Selling Process Improvements

If you follow college football, you were treated to a thrilling championship game this week in which the University of Alabama came back in the second half to win coach Nick Saban’s fifth national title in nine years. The subtext to that incredible run is that Saban does not focus on winning per se; instead he pays close attention to what’s known as “The Process”, and the wins take care of themselves.

What does this have to do with selling? In B2B selling, your fundamental task is to improve your customers’ business performance. Just as a football team’s chances of winning rest on the collection of individual processes they follow before and during the game, your customer’s business success depends on how well—how effectively and efficiently—they execute their collected processes. Improve the process, and you improve the business.

Every business is an agglomeration of processes (production processes, selling and marketing processes, accounting processes, IT processes, and the list goes on), and all these processes are structured in the same way: they apply work to inputs to produce outputs that someone values. Like cogs in the cash flow engine, a firm’s overall profitability and cash flow depend on the cumulative and interacting effectiveness and efficiency of all the individual processes that it undertakes to produce value for its customers.

All the various sales philosophies or methodologies, including consultative selling, solution selling, challenger selling, or insert-catchy-name-here selling, fundamentally rest on the seller’s ability to improve at least one of their customers’ processes for producing value. You can’t solve problems, produce profits, or even generate useful insights unless you have a deep and complete understanding of the processes you affect.

When you do have that deep and complete understanding of how your customers do things, you command immediate respect from all the relevant levels in the buying process, from technical buyers all the way up to the C-Level. You can also find many more points of impact where you can connect your solution, and as a result you can generate and quantify higher value for your customers. You may even be able to add value by being an ambassador between your buyers’ problem-owners and process-owners.

Analyzing the process

So, what’s the process of business process improvement selling? It begins with peeling back the layers to expose the anatomy of any process. Every process consists of five things: inputs, work, outputs, constraints, and value.

  • Can you reduce inputs, such as labor, money, and time?
  • Can you eliminate or reduce steps and activities of the work necessary in the process? Can you identity and address problems, opportunities, changes and risks that the process-owner faces?
  • Can you improve the quality or quantity of the outputs? What process/operational measurements does the customer pay attention to?
  • Can you remove, get around or mitigate constraints, such as physical, technological or regulatory limits?
  • What is the financial and/or personal value of your answers to the above questions? What financial measures does the customer pay attention to?


You can’t outsource process knowledge

If you work for a large company, it’s tempting to think that a lot of this work will—or should—be done for you by your marketing or sales enablement functions, but there is no substitute for your personal mastery of the appropriate process knowledge. It’s the only way you will be able to be in control of credible and meaningful sales conversations, and especially to spot opportunities for improvement that they buyer may not be aware of.

You need to read all the relevant material you can find about the specific process, spend a lot of time questioning and listening to process owners, and most importantly, “going to the gemba”, which is lean-speak for actually visiting where the work is done to get a first-hand understanding of the work itself.

Everybody wants to create value for customers, but not everybody digs into the details of how their customers create value for their customers. Selling process improvements is not a substitute for whichever insert-catchy-name-here sales methodology you’re using, it’s an added process that will help you do it right. It may mean more work on your part, but just as in football, if you pay attention to the process, the wins will take care of themselves.

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Listening skills - Questioning skills - Sales

Sales Conversations that Flow: The Art of NOT Asking Questions

I love sales questions. In my training classes, I urge B2B salespeople to ask more questions, and I teach them ways to get the buyer to open up about their problems, opportunities, challenges and risks, and to get mutually involved in devising a solution. Questions are one of the most powerful sales tools you have.

But sometimes you can fall in love with a tool and overuse it, losing effectiveness and efficiency as a result. What’s the problem with too many questions? You run the risk that the buyer may feel too “led” or even manipulated, or at least not feel like they have been listened to. And, because you are so good at using questions to uncover what you’re looking for, you may close out opportunities to discover what you’re not looking for.

