You're Either Part of Your System or Somebody Else's
A theory that explains how to sell, or explains anything else for that matter, is a product of abstract reasoning. It is someone's speculation about the nature of an activity or process. A theory may or, as is too often the case, may not be an accurate reflection of its subject's true nature. What grounds a theory and makes it worth adopting and emulating is that it works in everyday practice in the real world. That's why we shadow sales professionals with successful track records in complex sales.
Our clients repeatedly ask us to research and explain what makes their best salespeople excel. They request that we capture from their salespeople: What do they do? How do they think? What questions do they ask? What do they say to prospects and customers? How do they handle competitive threats? And when we've distilled it all down, the objective is to teach these best practices to the rest of their sales organization—to replicate the best of the best.
To identify and transfer the best practices in complex sales, we spend roughly one-third of our time consulting in the field. In other words, we work with our customers' top salespeople as they call on their customers. In total, we have accompanied high performers (the top 3 to 5 percent of salespeople) on more than 4,000 appointments. We've watched them work, studied their reasoning and behavior patterns, and have come to understand the thinking and the methods behind their success.
We looked to the sciences of human behavior and interpersonal communication to explain why what we observed was working. In short, we reverse-engineered the success process. We observed what worked, sought out solid research to explain why, and evolved learning and performance development models to explain and teach the process to others.
Shadowing top-performing salespeople quickly led us to a surprising observation: Generally, the most successful don't rely on traditional selling techniques. When we accompany the best of the best on calls, we find that they are not offering their companies' sales brochures. They don't recite prepared pitches chapter and verse, nor do they seem to steer the conversation or lead the customer in any overt manner. We discuss what is going on later in the chapter, but for now, let's just say that top performers are not selling ... at least, not in the conventional sense.
The success of top performers is often a mystery to their employers and their colleagues. They are considered anomalies—rare exceptions to the rule whose success is a natural, but irreproducible, phenomenon. This is compounded by the fact that many top performers can't clearly articulate the reasons behind their own success and rarely follow their companies' standard sales processes. Here's how a typical conversation sounds:
We ask, "Was there a particular reason you didn't bring out the product brochures on this appointment?"
The answer comes back: "I don't know. They seem to distract the customer."
"In what way?"
"Well, it's too easy to start talking about the product and get a lot of questions."
"Is that a bad thing?"
These top performers are not being cagey. Rather, they have developed a personal style of selling and a natural communication process through experience. It is often a long and painful period of trial-and-error experimentation. Once success is achieved, there is a tendency to suppress all the pain they went through to perfect the process. Now, they are too busy winning sales to spend time documenting what they are doing and analyzing how and why it works. They are seldom able to explain in a clear fashion why they do what they do and frequently respond: "It just seems to work," or "It felt like that was the right thing to say." Not very instructive. Nevertheless, their hard-won knowledge is an extraordinarily valuable resource as a sound basis for a model of sales excellence.
Over the years, we've worked very hard to translate those "seems" and "felt likes" into tangible and teachable elements. We've distilled the common attributes and behaviors of top performers into three primary areas. We've studied how these three areas connect to research and theories in organizational and behavioral psychology, decision theory, emotional intelligence, interpersonal dynamics, and change management. Based on that knowledge, we developed and refined a complex sales methodology, which is organized into three primary elements—systems, skills, and disciplines:
A system is a set procedure or organized process that leads to a consistent and predictable result. Systems are the processes that top performers follow to accomplish their goals and the procedures and tools that their organizations provide to support their efforts.
Skills are the content knowledge along with the physical and mental abilities that enable salespeople to execute the system. Skills are tools and techniques that top performers use to accomplish their goals.
Discipline is the mind-set of the professional. It is about attitude, standards of performance, and mental and emotional stamina. Disciplines of high-performing sales professionals are the mental and emotional attitudes with which professionals approach their work and the mental or emotional stamina that they draw on to consistently and successfully see it through.
Think of systems as the "what to do," the skills as the "how to," and discipline as the inner strength that supports the "will do."
The knowledge gained from shadowing top sales professionals is organized into these three areas for good reason. Systems, skills, and disciplines are the foundational elements and guiding principles of all professional bodies of knowledge. Professionals such as pilots, accountants, engineers, doctors, and lawyers are called on to learn, practice, and master these three areas. Pilots follow many systems to operate the planes they fly. They master physical and mental skills to execute those systems, and they embrace a discipline or mind-set that governs how they think about their work and provides the mental stamina to remain cool, calm, and collected while performing the critical task at hand. To be able to speak of selling as a profession, which is exactly what we consider it to be, we need to be able to define the systems, skills, and disciplines that must be adopted, consistently practiced, and mastered to achieve its fullest potential.
We begin defining a professional body of knowledge for winning the complex sale by describing the disciplines that top sales professionals bring to their jobs.