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Jul 19 18

The Questions Sales People Ask?

by David Brock

Questioning is critical for sales people.  Every sales training program focuses on the importance of questioning.

We ask questions to qualify.

We ask questions to understand need.

We ask questions to learn requirements.

We ask questions to understand alternatives the customer is considering.

We ask questions about the decision making process.

We ask questions to assess customer understanding/knowledge of our products.

We ask questions to understand their perception of our proposed solution.

We even have questions we ask to close.

To help sales people, we develop endless playbooks, battlecards, and scripts with questions they have to ask.

But too often, sales people lose track of why they are asking questions, what they are trying to learn, why they need to learn it, or what to do with the answers.  Or sales people don’t know how to ask the follow up questions, probing, understanding, learning about and with the customer.

We focus so much on training people what to ask, they forget why the are asking the questions, what they need to learn or know.  As a result the questioning process becomes very stilted—question/answer, question/answer, question/answer.  Often at the end of the interrogation–I mean conversation, we have the answers to the questions, but we don’t know what they mean or how to leverage what we have learned.

We also miss an opportunity, questions should be the starting point to a two way conversation.  Instead, we engage the customer in verbal ping pong.

Customers know this is what sales people do and push back—“Do your homework!  I don’t care about your questions, I care about my issues, you aren’t talking about what I care about.”

But in the spirit of “helping sales people,” driving consistent execution (read mechanizing the sales process), we generate endless questions, which sales people ask robotically.

Perhaps rather than providing our people the questions they need to ask, we should help them think about what they need to know or learn, why it’s important to learn these things, and how to engage the customer in deep conversations.

Focusing on developing these skills and capabilities force our people to think about what they are trying to achieve and why.  It forces them to think about how to engage the customer.  It enables them to be part of the two way conversation, not a robot following a question list.

Helping sales people understand what they need to know and why forces them to figure out how they get that information, developing questions and conversations that are engaging and impactful.

Perhaps we can help our sales people learn, it’s not really the questions, it’s the quality of the conversation.


Afterword:  My thanks to Tonni Bennett for articulating this concept.  She put into words an idea I’ve been struggling with for some time.


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Jul 19 18

On Differentiation

by David Brock

Differentiation is critical in helping customers select our solution over the alternatives.

As important as it is, most sales people do a terrible job at differentiation.  Ultimately, too many are unable to differentiate in meaningful ways, as a result they end up differentiating on price.

Every time we win by taking pricing actions, we are telegraphing and reinforcing, “There is really no reason to buy our products/services other than we are the cheapest alternative available.”

Over time, these actions train both our customers and sales people that we are no better and no worse than any other alternative–and that we are not different.

Most often, our attempts to differentiate focus on the wrong things.

We develop endless feature/function checklists.  You know what those look like, they are a bunch of features and functions we (usually it’s marketing and product management) think are important.  We compare those to the alternatives and we generate a matrix that shows we have far more boxes checked that the others.  Of course our competitors do the same thing, always somehow finding a different sent of criteria, showing they check off far more boxes than their competition (which includes us)

This differentiation is usually meaningless–every once in a while we or a competitor has a certain feature/function checked that’s really important–for example, “we have more colors to choose from  (which is really interesting in SaaS products).”  But that’s seldom sustainable, soon all the competitors are offering the same “hot function,” pretty soon the customers have a rainbow of colors to choose from.

We differentiate based on our company, our customers, and our capabilities.  We present endless corporate ego charts to the customer, showing our locations, all the customer logos, and so forth.  Ironically, our competitors present the same charts—it turns out too often, the same companies are everyone’s biggest customers.  So those end up being useless as differentiators.

We used to differentiate ourselves on quality, sometimes try to on service—but those end up not being sustainable or different.  In reality, any solution the customer has on their “short list.” will solve their problems.  As a result, we are not different or at least not different enough.

And this is where most sales and marketing programs around differentiation stop.  Which is why so many deals are won by price.