The most efficient and effective sales call I ever conducted took place in a boardroom in Atlanta where I met with a company’s SVP of Worldwide Sales and several of his direct reports. I had barely set the stage with my value proposition when he cut me off: “Let me tell you what I want”, he said, and launched into a 60-minute soliloquy about his sales force and its struggle to adapt to a changing market. My participation consisted mainly of nodding, interjecting an occasional probe, and trying to take good notes. By the time he was done, George had answered every question in my sales call plan, I had checked off every one of my call actions, and we struck a deal on my largest sale to date.

If there is such a ratio as revenue per word spoken, it was easily the best sales call I’ve ever made. It flowed from start to finish, and the best part was, the sale was completely the customer’s idea! It reminded me of Napoleon’s advice to “Never interrupt the enemy when he is making a mistake”, except in this case it’s “Never interrupt the buyer when they are selling themselves.” By staying out of his way, I let George have my way.

That call was extreme, of course, but it is definitely worthwhile to strive to talk less and sell more. Good salespeople accomplish this by asking more questions; great salespeople do it by asking fewer but better questions, and by going beyond questions to achieve a similar flow.

How does achieving that flow help you sell? First, people like to talk about themselves, so once you get them started, you may create a momentum of self-disclosure which can produce broader and deeper insight into their needs. Second, people like to feel important, so by being in charge of the conversation (or at least feeling like they’re in charge) can make them feel good. Finally, when they tell you the story you want them to hear, they own it, and they’re much more likely to stick to their commitments.

How to encourage conversational flow

Conversational flow doesn’t just happen; you can stimulate your customer’s willingness to talk by what you do before and during the call.

Before the call

Avoiding too many questions during the call does not mean skipping questions altogether during your preparation. The research and planning you do will help earn the customer’s trust without which they won’t open up. Besides, it’s the only way to know if the customer’s conversation is producing the answers you need. By knowing what you need from the conversation, you will have all these mental hooks on which to organize the incoming information.

It also does not mean that you should strive for a stream-of-consciousness type of flow, in which you get the customer to talk about anything that enters their mind. The most effective sales conversations have a particular structure—even if it’s not obvious. That flow is the SCR story structure: They begin by describing their situation, bringing out their conflicts, and arriving at a resolution.

During the call

There are two general ways to encourage the customer to take control of the conversation and run with it. First, you motivate them to talk and set the frame by carefully planning your call opening, and then you use following skills to encourage and channel the flow.

The first few minutes of the sales call are crucial to achieving conversational flow. Your goal is to get the customer eager to talk about what you want them to talk about. For this, you have three tools: value proposition, action statement, and agenda.

Your value proposition and action together deliver the lean communication imperative of ATQ: Answer the Question. In every meeting, the customer/prospect wants to know: “What do you want me to do, and why should I do it?” By being very upfront about it early, you dispel suspicion and jointly agree on the reason for the meeting. In the unlikely case you’re wrong, the customer will let you know immediately and you will have an opportunity to reset or pivot as necessary.

If the value proposition and action together set the destination, your written agenda is the road map that structures the conversation. In most cases, you’re going to be very explicit, even to the point of enumerating and explaining the agenda items and offering to add any issues they might have. I would estimate that a third of the calls I go on, I rarely need to use direct questions, because the customer sees the logic of the structure and willingly participates.

Even if the customer takes control and follows their own agenda, your effort hasn’t been wasted. When George began talking, I did not interrupt him; I simply slid my agenda across the table. He absent-mindedly straightened it out in front of him and kept talking—but within a couple of minutes, it became obvious that he was glancing at it and following the points I had prepared.

As the customer talks, your principal task is to listen intently and stay out of the buyer’s way if they’re following the right path, or nudge and gently re-direct them when they’re veering off. You can use encourages, probes and reflections, all fundamental following skills which you can brush up on here, or if you’re not already familiar with, you can pick up with a book or a class on active listening.

The hardest thing to do, especially when the customer is talking non-stop, is to keep the incoming information organized enough to know whether you’re getting what you need to accomplish your call purpose. That’s where your sales call plan with its prepared question list comes in handy, to help you unobtrusively check off which have been answered. I’ve also found the Cornell note-taking system to be enormously useful for maintaining situational awareness, and for recording keywords that will allow you to go back and revisit areas that need more attention.

