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Chapter 4: Key Concepts of Customer Focused Sales


Customer Focused Sales empowers sellers to execute Sales-Primed Communications to help their buyers visualize using their offerings to achieve a goal, solve a problem, or satisfy a need.

In our conversations with selling organizations, we believe that most of them would benefit from reframing the concept of selling.

Why? Because by changing the way people think about the sales function, the idea of selling becomes palatable to people who otherwise would never view themselves as salespeople. Over the years, we have helped large numbers of engineers, scientists, accountants, and consultants become successful salespeople by allowing them to do what they like to do naturally - that is, help their clients achieve goals and solve problems.

Is this sales? Sure. But it's not traditional selling, which is viewed as distasteful to many people who would otherwise make excellent salespeople.

A client who sells enterprise information technology recently asked us to help them fine-tune their hiring model. We studied the backgrounds of their top salespeople going back 10 years, and discovered that seven of the top ten salespeople came out of some form of customer support. This was a validation of something we had long believed: that people who enjoy helping their customers use their offering to achieve goals and solve problems make excellent salespeople.

Many clients ask us, "Which is better: hiring an experienced salesperson and teaching him or her our product or teaching an employee who already knows our product how to sell?" Good question. We believe the answer lies in the individual. If the experienced salesperson believes that selling means persuading, convincing, closing, and so on, then he or she is very likely to create more of the bad experiences that buyers disdain - this time in your company's name. If the existing employee likes to help people, has the confidence to approach strangers, and knows how to use the product offering, then we vote for teaching that person how to sell.

Think of the frame of mind of the traditional persuading/convincing salesperson in the minutes just before an initial meeting with a prospect. What is he or she thinking? Most likely, "What can I sell this person?" Or maybe, even worse, "What do I need this person to buy?" And how long do you think it takes the prospect to sense this and to start to feel uncomfortable?

But what if the seller's primary agenda is finding out whether the prospect has a goal, problem, or need that the seller might be able to help with? And what if the seller is actually willing to leave if he or she doesn't have anything to offer in this particular context? Again, we believe that reframing the concept of selling will cause the sales call - and the entire relationship - to be far more productive and rewarding for all parties.

In this chapter, we present thirteen core concepts that collectively begin to reframe the concept of selling. They are the following:

You Get Delegated to the People You Sound Like

Sales executives have complained to us forever that their salespeople don't (can't?) call high enough. Many of them lament the fact that their sellers prefer to call on the potential users of their offering, rather than on the decision makers who can actually buy the product or service.

What happens when sellers do get an audience with a decision maker? In many cases, they present product features and functions to someone who has no interest in or time for such a presentation, and they get delegated. They get delegated to someone else in the organization who shares their interest in product features and functions, but - almost by definition - lacks the power to buy.

Why does this happen? As we've already seen, part of the problem probably lies in the product training the salespeople received. If they are trained in the hundreds of features and marketing hype of their offering, then isn't it reasonable to expect them to regurgitate features and hype, regardless of the buyer's title?

Most senior executives will allocate about 30 minutes to a sales call with a salesperson who has proved competent enough to get an appointment with them. But few executive calls last a full 30 minutes. If the seller begins expounding on technology, features, platforms, network architecture, and so on, senior executives are quick to delegate them to the people in their organization who care about technology, features, platforms, network architecture, and so on. In many such cases, it would have been far better not to have called on the executive at all. Your company's position may have been compromised in the eyes of the buyer. Access to decision makers is a high-risk, high-reward proposition.

When we work with Marketing departments to create Sales-Primed Communications - that is, messaging that allows sellers to converse with decision makers - one of the major difficulties we face is the shortage of people in our client organizations who know how decision makers (by job title) view the use of their offerings.

This is true whether you're talking with Product Development, or Marketing, or Sales. There is a notable exception, however: The people who understand how their customers think about using the product tend to be the professional-services people. Why? The answer is clear: because it is their job to help customers achieve goals, solve problems, and satisfy needs through the use of their offering.

It's not that complicated. Our goal in Customer Focused Sales is simply to help our clients develop Sales-Primed Communications - messaging that will enable their salespeople to have peer-to-peer conversations regardless of buyer title, in turn creating visions in the buyer's mind of using their offering to achieve goals, solve problems, or satisfy needs.

