Recently, I had the privilege of working with the global sales team of a large manufacturing company based in California. They are in a very competitive industry that is dominated by a tough, savvy Goliath, and they have to scrap and scrape every single day for every single fraction of a point of market share. Their CEO kicked off the meeting with a phrase that resonated with me and led to the idea for this post. He said, “Every morning when I wake up I thank God for ____. They force us to become better and better in almost every way.”
Competition has a way of doing that to people. Having a tough competitor reminds you every day that you have to give your best or you will lose. It also makes you realize that when you have done your best and prevailed, that tomorrow your best will not be good enough. Competition is what fuels your motivation to step out of your comfort zone and push your perceived limits. Competitors keep you hungry by constantly striving to take the food off your table, and they supply just the right amount of fear that keeps your edge and drives your growth.
Deliberate practice, which is the only way to achieve mastery of any field, requires an expert coach who can quickly spot what you need to improve, get you out of your comfort zone, and supply immediate meaningful feedback on your performance. In this sense, a tough competitor can be your most effective coach.
Every area of life contains examples of competitive rivalries that made the participants greater: Ali and Frazier, Jobs and Gates, Adams and Jefferson. Who knows if each of those would have achieved the same heights if they did not have the other constantly pushing them harder and harder?
As salespeople—and just plain humans—we prefer for things to go as easily and smoothly as possible. We like it when our competitors aren’t too tough and our customers are not too demanding. When that happens, it’s easy to settle into cruise control and take life easy. Unexpected challenges are viewed as problems to be overcome so that we can get back to our comfortable lives. But that’s a sign of a fixed mindset that mires us in mediocrity.
When we have a growth mindset that views challenges as feedback that clarifies the path to improvement, there are very few limits to what we can achieve. How do you know when you truly have a growth mindset? When you thank God every day for your toughest competitors.
Any salesperson has had this experience: a prospect or existing customer ignores your efforts to engage for months, and then suddenly one morning you get a call or an email when they need something right away. In an instant, you go from a total nonentity to the most important person in your prospect’s life. Or maybe you’re giving a presentation about your product, when suddenly an audience member perks up and says “tell me more about that,” and what you thought was a minor detail might be the missing piece to the big sale.
These familiar experiences underscore the importance of the pull principle in lean communication for sales. In lean thinking, pull is the idea that the customer dictates the rate at which the product is produced and delivered. You need it in selling as well, because no matter how well prepared you are, you will never know exactly how the customer is going to react.
Using pull in selling is about three things: timing, credibility, and responsive listening.
Timing. In lean thinking, pull means that the customer dictates the rate and timing of production, and the goal is to produce only what the customer needs when they need it. Transferring that idea to communication, it means that you provide just the right information the listener needs when they need it. Of course, to make this work, you have to be extremely responsive. When they want their questions answered, they want them answered right away. As Andy Paul says, responsiveness = information + speed.
Extending that idea to sales conversations, it means that you don’t “sell” until the customer is ready to buy. For example, if you lead with a description of your product and the benefits it brings, the customer may not be ready yet to hear that. What Churchill said about learning, “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught” applies equally to buying. Most people don’t like to be sold, but they do like to buy. That’s another way of saying that they like to be in control of the rate of information they receive which helps them arrive at a decision. Give the customer the sense of control that will make them comfortable with their decision by using pull. Don’t “Always Be Closing”, but always be ready to close.
Credibility. Pull is not simply about passively responding to your customer’s questions or requests for information. You can use pull in the other direction as well, by asking questions to gently pull the customer’s thoughts in certain directions. Who does your customer find to be the most credible person in the world? Themselves. Whose opinion does the customer trust above all others? Their own. How do you get them to express that opinion? By asking questions.
That means that if you can get them to tell you the story you want them to hear, they will believe it because they told it. For example, if they acknowledge they have a problem but don’t seem to recognize the impact that problem has on their business, you have a perfect right—even an obligation—to ask questions to focus on the costs. In fact, questions can be more lean that direct statements. If you tell them directly about the consequences and they accept your statement, of course that is extremely efficient. But more often than not, you tell them about the consequences and they don’t believe you, or they push back, or they ask for clarification, or they agree superficially but don’t stick to their agreement later when they’ve had a chance to think about it, in which case it can become very inefficient. But ask someone a question, watch the lightbulb come on in their mind as they ponder the answer, and you not only get the effect you want faster, but it’s stickier.