Candidly, most salespeople aren’t ready for the ideas in this article, because they still haven’t learned how to ask enough good questions. But if you’ve already reached this stage, you can kick up your skills one more notch by learning how to go beyond questions.

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Pain or Gain: Your Sales Approach Matters

As we saw in our last post, people differ in their approach to motivation: some are more focused on prevention goals and strategies (moving away from pain), and others on promotion goals and strategies (moving towards gain). When you adapt your sales approach to fit theirs, they will be more engaged, understand your message easier, and feel better about their decision. And the best part is that once you learn how to do it, it’s not that difficult to do.

First step: Figure out their dominant mode

Since it’s so important to properly align your sales approach to the other person’s prevention or promotion focus, you have to be able to quickly size them up and figure out which approach to use. Fortunately, there are numerous clues you can glean from what they talk about, the words they use, and even their nonverbal behavior.

What are their goals? Ask them what they want to accomplish and what success will look like when they make this decision. Promoters are going to talk about taking advantage of opportunities, of their aspirations and hopes for the future, and what they want to achieve.  Preventers will talk about known problems and risks, about what they’re concerned about, about what they must avoid or prevent. You can also accomplish the same thing by asking them how they made similar decisions in the past.

What alternatives are they considering? Promoters like to look at a lot of alternatives, and are open to new and different ways of doing things. Preventers are more limited, and more conventional. Also, promoters want the best, preventers want “good enough”.

What is their time horizon? Promoters move quickly and eagerly. Preventers prefer to take their time and don’t like quick deadlines.

“I” vs. “We” goals. Promoters are more concerned with individual achievement and looking good. Preventers focus on group achievement.

How prepared and organized are they? Promoters say “let’s do it”, preventers say “let’s plan it”.

Attention to detail. Promoters are more big picture and abstract. Preventers pay attention to detail and like to consider concrete features and benefits.

Promoters move quickly and get excited when they consider success. Preventers are slower and more guarded.

Just one more caveat before proceeding: Don’t forget to assess yourself, because you are probably relying on one approach regardless of who you’re selling to. You probably know yourself well enough, but just in case, here’s a questionnaire you can use.

Second step: Tailor your approach

There are three general ways you can apply prevention-promotion focus in your sales approach: you can adapt to their mode, prime them to adapt to yours, or hedge your bets by using both approaches.

  1. Adapt your approach to suit their dominant focus.

Frame their benefits appropriately. Sales is basically about one thing: you address gaps to improve outcomes. So, the frame choice is quite simple: do you talk more about eliminating or preventing a gap, or about the outcome produced by doing so? The exact same benefit can be expressed in different ways. For example, a client of mine sells sentiment analysis software that can be used to monitor morale, which either cuts turnover or improves retention. Another example: are you lowering fuel costs, or improving fuel efficiency?

Choose which benefits to stress. Most products and services deliver multiple benefits, so you can prioritize some over others. For example, toothpaste can either give you a brighter smile or prevent tooth decay.

Emphasize some questions over others. Challenge and cost questions bring out consequences of not fixing their current situation. You can ask more of those during your sales call with a preventer; ask more resolution questions of a promoter.

Tell different stories. Inspirational tales and testimonials about your other customers who received benefit from your solutions work well with promoters, but cautionary tales about those who did not solve their problems will resonate more with preventers.

Options. Give more options to promoters; limit them for preventers.

New vs. same. When you’re summarizing your offer, emphasize what’s new and different for promoters, but stress what’s tried and true—what’s not different—for preventers.

Abstract v. concrete. For promoters, emphasize the abstract feel-good outcomes, and paint a visionary picture of what success looks like; for preventers, emphasize concrete, measurable features and outcomes. You can also vary how you present competing alternatives. Promoters like to hear all about one offer, then the next. Preventers prefer to see their specific features and benefits rated side by side.

Nonverbal behavior. Without going overboard, it helps to match the general tenor of the other person’s body language. Use more expansive and animated gestures and vocal variety with promoters; tone them down for preventers.