Take the Time to Diagnose before You Offer a Prescription

If you went to see a physician with a goal (losing weight) or a problem (lower back spasms), you would expect the physician to ask you a series of specific diagnostic questions. Your trust and confidence in the physician would increase with each intelligent, probing, on-target question he or she asked you. When you have confidence in the diagnostic process, you are far more likely to have confidence in the prescription.

Why should selling be any different?

What we are talking about here is process. The ability to ask diagnostic questions is a key differentiator between great salespeople and traditional salespeople. Customer-focused sellers do this intuitively. Traditional sellers need help not only with content, but with process as well. They need help with the process of asking the right questions to learn how the customer operates today, and the associated costs of the current method.

In many of our consulting engagements, we help Marketing develop the diagnostic questions about (1) the buyer's current situation and (2) the potential usage of the offering to help the buyer achieve a goal, solve a problem, or satisfy a need. Most human beings (particularly, it must be said, male human beings) do not appreciate unsolicited advice. But if the potential buyer is being asked intelligent questions that he or she is capable of answering, the advice that emerges from that process is, in a very real sense, solicited advice. The buyer has participated in, and partly directed, the conversation that developed both the diagnosis and the prescription.

People Buy from People Who Are Sincere and Competent, and Who Empower Them

When we do role-playing exercises, we stress that it is equally important for participants to take the part of buyers as it is for them to play the role of sellers. This is the best way for them to learn to think like a buyer. What they tend to discover through that process is that buyers want to deal with sellers who (1) are sincere, (2) are competent, and (3) allow the buyer to participate in the conversation. This is a welcome change from the "Here's what you need" approach taken by traditional salespeople.

In today's competitive market, a salesperson must be sincere and competent merely to get the opportunity to compete. But that's just the price of admission. Lots of companies know how to recruit sincere and competent salespeople (at least of a traditional sort). We submit, therefore, that conversing with buyers is the most sure-fire way for sellers to differentiate themselves from the pack.

The key to further differentiation lies in making sure that buyers retain ownership of their goals, problems, and needs. One of the quickest ways for a seller to lose credibility with a buyer is to look the buyer in the eye and say that a particular offering is going to "solve your company's problems." Solving the company's problems is what the buyer and his or her colleagues are paid to do, day in and day out. They don't want to hear that someone who drops in once a month, or once a year, is going to meet all their needs. Experience has taught them that no company, salesperson, or product can take responsibility for achieving the desired business result.

Many technology companies believe they can win simply by putting a superior product on the table and talking up its features. But think about it: Doesn't this force the buyer to lose control of the conversation and talk about what you want to talk about? Yes, if you are selling to truly expert buyers, you can win with a superior product. But did you really sell anything? Or did you simply take an order from a buyer who was smart enough to figure out how to use your product? And if it were the latter, why wouldn't this savvy buyer simply purchase on-line next time, and cut you (and your associated costs) out of the loop?

It's a simple concept, but a critically important one. The buyer must own achievement of the goal. If your buyer concludes that you first understand the current situation, goals, or problems, then - and only then - you have earned yourself the opportunity to help your buyer understand how he or she can achieve the goal, or solve the problem, with the specific capabilities of your offering.

Don't Give without Getting

Almost all sales involve some kind of negotiation. And like sales, negotiation is not an event; it is a process. In this process, we believe, the seller should strive to create a reciprocal relationship. He or she should get something in return for giving something. We call this our "quid pro quo philosophy."

This begins as a psychological adjustment: how the seller looks at himself or herself. The seller should remember that he or she is not a supplicant, looking for a handout or a favor; instead, he or she is providing a valuable service to the buyer (assuming, of course, that the offering actually can help the buyer solve a problem or meet a goal). We've already talked about how the buyer's time is valuable. Well, so is the seller's time. We believe that if a salesperson gives a buyer an hour of time, he or she has the right - and even the obligation - to get something in return, before giving up another hour.

What's the practical benefit? If quid pro quo becomes a habit early in the relationship, sellers can become more effective negotiators and deliver more profitable business.