Responsive listening. Just being a good listener is not enough. You can be the best listener in the room but it won’t do you any good unless the customer realizes it. In other words, your listening has to be real, and it has to be perceived by the customer as real. That means that in addition to listening closely to what the customer is saying and not saying, you also have to indicate physically that you are paying attention, reflect what you’re hearing and probe when appropriate.
But more importantly, you have to respond meaningfully, which in lean communication means that you actually do something with what you’ve heard. Responsive listening is about sharing the second conversation that is going on inside your head, so that they know they are being heard and their words are having an effect on your thinking. For example, if the customer mentions a concern, don’t simply use that as a cue to deploy your objection-handling algorithm; tell them how you will handle the issue or how you will accommodate that need. When they know their words are having an effect, they will likely open up even more.
How important are relationships in today’s fast-paced, information-rich and ultra-connected world? Traditionalists contend that human nature does not change, and people will always prefer to buy from people they like, no matter how much the world has changed.
Others will tell you that selling has changed, and relationship selling is dead. The authors of The Challenger Sale, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, tell us in a Harvard Business Review article that “Selling is Not About Relationships.” They tell us that Relationship Builders are not only the least effective of the five types of sellers, but they become less and less successful as the complexity of the sale increases.
I believe that not only is relationship selling not dead, it is more important than ever—but the basis of those relationships has changed. It’s not about friendship (although that does not hurt), it’s about TRUE relationships.
Keep in mind that buyers face a more complicated decision process than ever for various reasons. Products and services are more complex than ever, because they contain and rely on increasing amounts of information technology, and that technology changes more rapidly, leading to a wider and more confusing set of choices for every purchase. The sheer amount of readily accessible information might seem to be the panacea for all these ills, but it usually adds to the problem as it becomes harder and harder to sift valuable insights out of the waste. With more and more information funneling through the same attention span and working memory limitations, the quality of information sources becomes paramount.
If you know the right questions to ask, one trusted and credible source can provide more valuable and less risk than of hours of searching dozens of websites and hundreds of pages of technical data and misleading or untargeted marketing information. And if you don’t know the right questions to ask, a trusted source can be even more valuable.
Here’s a simple example: when I decided last year to begin recording training and marketing videos, I had to start from scratch. I googled, searched, read, compared, scratched my head for hours, and at the end was still unsure of what software to buy and how to set up my studio. Then I called John Spence, who told me more in a half hour than the hours I had spent before calling him.
So, I think it’s self-evident that relationships such as that can and do matter as much as they always have in B2B sales. But the basis of that relationship probably has changed, or maybe just needs reminding. Don’t confuse a relationship with a friendship. They can overlap, of course, but in business the old saying applies: “If you want a friend, get a dog.” Today, a valuable professional sales relationship is a TRUE relationship, based on Trust, Reliability, Understanding, and Economic value.
Trust: When you earn the customer’s trust, you do two things for them: you reduce their risk of acting on the information you provide, and you save both sides time because they need to do less cross-checking and verifying of what you tell them. Do you tell the truth all the time? Do you have the customer’s best interests at heart? Do you have good intentions? Are you willing to risk your friendship to tell them things they don’t want to hear, but should?
Reliability: While trust is about your intentions, reliability is about your ability to deliver on them. Are you an effective advocate and agent for your customer’s interests within your own organization? Do you deliver at least as much as you promise? Are you punctual and responsive, and can you be reached when they need you?
Understanding: These next two go hand in hand. You can create far more value for your customer when you fully understand their business and personal situation. This turns the old sales adage on its head: they don’t care how much you care until they know how much you know. Do you seek first to understand before trying to be understood? Do you know their business drivers, their goals, internal challenges, and opportunities?
Economic Value: The sustainable basis of a professional sales relationship is the outcomes it produces, and in business these are measured by economic value. Do you deliver some or more of the four tangible economic outcomes—revenue growth, cost and risk reduction, and asset efficiency? Can you help them with their intangible but no less valuable outcomes such as achieving business objectives, initiatives and strategies?
Famed retailer John Wanamaker once said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Bad as that may have seemed to him, he actually had it pretty good, compared to salespeople. I contend that much more than half of sales communication consists of waste. Anyone who has ever listened to a “spray and pray” sales presentation knows intuitively how much clutter and waste there can be in a sales conversation. I would estimate that 80% of the words in a sales call or presentation are unnecessary; even worse, they may detract from the message you’re trying to get across.
