Persuasive communication - Sales

Selling Values not Value

Most consultative sales approaches, my own included, rely on the salesperson being able to sell the economic value of their solution, by connecting the solution to measurable financial and operational results. The value the customer uses to make the decision is extrinsic, and usually measurable in some way. In some cases, intangible or “soft” benefits that are not directly measurable can be important factors in the customer’s decision, even if they may need to find creative ways to justify these benefits numerically.

But even if we include these intangibles, we’re still dealing with the WIFM model, in which people are looking for some extrinsic reward or benefit in exchange for a favorable decision. Value is expressed in extrinsic and transactional terms.

Yet people also make decisions based on values, even to the extent that they will act against their own economic best interests, or willingly undergo pain or sacrifice in pursuit of some larger goal than extrinsic reward. Persuaders who can enlist the power of values can tap into the powerful force of intrinsic motivation.

In The Art of Woo, there’s a story of how Bono approached Senator Jesse Helms to enlist his support for African debt relief so that those nations could devote more resources towards combatting AIDS. He began his pitch with a data-filled explanation of the problem, (this approach had worked very well with Bill Gates), but quickly saw that Helms was losing interest. Bono, a born-again Christian who knew Helms was also, switched to the language of the Bible and quoted Scripture to make his case. By the end of the meeting, Helms rose to his feet to embrace him, and went on to help raise $435 million for the cause.

Leaders and organizations have long used values to instill commitment instead of mere compliance:  to guide and motivate their behaviors and decisions without needing to be constantly monitored, directed and rewarded. Some might say that’s the key difference between leadership and management.

As a salesperson, connecting your idea or solution to your customer’s values can be tremendously powerful: it can show a deep understanding of who they are; it can get you willing champions who will sell your idea internally when you’re not there; it can even win over those who stand to lose out in the short term if your idea is adopted. Best of all, it’s a gift to them, because it helps people bring out the best in themselves. If there is such a thing as a perpetual motion machine of persuasion, that’s it.

But values-based selling can be like TNT, very powerful yet tricky to use.  It’s tricky because as an outsider it can be difficult to find out what the customer’s governing values are, and clumsiness in your approach can easily backfire on you.

You have to really understand your customer to know what they truly value. It’s not enough to go to their website and copy down their vision and values statements—too often these are the stuff of plaques and platitudes that no one takes seriously; I used to refer to them in my sales training classes until I quickly realized that most of the participants couldn’t even pick out their own corporate values statements in a multiple choice question.  In some companies they’re actually held in contempt, and woe to the salesperson who tries to spout them.

In addition, trying to combine values with value can backfire on you. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of a marketer of a fire safety video who tested an identity appeal against an incentive appeal. The first question was “Would you like to see the film for possible purchase for your educational programs?” The second question was “Would your firefighters prefer a large electric popcorn popper or an excellent set of chef’s carving knives as a thank-you for reviewing the film?” The first question received unanimous “yeses”; the second question was discontinued after receiving the first two replies: “Do you think we’d use a fire safety program because of some #*$@% popcorn popper?” Because the firefighters valued their role as safety educators, they resented the implication that they might need external rewards to recommend the film.

HOW TO SELL ON VALUES

To use values as part of your sales message without getting burned, it’s critical to know your audience and then to apply just the right touch to your message.

Know your audience: how to discover their values

  • Start with their written values. Sometimes they are what people really value, and it can help to at least open the conversation and improve your questions.
  • Research beyond the customer’s web site; check out articles written by others, speeches by their top executives, etc.
  • Ask your champions and coaches: if you want to try something in a presentation or a sales call, run it by one of them first to see what they think.
  • Ask and listen: when you’re asking your questions to uncover their business and personal goals, listen for stories, examples and words that indicate personal or corporate values. If you don’t hear any, you can probe a little deeper, by asking whya certain goal is important to them. Listen carefully for things such as:
    • Why and how were previous important decisions made?
    • Who are their heroes and why?
    • What do they measure and reward?
  • Get them out of the office. In social situations, people are much more apt to open up about their personal motivations and values.

Apply the right touch

Even if you get their values absolutely spot-on, you may provoke pushback by tying your message too explicitly. People tend to resent being reminded about their obligations to higher values from outsiders, so it’s better to get them to think of these values on their own and make the connections themselves. Fortunately, the process you go through in discovering their values has the added benefit of bringing those values to the top of their minds as you’re talking to them.

During your situation questioning, it’s appropriate to get them to talk about what’s important to them. You can ask about their business goals, and when told, go a step further and ask why a particular goal is important to them.

If you have a good enough relationship with someone, it’s easier to be more transparent in your appeal, so you can be more direct by getting your coach or champion to make the appeal for you.

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