When our potential clients try to assess whether to engage us and implement Customer Focused Sales, many wind up focusing their cost-benefit analysis on this area of discounting. Once our client decision makers understand our quid pro quo philosophy, many realize that the entire Sales-Primed Communications and sales process implementation will more than pay for itself if sellers can reduce discounting by 1 percent.

The math isn't complicated. Let's say that the total cost of one of our standard sales-training programs is between $3000 and $4000 per salesperson. If each of those salespeople who has an annual quota of $2 million can reduce discounting by 1 percent, that's $20,000 a head. And, of course, this is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, in that once salespeople understand quid pro quo, they keep on thinking and acting that way.

You Can't Sell to Someone Who Can't Buy

Or, stated more positively, "You can sell only to someone who can buy."

Many salespeople end up in the free education business. Think about knowledge workers in corporate America - engineers, software developers, scientists, and so on. How do they become educated in new technologies and new ways of doing business? By salespeople who spend their time and effort presenting their offerings. The problem is that the vast majority of knowledge workers embrace learning, yet can't buy. The length of the sales cycle is often inversely proportional to the level at which it is initiated.

This is most severe with breakthrough products and services. If you are first to market with a new concept or technology, then by definition, no budgets exist to buy what you are selling. This means you have to gain access to the very small minority of people who can spend unbudgeted funds. We were working with a large software company in the mid-1990s. Of the 14,000 people on their payroll, only four could spend unbudgeted funds.

For sellers selling continuous-improvement products and services, they still have to get to the person who can spend budgeted funds. This is where homework pays off. Ideally, your prospect is both the user of your product or service and the head of a department that already has the money budgeted.

Bad News Early Is Good News

This particular core concept of Customer Focused Sales is for salespeople who have long sell cycles. Prior to hiring us, it is not uncommon for our clients, when initiating opportunities, to have 9-month sell cycles, in part because in the enterprise sales environment, the selection process usually requires the evaluation of multiple vendors. When a corporation is considering a large purchase, it typically wants three or more quotations. For vendors reacting, it will be a short sales cycle with little or no chance of winning. In many such cases, the buyers knew from the start which vendor they wanted to buy from, but they still had to get others to bid. In other words, these buyers are simply going through the motions to demonstrate to senior management that they did sufficient due diligence.

If you are not the predetermined vendor, bad news early is good news. The worst thing a salesperson can do to him- or herself and the company is to go the distance and lose. This feels a little counterintuitive, but it's true. Two vendors win in every predetermined sales cycle: the company that is awarded the business and the company that has pulled out early, giving itself the chance to pursue other winnable opportunities. All the other vendors invited in go the distance, only to be awarded a silver medal.

Again, the key is to do your homework, keep your ear to the ground, and be realistic about your chances of success. A salesperson has to qualify opportunities, which in many cases means disqualifying opportunities - including those buyers who are simply putting them through the motions. Sales managers, too, have a role to play. They can help their salespeople recognize bad news early and disqualify nonopportunities.

No Goal Means No Prospect

When meeting buyers for the first time, the salesperson's primary focus should be to build rapport and trust. Without rapport and trust, it is unlikely that buyers will share their goals and virtually certain that they will not admit problems to a salesperson.

We suggest that a sales opportunity should go from inactive to active status when the buyer shares a goal. A prospect is defined as a buyer who has admitted a problem. This may sound easy, but it's not. Over the years, we've discovered that there are very few sellers (particularly young sellers) who are able to get senior-level executives to admit critical business problems.

Sometimes the solution lies in focusing on goals rather than problems. Experience has taught us that it is far easier for salespeople to get a buyer to share a goal than to admit a problem.

Let's look at it from the other end of the telescope. You will have a much easier time getting someone to share that he would like to lose a few pounds (goal) than to admit that he is getting fat (problem). In fact, there are cases where the salesperson should help the buyer turn the admitted problem into a goal, since it's more fun to talk about goals than about problems.

A sales cycle begins once a buyer shares a goal with a seller. The seller now has the opportunity to use our solution development process (or their own) to ask a series of questions to understand the current situation, and to empower the buyer with usage scenarios that will help the buyer understand how he or she can achieve the goal by use of the seller's offering. But without a goal, there can be no solution development and therefore no prospect.

