I want to take a moment to look at what some of the best sales research has been telling us and how this runs contrary to what you may expect. Declaring upfront, some of this research is from a prior employer of mine (CEB, now Gartner), but I am receiving no personal benefits other than those of sharing knowledge with you all!
Be liked and you’ll never want
How much do you agree?
- Customers are more informed than ever and generally know what they want. My job is to show how I fit with what they want.
- Customers don’t want to be sold to, they want to purchase from people they like
- More choice is better for the customer
- Salespeople must be flexible in responding to a customer’s direction (even if they disagree with it)
These are common conceptions in relationship based or responsive sales approaches, which focus on: i) understanding the customer by asking ‘discovery; questions, ii) being responsive to a customer's direction, and iii) providing customers with copious information to make a decision (1). Classically, organisations have looked for good ‘relationship builder’ salespeople – who are amiable and get along well with others – and teach them the above tactics.
Notably, about 80% of all salespeople do agree with these tactics (1) and often self-identify as a relationship builder.
The trouble is that it’s getting harder and harder to sell to businesses. The last decade has seen a rise in unexpectedly long and stalled sales cycles, with 84% of customers saying it takes much longer than they expect to make a buying decision (2). They are also second guessing more often, in about 40% of B2B sales (1). When they second guess, they are falling back on the consensus of others, with the average number of stakeholders involved in a sale rising 1.4x in the last decade (2).
Customers have more information and options available to them than ever, but that isn't making the decision easier for them. In fact, the average responsive sale results in an 18% decrease in purchasing ease and a 50% increase in purchase regret for customers (1).
A fear of losing amiability in a relationship, leads to putting almost all decisions in the customer’s hands often with little direction. Let’s look at the example below.
There is at least 8 steps in here, mostly led by the customer, which leaves them feeling like they did a lot of work. After all this there is usually still no real value delivered to them – leading to a higher chance of purchase regret. So what should we look to do instead?
Instead lead with Insight
Rather than focusing on equipping customers with information and options or on relationship building, instead focus efforts on making the buying decision easier for customers – shifting from responding to a customer to constructively and credibly prescribing to a customer.
Research shows that a prescriptive sales approach increases purchasing ease by 86% and decreases purchasing regret by 37% for customers (1). But how do you be prescriptive without being too pushy? The secret lies in leading a sale with insight.
While customers are approaching salespeople later in their purchasing journey then ever before (2), equipped with more information – the failure of the responsive sale shows us that they are no better at sorting through the chaff to determine the unique insight in all of that information. That is what an insight-led (aka. ‘challenger’) salesperson excels at (3). They are adept at identifying and communicating unique insight, fearless in the defense of their insight and comfortable generating constructive tension.
In a study profiling the success of different sales behaviours, 40% of high-performing salespeople were identified as challengers, but only 7% as relationship builders (3). So while the fear is being more prescriptive will lose a sale, research tells us it will have the opposite effect. Now, let's look at the 3 things that challengers do, that no other salesperson does.
Finding unique insight and “teaching” it
While traditionally ‘discovery’ questions are used to build a relationship (assuming that every sale is ‘unique’), a challenger will focus more on preparation. They look for insights they can ‘teach’ customers to demonstrate credibility, recognising that there are similarities across businesses.
But how do we ‘teach’ the customer when they know more about their business? Apart from this being a perfect example of a responsive sales reaction, it misses the point entirely. Challengers are not seeking to be an ‘expert’ on their customers business but do have an informed opinion backed by research, which forms their unique insight.
First let’s be clear on what is and isn’t a unique insight. To say that a unique insight is “90% of small businesses fail for lack of cashflow” is not a unique insight! This is a symptom. Dig deeper for a true diagnosis. All of these businesses will be terrible at commercial relationship management – focus research here to identify unique insights to share with customers.
Where do I find this research? As a professional services provider, you will have dealt with dozens, if not 100s of client businesses, many of whom have congruent circumstances and problems. Ask yourself what can you take from one business and apply to another?
This involves looking deeper into your clients businesses for a case study. You are probably adept at finding what is wrong with your client’s business, but what about what is right? What are they doing better than anyone else that you can help other clients learn from?
Finally, hopefully, you are subscribed to publications of relevance to your customers. These may be industry specific, or more to do with business processes or strategy. Academic research can extend on your experiences with clients, and provide you useful data and statistics to use to demonstrate credibility.
Focus on tailoring your message for resonance
With the realisation that many of your customers face the same problems, it may be tempting to rehash the same scripted insight over and over again. But challengers realise it is not only about what you teach, but how you teach it. You have to tailor your communication for best resonance with that customer.
This may be as simple as tailoring terminology across industries – but try to not only to consider the circumstances, but also the communication style of the customer. How do they communicate? Via stories? Via data?
Having a communication style framework can be useful here. There are countless out there. I commonly use the social styles model (4), which is simple yet effective. Find one that works for you.
A good time to assess how that customer communicates is during opening pleasantries. Try scripting an opening to identify how that customer likes to communicate, and tailor your style and message to theirs.
Take control to close the sale
This tends to be the hardest thing for most salespeople to do as it brings us closest to the fear of being the pushy salesperson. But, taking control and leading a customer through a decision is key to purchasing ease. There are three common mistakes made here that are worth mentioning.
First mistake – not preparing for a negotiation before walking into the room. As Sun Tzu says “every war is won or lost before it begins”. If you don't have a plan before you walk into a closing conversation, you will probably walk out with a bad deal or no deal at all (5). A few elements to prepare before you walk in are summarised in the graphic above.
Second mistake – ‘requesting’ or ‘apologizing’ for your requirements. Use prescriptive language to describe what is required next and why. Especially, never apologize for price complaints. Be open to explaining your price and referencing your unique value in authoritative language. Apologising opens the door for prolonged negotiation or "walk out the door" tactics (5).
Third mistake – failure to set next steps and leaving a sale ‘hanging’. Ideally, you will be able to get a signed agreement within or shortly after a meeting. From Practice Ignition’s data, the average time to acceptance is 22 hours. If this is not possible, ensure you have a timeline and understand the decision process. What are their next steps? Who has to get involved? When will a decision be made? What information is required in the meantime?
Final notes – Lead with insight, close with prescription
Succeeding in the increasingly difficult B2B sales space requires a refocus on making purchasing decisions easier for customers, not just "building relationships".
Or instead you can listen to Willy – ìBe liked and you'll never wan't – but there is a reason why the book is called The Death of a Salesman…