  1. Prime their focus temporarily

Some products or services can only be framed in one way; they are either promotion or prevention focused by their nature. You don’t sell a Porsche by stressing safety and fuel economy, nor do you sell a Volvo by touting its sexy lines. If what you sell only makes sense to be sold one way, the good news is that you can actually “prime” the other person to adopt a prevention or promotion focus, at least for a short time by bringing to mind the appropriate examples.

One of the best ways is through asking the right kind of situation questions. If you ask about what’s important to them personally, you can either ask about their ambitions and aspirations, or you can ask about their duties and obligations. When you ask about what they want to accomplish, you can either ask about what they’re trying to achieve or improve, or you can ask about what problems and risks they’re concerned about. The old “magic wand” question works great to prime a promotion focus: “If you had  magic wand and could design the perfect solution, what would it look like?” To get them into a prevention frame of mind, ask them, “On a scale of 1-10, how well is the current system working for you?”

  1. Use both approaches – the “persuasive scissors” approach

If you’re speaking to a roomful of people, chances are good that you will have a mixture. Make sure your presentation or conversation covers both approaches. I call this the persuasive scissors approach, because both blades work together towards the same end. Many persuasive presentation structures are well designed for this. For example, the problem/solution structure begins by describing the problem and quantifying its consequences, and ends with a description of the benefits to be gained by solving it. Even Martin Luther King’s Dream speech was structured this way.


I believe that motivating sales reps is a lot like selling: you analyze the situation, ask a lot of questions, uncover gaps, and then get buy-in for a plan to fill them.  So, much of what you’ve read in this article can help you with your reps as  well.

The importance of regulatory fit means that you shouldn’t coach all your subordinates the same way.[1] If you doubt the hold that one’s pre-pro focus can have, consider the results of an experiment involving professional soccer players in Germany. After being tested to determine their focus, they were given the opportunity to shoot five penalty shots during one of their practices. Some were told their task aspiration was to score at least three times. Others were told their obligation was not to miss more than twice. Even these professionals saw a 30% difference in their performance, depending on whether their instructions fit with their prevention or promotion orientation. It was especially marked for prevention-focused players, who saw almost a 100% difference[2]. As a sales manager, it should not take too much imagination to figure out how to apply this to coaching your reps.

When you give performance reviews, or conduct after-action reviews promoters respond better to hearing what’s going well, but preventers do better upon hearing what they’re falling short on. By the same token, pep talks work well for promoters but leave preventers cold.[3]


[1] It reminds me of what John Wooden said: “Fairness is giving all people the treatment they earn and deserve. It doesn’t mean treating everyone alike.”

[2] This statistic was reported in Focus: Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, by Heidi Grant Halvorson, which is the best book for a general audience. I highly recommend it, especially since it contains a lot of other useful ways to apply focus to your own goals and motivations.

[3] There is some good stuff in this article by Halvorsen and Higgins in Harvard Business Review: Do You Play to Win—Or Not to Lose?

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It matters which road you take

Pleasure or Pain? Using the Yin and Yang of Motivation to Sell More (Or Reduce Your Losses)

If there is just one thing I can be sure of after a quarter century of studying and teaching sales and persuasive techniques, it’s that people do things for their own reasons, not yours. What you think might be an airtight reason to buy your product might leave the other person cold, and reasons that you don’t think would carry any weight might be the most important thing in their world.

Sales is about getting people to change; that’s a given. But the question we consider in this article is: Does the direction of change matter? When someone is mulling a decision whether to buy a product or adopt a proposal, they can think of the positive benefits they’ll get, the consequences of not acting, or some combination of the two. If you’re the one on the selling side of that decision, does it matter how you frame it? Does the direction of change matter? In other words, are people more likely to act or buy when moving away from pain, or toward gain?

The short answer is: it’s complicated.

On average, as I’ve written before, there is a lot of power in stressing the negative. According to prospect theory, an idea which won Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize in Economics, potential losses outweigh gains on average, which means that people are more likely to act or take a risk to avoid a loss than to secure the equivalent gain. So it makes sense to emphasize the negative during your sales conversation, at least initially.