Goals may have longer-term value as well. In longer sales cycles, sellers often get to a point where they are working with delegatees - lower-lever implementers - who may get lost in the details of evaluating particular features. In such cases, the seller may find it helpful to refocus the implementer on the previously stated goals of the business buyer.

People Are Best Convinced by Reasons They Themselves Discover

We believe that with the benefit of a strong selling process and the belief that prospects have IQs above room temperature, sellers can allow buyers to reach their own conclusions.

Customer-focused salespeople leverage their expertise by asking questions, rather than making statements. We provide our clients with a dialogue model for asking questions and Sales-Primed Communications in the form of a Solution Formulator. This enables the seller to facilitate an intelligent conversation with the buyer about a specific goal. The process of asking questions helps buyers discover their own reasons that prevent them from achieving a specific business result.

Expert buyers are able to convince themselves that they should buy something, because they figure out on their own how to use the proposed offering. But most buyers aren't experts, and therefore need help buying. By using a process that allows the buyer to feel that he or she is in control, by helping rather than pressuring, and by using content that is aimed at the buyer's specific situation, sellers can shape their customer's experiences. They can lead the buyer to discover the solution, and therefore own it.

When Selling, Your Expertise Can Become Your Enemy

Have you ever noticed how once you know something, it is difficult to have patience with or empathy for people who don't know what you know?

This can be a curse for salespeople, and experienced salespeople can be most cursed. They've seen it all before. When they see a solution to the buyer's need, they get enthusiastic and impatient, and start projecting their solution onto the buyer. (More on solutions below.) They forget their own learning curve, stop asking questions, and start telling: "What you need is. . . ."

In the late 1970s, the Xerox Corporation hired Neil Rackham to study the behavioral habits of their best salespeople. Rackham discovered that newly hired Xerox salespeople went through a quite predictable performance curve over time. Their sales performance steadily improved from their date of hire through about their 18th month - and then, inexplicably, suddenly declined.

Why? Eventually, he concluded that it took these sellers 18 months to become "experts." After a year and a half, they understood every goal, problem, or need that their product set would address, in every combination and permutation. Given that expertise - plus, of course, the sincere desire to help their buyers and make a sale - they began going too fast for their buyers, like clockwork in about their 19th month. A buyer would begin explaining his or her situation, and the overeager seller would see a perfect fit for the Xerox solution, and start telling the prospect why he or she needed this product.

It's a paradox. Of course your clients want expert salespeople. (That's what this resource is all about.) At the same time, if your salesperson is tempted to use his or her expertise as a club on the buyer, a lack of expertise can make for a better sales call. Without expertise, your seller's only course of action is to ask questions. As a buyer, do you prefer salespeople who ask or who tell?

The Only Person Who Can Call It a Solution Is the Buyer

We've already talked about solutions. We believe that solution is one of the most misused words in the English language, certainly within the sales profession.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a solution as "the answer to or disposition of a problem." But isn't it enormously presumptuous for someone with the title "salesperson" on a business card to announce to a buyer that he or she has the solution, even before the buyer has shared a single goal? Is it surprising that buyers find this offensive?

We believe that a salesperson can't and shouldn't define a customer solution. Only the buyer can call something a solution. The seller can help the buyer get there, but can't get there first. When the seller - using the right process and content - leads the buyer to conclude that he or she needs the specific capabilities the seller has posed, only then do we have a solution. Because the buyer said so.

Make Yourself Equal, Then Make Yourself Different - or You'll Just Be Different

When salespeople are in competitive situations, they frequently fall into a trap that is set - usually unintentionally - by their buyer.

It goes like this: The buyer, usually not a decision maker, is required to interview multiple vendors, but is predisposed to go with Salesperson A's product. More or less innocently, he or she asks Salesperson B how his or her offering compares to that of Salesperson A.

At this point, Salesperson B - along with something like 90 percent of all salespeople in the universe - responds with something like the following: "Mr. Prospect, I'm so glad you asked that question. Here's how our product is different from Salesperson A's offering!" And from there, on to the specifics.

