Why sales 101 no longer works

To me, it’s ironic that the world of strategic sales training has stayed pretty much the same over the last 15 years, but for most companies, the selling environment has changed dramatically. Consequently, salespeople are having to work harder to penetrate new accounts, while prospective customers are working even harder to keep salespeople at bay.

Don’t blame the customer. In the past decade, downsizing and acquisitions have burdened corporate decision-makers with greater responsibility, oftentimes without the benefit of additional resources. Meanwhile, workloads continue to increase, competitors are getting hungrier, and the overall pace of business has quickened. Even if they wanted to, customers simply cannot afford to spend time with every salesperson that comes calling.

Customers are also less accessible. In the past, salespeople could build relationships with the gatekeeper in their target accounts, knowing that these relationships would eventually get them in to see the decision-maker. Electronic devices have since replaced most gatekeepers and you can’t build a relationship with a voice mail system. Other technological innovations such as e-mail, fax, cellular phones, digital pagers, and the Internet have also given customers the freedom to execute their job functions away from their desks. While this is good in one sense, it also means that potential customers are less likely to pick up the telephone when you call.

Many prospects are reluctant to pick up the telephone anyway. With the rapid economic expansion in recent years, more vendor businesses are offering more solutions than ever before. Consequently, decision-makers are being inundated with a barrage of sales callers — who are all competing for the same thing –a chunk of the prospect’s budget, but even more importantly, a slice of their time and attention.

Some sales organizations try to address this problem by encouraging their salespeople to be more aggressive. “If the going gets tough,” chants the proverbial sales manager, “then we, as salespeople, need to be even tougher.” The problem is, if the telephone rings tonight at my house during dinner, and a salesperson on the other end tries to be more aggressive with me, they will irreparably harm any chance they had of making a sale. People don’t want to be pushed.

Many of the marquee sales training courses currently being offered were developed 15 to 20 years ago, if not earlier. But the business world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years — in my opinion, many of the “old school” techniques no longer apply.

Most prospects already know the tricks –things like calling after hours to avoid the gatekeeper, or leaving voice-mail messages that say so-and-so told me to call. They also know about the Ben Franklin Close, Alternate Choice, and Feel-Felt-Found. That’s why so many salespeople and sales managers have become frustrated with traditional methods. Teaching salespeople to be just like everyone else puts them at a competitive disadvantage. When a salesperson is perceived “the same” as everyone else, then they are only average, by definition, and their chances of winning are significantly diminished. Prospects and customers usually don’t buy “average” products from an “average” salesperson.

The fundamentals in selling have remained the same. Salespeople must uncover needs before they can provide solutions, the product or service being offered must be cost justifiable, and the salesperson with the best relationship has the greatest chance of winning the business. People still do buy from people. But the paradigms of the strategic sale have shifted significantly and differentiation is now the key.

Everyone wants to have good relationships with lucrative prospects, in order to uncover needs, present solutions, and secure a commitment. Establishing mutual relationships with new prospects has grown increasingly more difficult, however, and just because a salesperson wants to ask questions, doesn’t mean their prospects and customers will want to respond.

What makes prospects and customers want to respond? The answer is: Conversational Layering”. The first time I tried to diagram the sales process, I sketched a cacophony of boxes and arrows into a messy schematic that would make most engineers proud. This model evolved into a much simpler diagram (as shown) that depicts the strategic sales process as a series of prerequisite steps. Before you can secure a commitment, for example, you must first present a solution. Likewise, before you present solutions, you must first uncover needs.

Relationships are an integral part of the Conversational Layering model, but you will notice that the sales process doesn’t begin with a relationship. Salespeople must first earn the right to engage. What’s the key to building effective relationships? The answer is credibility. Now the question becomes: What are you doing different than your competitors to establish credibility in your targeted prospect accounts? Everyone claims to have the best product, which once again, makes you average.

Leveraging curiosity to fuel the sales process is another paradigm shift — but it’s one that makes absolute sense. If a prospective customer is not curious, then it becomes very difficult for a salesperson to secure their time or their attention. On the other hand, a curious prospect will want to engage in a conversation about their needs and your solutions to satisfy their curiosity. Now the question is: What are you doing to leverage curiosity in the sales process?

The message is clear. If you are going to train your sales organization, then make sure to invest in something that teaches them how to be different, in order to give them back their competitive edge. After all, just because you have a great story, doesn’t necessarily mean prospects and customers will want to hear it.

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