But it’s also possible to drown crossing a river that only averages three feet deep. Just because deciders tend to shun negatives, does not mean that they all shun negatives, or that they do so at the same rate as everyone else. In fact, other research has found that people definitely differ in the way they view risks and benefits. Some are promotion-focused, which means that they keep their eyes on the prize, while others are prevention-focused, which means that they are more concerned with avoiding risk.

In greater detail, here are a few major differences between the two orientations that are relevant to your sales challenge:

  • “Pros” view products holistically and respond to abstract benefits; “pres” focus on detailed features and concrete benefits.
  • Pros care more about individual aspirations; pres care more about team obligations.
  • Pros prefer “BOB”: pres prefer “MON”[1]
  • When pros like what they’re hearing, they get excited and act happy; when pres do, they feel relief and act calm.
  • Pros rely a lot on how a decision feels; pres rely on the reasons for their choice. (sizzle v. steak)
  • As they get closer to a decision, pros are eager, pres are vigilant.

Tory Higgins of Columbia University, who literally wrote the book on this idea (Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works), reports on an experiment in which participants were given the opportunity to choose between a mug or a pen. But before they made their choice, they were given instructions about how to make the choice. Half were told to think about what they would gain by choosing either the mug or the pen, and half were told to think about what they would lose by their choice. In addition, they had previously been assessed to identify the “pres” and the “pros”. Almost all chose the mug. Next, they were given the opportunity to buy the mug with their own money. There was no difference between the two groups in how much they offered for the mug—in other words, whether they focused on the gains or the pains did not affect how much they were willing to pay.

What did matter—a lot—was the “fit”[2] between the instructions and the orientation. Those who received instructions that lined up with their preferred mode (the pros who were told to focus on the gains and the pres who were told to focus on the losses) paid almost 70% more for the same mug than those whose instructions clashed with their preferred approach!

What this means for you is that if you know which orientation your buyers favor, you can tailor your sales approach and your messaging to be more effective for the specific individual and pump up your win rate. Or, to put it another way, not knowing the difference means that you may be leaving some money on the table.

Which of those two previous sentences did more to perk up your interest? Here’s one more test: when you read product ratings for a potential purchase, do you first read the 5-star ratings or the 1-star ratings? If you read the 5-star ratings first, you have a promotion focus; otherwise you have a prevention focus. The point is that your own orientation matters, because it affects how you sell.

How does it work?

First, it’s important to realize that adjusting your sales approach to fit with the buyer’s motivational orientation will help enhance attitudes they already have towards your solution; it’s not a magic bullet that can somehow flip their choice if they’re strongly opposed to it. But most buying decisions are not clear-cut in one direction or other (if they were, why would they need you?) and in that situation alignment or fit can help tip the scales in your favor for three reasons.

Engagement: First, the buyer gets more engaged in listening to the message. You can’t influence someone who’s not paying attention, and people are more  likely not only pay attention but to engage more deeply into your message when it fits their dominant mode.

Understanding: It’s also helpful when people understand your message, and people find it easier to process information when it fits.

Feeling: Decision feels more or less “right”, and if it’s true that people decide emotionally first and then rationalize it later, that’s certainly one side of the equation you want to be  on.

Just to add one more complication to the mix: people are not always consistent in their approach. For one thing, they may have different focuses in different areas of their life. For another, people can be primed to adopt a different approach temporarily. And, more relevant to sales, a lot depends on what they’re deciding on. When you’re buying a fire extinguisher you’re probably not thinking of how good it’s going to look on your wall, for example.

So, what does this all mean for your sales approach? There are two ways to get the answer. First, that’s a topic I’ll cover in my next post. Second, you can tune in to a free webinar I’m running next week on the Sales Experts Channel, Wednesday, June 7 at 5pm eastern.

[1] “Best Of Breed” vs. “Meets Our Needs” i.e. best vs good enough

[2] More technically, they call it regulatory fit.

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