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Establishing the Critical Perspective

In the enterprise sale, we work with multiple individuals in the customer's organization to develop a comprehensive view of the situation. Each of these individuals has some of the information we need to diagnose the problem, and each has a unique perspective. It is a lot like the often-told story of the blind men and the elephant. Each man approached the elephant at a different point and, as a result, each described the animal in a radically different way.

To communicate most effectively with each of the individuals who has information about a complex problem, to obtain the best information they have to offer, and to evaluate the validity of that information, we first must consider the critical perspective of that person. We need to understand the mind-set and position from which they are seeing the symptoms of the problem.

We ask three questions designed to help us understand a person's critical perspective:

  1. What is this person's education and career background? In Chapter 4, we talked about how the background of an organization's leaders can affect the way the entire organization thinks. So, too, the background of an individual colors his or her personal perspective of the world. A person with an education in accounting approaches and perceives a problem differently than a person educated in marketing. Further, uncovering the professional and educational disciplines that influence a person's thinking can be particularly helpful when you are working with senior management, where a person's background is often not directly related to his or her current job.

  2. What are this person's job responsibilities? An individual's critical perspective is going to be intimately linked with his or her current goals and duties. Certainly, personal concerns about job security and performance are among the most powerful forces at work on the change spectrum. Salespeople should always remember that it is easier for them to find a new customer than it is for their customers to find new jobs.

  3. What are the work issues and problems that concern this person? We often find salespeople trying to engage customers in issues and problems that exist outside an individual's area of responsibility or that may not exist at all in the customer's critical perspective. For instance, a director of quality who is charged with maintaining unit defects at a consistent Six Sigma level perceives an innovative new solution for speeding the manufacturing process from a different perspective than does a plant manager who is charged with obtaining higher output. The former is perfectly happy with the status quo (if it has reached Six Sigma) and highly resistant to any change that could threaten it, while the latter sees the status quo as a performance problem that must be addressed.

Salespeople will begin to understand customers' worry lists—their individual job concerns and issues—by asking themselves about the typical concerns of individuals with this particular job title. The director of quality is concerned with issues such as product defects, process reliability, and customer satisfaction. As soon as we get face-to-face with this person, we must confirm the existence of those concerns and narrow our focus on specific areas of dissatisfaction.

The conventional approach to selling depends on laundry lists of questions that focus on needs and solutions. The disadvantage of this process is that the salesperson may not connect with concerns until a dozen or more questions have been asked, long after the customer's patience has worn thin. In the defined diagnostic approach, we use an A-to-Z question, which is designed to instantly bring to the surface the customer's most serious concern.

For example, assume that you are a sales executive exploring programs to enhance sales performance. As you read the question, think about the answer you would give. We would ask: "As you consider your sales process ... beginning with generating a new lead ... moving on through all the interactions with a customer ... and finally, ending up with a profitable new customer ... if you had to choose one part of the entire sales process that concerns you the most ... as well as things are going for you ... what concern would you put at the top of your list?"

Before we discuss your answer, look at the question again. This is a long question, and the way it is asked, with plenty of pauses with a long thoughtful look or two at the ceiling, makes it even longer. There is good reason for that. We are pacing the customer's thinking process, giving him time to create a thoughtful response. It is designed to frame the customer's thinking within a certain process in his job responsibility. Another important element of the A-to-Z question is that it sounds spontaneous, not like the typical canned question. It is designed to elicit thoughtful consideration and a meaningful response from the customer.

There is one more element to address—the phrase "as well as things are going for you." This defuses any defensiveness the customer is feeling. Without a phrase like this, a likely response could be: "Things are going quite well, thank you." By acknowledging and complimenting customers' past successes, you are suggesting that with their success, they are perhaps interested in getting even better. The phrase eliminates the customer's need to defend or proclaim past success.

Returning to the previous question, did you think about the question; did it trigger a review of your sales process? Did you believe the question was sincere and try to address it seriously? Most people do. In fact, when we ask A-to-Z questions, we stop and listen. Silence is good. The longer the silence lasts, the better the answer is. The A-to-Z question is a most effective means of getting to the heart of the issue.

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