Why is this important? The obvious first answer is that it wastes time, but it also obscures the value you bring the customer. There is a study that showed that one week after a ten-minute presentation, the audience remembered 10% of what was said. Assuming that your customer is going to make their decision in the week after your presentation, how sure are you that the 10% they will remember is the most important 10%? If they remember your interesting anecdote which had nothing to do with your main point, then 100% of that meeting was a complete waste.
So many forms of waste
It would be impossible—not to mention wasteful—to list all the ways that salespeople can waste their customers’ time. Here are just a few examples:
- Talking too much about yourself
- Trying too hard to establish your credentials; if you’re in the meeting, the credentials have already been accepted
- Talking too much about how the product works and not connecting it to what it does for the customer
- Presentations that take too long to get to the point
- Asking questions about things you should have found out on your own
- Off the shelf slide decks that do not directly target this specific customer’s needs
- Missing concerns or opportunities
- Trying to answer objections without understanding the real objection
- Trying to close too soon
- Closing too late: missing buying signals
What are some reasons for waste?
There are many reasons that we talk far more during sales conversations than we should; psychology, our planning (or lack thereof), and our skill set.
- Enthusiasm: we love talking about our kids, but don’t like hearing others talk about theirs
- It feels good to talk about ourselves
- Fear: we think as long as we’re talking, they can’t say no
Planning and Preparation
- Lack of planning: no clear call purpose, not having stuff you need, not being ready to answer questions
- Being so focused on your purpose that you miss unplanned opportunities
- Lack of customer knowledge
- Level/language mismatch, e.g. speaking technical specs to C-Level
- Trying too hard to manipulate without taking time to truly understand
- Not qualifying properly
- Poor listening
How do you reduce waste in sales conversations?
But here’s the problem: even if you know that 80% of your words are waste, how do you know which 80%? Fortunately, lean communication provides us a tool for discerning what is waste. Remember our simple definition of waste: anything that does not directly contribute to value. So, having defined what value is in our previous posts, we can use that as a guide to see if the words coming out of our mouths support our key message: what the customer needs to do and why they should do it. With a clear conception of value in mind, you should also cultivate these powerful habits:
Research: Do the work to know as much as possible about what they will care about, and what they need and want to hear. That will help you before you go into the meeting, and during the meeting you can begin by asking questions or validating your view of the situation before launching into your closing pitch.
Have a plan but don’t fall in love with it: Have a focused plan for what you expect to accomplish, what value you will provide to the customer, and how you will accomplish it through agenda and questions. But remember that the customer always has a vote, so be prepared to deviate when you’re going off-track or an unexpected opportunity pops up.
Share the map: Using your agenda, as discussed in the previous post, will go a long way to establishing right up front what they want to hear and what you can skip.
Apply the So What test: Before you say something, apply the so what filter: what does this mean to the listener? How will it help them? This will help eliminate the irrelevant and merely interesting, while ensuring that what is integral or important to your message is not lost in the clutter. It will be integral or important if it’s customer-focused, if it brings new insights, and if it’s unique to you.
Focus on the critical few: You may have a ton of appealing features or seven good reasons to buy, but they won’t remember all seven. Some of the weaker reasons may dilute the effect of the stronger. For example, you might have a lot of satisfied customers, but you can make that point by simply listing the one that that particular customer will find the most impressive or relevant. As Churchill said, “Facts are like cigars: pick only the strongest and the finest.”
Listen: Apply the pull concept, which will be covered in more detail in a future article. Listen to their words and pay attention to nonverbal cues. If you ask good questions and listen carefully to their answers, they will give you plenty of clues about what’s important to them. While talking, if you see them get distracted, you need to ask a question to find out where you went off track and to reengage their attention.
Don’t just save time, give some back
As a salesperson, reducing clutter is one of the best ways to add value to your customers. Yes, they have oceans of information at their fingertips, but that creates its own problems—they have trouble finding the pony in the pile of manure. If all you do is bring more information, it just adds to the pile. But if you can home in on precisely what they need to know to improve their own situation, if you can strip out the irrelevant and merely interesting, there’s a good chance you will give them back time. How welcome do you think you will be if, instead of seeing their time with you as a cost, they see it as a net saving of time?