Uh-oh! Salesperson B is describing how his or her product is different from the one the prospect likes the best - before trust has been established, before goals have been articulated, before diagnosis has occurred, and before the buyer has become convinced of the seller's expertise. Think about it: The worst thing Salesperson B can do at this point in the relationship is to contrast his or her offering to Salesperson A's. After losing, should the buyer be asked to help fill out the loss report?

Instead, Salesperson B could have asked: "What are you hoping to accomplish?" If the buyer responds with a goal, the seller now has a prospect (see above). Now the seller can use patience, process, and content to establish credibility, diagnose the current situation, and pose some usage scenarios that will differentiate the product from Salesperson A's. We have found, with client after client, that you have to get on an equal footing from a personal, competence, and capability standpoint first, before you differentiate your offering. Otherwise, you'll just be different - and you'll lose.

Emotional Decisions Are Justified by Value and Logic

Buying is almost always an emotional act. Depending on the specifics of the situation, those emotions may or may not have to be justified - but they're still there.

When a buyer decides to buy from a particular seller, it is an emotional decision. Equally, when a buying committee decides to buy from a particular vendor, it is an emotional decision. When a buyer decides to pay an asking price rather than holding out for a lower price, it is an emotional decision. When a buyer decides to buy from a person or company he or she is comfortable with, rather than shopping for the lowest possible price, it is an emotional decision.

If the buyer answers to no one, and does not care what other people think, then he or she can buy strictly on emotion. The rest of us, though, need some kind of logic to explain to peers, superiors, subordinates, friends, or family why we chose to buy what we bought.

An acquaintance of ours bought a very expensive, stunningly beautiful, fun-to-drive German car. We asked him why. His rationale included things like it will be a classic, it will go up in value, it has an aluminum body and will never rust, and so on. All very logical reasons, right? The truth is, he bought that car because he loved it at first sight, wanted to drive it, and felt he looked more handsome driving it. If a close friend asked him why he bought that car, the emotional reason would flow along with the question: "Don't I look good in it?" If a stranger asked, most likely the logical reasons would be offered.

We teach salespeople to be prepared to sell to both logic and emotion. A non-decision maker will make an emotional decision to buy from a salesperson first, but then should be armed with the logical reasons so that the buying decision can be defended.

Don't Close before the Buyer Is Ready to Buy

We like to ask consulting clients if any of them have ever gone out with the intention of getting a particular order on a particular day, and failed to get it. Almost everyone who has been selling for more than a couple of months (and responds honestly) raises his or her hand. We then ask them to quote their buyer's reasons for not signing on the dotted line that day. The reasons do not vary much:

And the dreaded

But what was really going on here? In most cases, the seller was asking for the business before the buyer was ready to buy. This is a big mistake. We tell sellers that once they close the first time, their relationship with their buyer will never be the same. It will be either better or worse, but it won't be the same. And almost without exception, it will be better if they were ready to buy, and worse if they weren't.

Sellers are often justified in blaming their own management for closing prematurely. It was the final 10 days of the quarter, and management is pressuring the sales force to see what opportunities they can pull in from the next quarter to this one. Again, big mistake: The saddest situations we see are salespeople who sincerely want to help their buyer achieve a goal, solve a problem, or satisfy a need, but are pressured by their management to close early. In many cases, this trades a long-term relationship for potential short-term gain, and increases the likelihood of a significant discount.

We live in the real world, and we understand that there are exceptional circumstances under which it's necessary to attempt to close early. When this is the case, the sales manager needs to acknowledge that this is the situation and explain why he or she is asking the salesperson to accelerate the buying process. But this should be the exception, rather than the rule. When management pressures salespeople to close early at the end of each quarter, there's a structural problem, and it's likely that larger future gains are being traded away for smaller near-term gains.

Before asking a buyer to buy, sellers should ask themselves:

The salesperson should have some version of this list in mind very early on. He or she should be prepared to share it with the sales manager, if and when pressure comes down the pipeline, and explain which preconditions to a sale haven't been met yet, and why. And sometimes, being able to respond to these questions - or most of them - with a "yes" helps the salesperson get comfortable with the idea of moving up his or her timetable for closing.

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