This post is for executive sales training, because it’s about something that I am very passionate about. The most powerful form of selling occurs when the salesperson has a commitment to the customer’s desired outcomes and the impact of accomplishing those. This is a simple statement, and it’s gone by a lot of different names over the past 20 years including solution selling. Selling, as I define it, is fundamentally about understanding a prospect’s situation, need, environment, etc. to such a degree that I am no longer presenting a product or a service. Instead, I am presenting how the implementation or utilization of my products and services will help them accomplish their goal.
It’s amazing to me how much people talk about selling solutions rather than products, but how little customer-focused, outcome-oriented selling actually takes place. I suspect part of that is because it’s natural for a salesperson presented with an existing need to immediately start pitching them on our product or service. Similarly, when salespeople come across somebody who is in a state of latent need, and it’s going to be a lot of work to get to the point where the prospect acknowledges they’ve got some pain, it’s natural to shy away from that.
As a lot of you know my target market consists of companies in the $1-$10 million range. Typically, I am working directly with the entrepreneur or founder to help them move from founder-led selling to professional selling.
At that level, this kind of focus on customer outcomes is particularly important because you have far more prospects than resources with which to serve those prospects. Therefore, the game must be about driving as much value in your services as possible in order to grow revenue with the fewest number of deals and the most revenue per opportunity.
When we focus on customer outcomes, competition and price sensitivity fall away. Conversely, price sensitivity and competition tend to be high when we focus on our product or service primarily because the customer has already identified alternatives. If you really want to drive significant value for your customers and differentiate yourself from your competition, the conversation must center on what your product or service is going to do for them… and this impact must be measured in dollars and cents.
The Wrong Way
I’ll share an anecdote. A number of years ago I did some executive sales training for a company in the project management software space, and these were sizable deals that customers were going to invest $18,000 – $30,000 in annual license fees. They were investing that money to accomplish something, and what shocked me was the degree to which the salespeople were never really aware of what the customer was going to fundamentally use the software for, and even worse, they were oblivious to the impact that the customer hoped to achieve through implementation of this software from a business standpoint. So I got into a little bit of habit, and that is I would walk around towards the end of the month or the quarter when deals were closing, and I would ask the sales rep, who was working and forecasting that this deal was going to close in the next three days, a couple of simple questions to which I wanted very specific answers.
- What business is this company in?
- Who are their customers?
- How do they make money?
- How specifically will our software be used to drive tangible benefit for their organization and for their customers?
My perspective is that if you can’t tie a solution to your customer’s customers, the likelihood of closing a deal is significantly diminished. Sadly, the answers I received really surprised me and frankly depressed me a little bit. In most cases, the responses tended towards a high level answers. With respect to industry, I heard things like, “They are in the financial services industry.” Anybody who knows business knows financial services is a complex ecosystem with lots of different kinds of financial services companies, but we rarely got past the “financial services” answer.
When I asked who their customer’s customers were and how they made money, there was often no real understanding of the client’s value chain or how our software was going to be used. I would typically get a very high level response like, “It will be used for project management.” This is a pretty ridiculous answer considering we were selling project management software. When I would probe into what kind of projects, often times these were unknown. In the rare cases we it was known, they might say something like, “IT projects,” to which I would dig and ask, “Are these internal IT projects like upgrades, new software, external client facing, or professional services?” I would get blank stares back.
Overall, it just seemed disingenuous and dishonest to be asking a client to spend real money with you without knowing the value they would be receiving.
The Right Way
I believe a passion for understanding customer outcomes is at the heart of artful selling. It represents the kind selling that is powerful and meaningful versus the kind of selling that is just simply trying to part our clients with their money. I think it’s easy for salespeople and sales organizations to abdicate responsibility for the benefit their clients are going to receive from the product or service, and that’s certainly fine.
When a prospect approaches you and says, “I want to buy this,” and you sell the particular software or that service, the typical attitude is that it is up to the client to figure out what it’s going to do for them and justify the investment. In fact I believe it is ultimately the salesperson’s responsibility as much as the company’s responsibility to really understand the benefit the client is going to derive, how they are to expect to convert their investment into more revenue or reduced costs, and, most importantly, how much return this investment will yield.
Taking this further, I don’t believe salespeople should even seek to consummate a transaction when that customer benefit is an unknown. On several occasions I have told clients flat out that I didn’t see how they were going to make money off their investment. When I have taken this approach, one of two things has happened: Either, 1. They press forward with their desire to buy and our relationship has gone to another level as they reveal in great detail how they planned to implement what I was selling or the product I was offering, and how they believe it’s going to help them; or 2. In other situations, the client has kind of cocked his head to the side and said, “Yeah, you know, I am not sure the numbers do add up,” and the deal went to ‘closed-lost.’
I think many salespeople fear the second scenario and believe outing the lack of a tangible benefit is going to kill the deal. In fact, I would suggest a direct approach merely expedites the inevitable. I have seen more than my share of deals with little customer impact burn countless hours of the prospect and salesperson’s time only to end up in the trash heap with no decision.
What About You?
How does this kind of selling fit with you philosophically? Does it help you rationalize the fact that sales is about getting people to spend money with you and realize that if that money invested is tied to real results then there’s nothing wrong with it? Or does focusing on customer impact as the ultimate litmus test of viability in a deal motivate you to pursue it more?
Regardless of which of those cases you fall under, I hope you’ve found something here that helps you become a better salesperson. If you know someone who could benefit from this executive sales training lesson, be sure to pass this article on.
Be sure to check out Townsend’s blog at: http://townsendwardlaw.com/
photo credit: Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC via photopin cc