time to re-invest in relationship-building activities to develop new sales opportunities.
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.
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.