The first problem with these methods of differentiation is they are all based on what we think is important and “a differentiator,”  and of course we are biased, often to the point of blindness.

None of these things is meaningful unless it is important to the customer.  But because we are endlessly pitching the customer, we seldom take the time to ask, “What’s important to you?  Why is that important?  What are the consequences if you can’t/don’t do this….?”

What is important to us is meaningless, all that counts is what is important to the customer, yet we don’t take the time to probe and understand what, why, how.

Then usually, the customer expresses these requirements in ways that are different than we express them.  “I need to improve productivity, I need to accelerate growth, I need to accelerate time to profitability, I need to cut costs, I need to address new markets……”

We are constantly listening for, “I want a rainbow of colors…..”  When we hear that, we stop our discovery, questioning, probing process, responding, “We have more colors than anyone else, in fact we can customize the color of each product you buy…..”

Our efforts in understanding what customers want stop when we are triggered by something we think is a differentiator and we go into pitch mode.

Often, our customers don’t know what they should be looking for or what may be possible.  But if we don’t understand our customers businesses, their customers, competitors, and markets, we can’t make suggestions that could be important to them.

But if, somehow we get to the point of understanding what’s important to the customer, once they have prioritized them, we can start presenting our capabilities in that context.  So if they don’t mention a “rainbow of colors,” it’s useless in our differentiation and we shouldn’t waste the customer’s or our time in talking about it.

But the big miss in differentiation is us–how we engage the customer in their buying process.

How are we helping them think about the problem/opportunity differently?  How are we helping them understand all the issues that impact their success?  How are we engaging them to discover what’s important, identify the risk, establish goals, set expectations?  How are we helping them learn how to buy, align the divergent interests in the buying group, build the business case to get management approval.

How we engage the customer in helping them solve their problems, in helping them achieve their goals, in helping them make a buying decision becomes the ultimate differentiator.

It also becomes the method by which we create value with the customer–moving from priced based differentiation to value based differentiation.

But what’s really important about this is that we know our competitors are trying to differentiate themselves on what they sell and who their companies are—not by how they engage and create value with the customer.

Ultimately, that becomes the differentiator.


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Jul 17 18

Technology Only Gets Us So Far

by David Brock

I’m a great fan of much of many sales technologies.  There are tools that dramatically improve efficiency.  These allow us to get more accomplished, more easily and in less time.  There are tools that give us greater insight into the customer–both the enterprise and individual.  We can leverage customer searches of our sites, the materials they have downloaded, and communications they may have had to give us better insight into their interests.

AI and related tools deepen those insights and help us better determine the timing of when a customer might be interested in a conversation.  These tools can even help us think about the issues most critical to the customer at the moment.   We can “micro-target” and be immediately relevant to our customers and prospects.

But, all of this gets us only so far.

At some point, we actually have to have a conversation with the customer.

We have to translate all this data and insight into actually engaging, person to person.

And that’s where things break down, both for us and for the customer.

Customers need these conversations, but dread them, trying to push them as late in their buying cycle as possible, leveraging other sources of information and research (remember, similar tools exist for our customers).

But at some point we’re “forced” to actually engage each other–voice to voice, face to face, eyeball to eyeball.

We have to engage another human being.

Each of us has our own hopes, dreams, fears, desires.  Each of us has differing behavioral and communication styles.  Each has differing levels of knowledge, interest, attitudes, and opinions.

The messy, sloppy part of buying and selling is all about human interaction.

But if we, and our customers, are to be successful, it’s this part of the process that’s most important in achieving our goals.

The fundamentals of this process are always the same, but the actual execution will vary person by person, with each interaction.

The fundamentals start with understanding, empathy, caring.

Questioning, listening, probing help us in engaging our customers to learn and to help them learn.

Curiosity plays a role–they drive our probing and discovery, they drive the ability of the customer to learn.

We are helped in this by our knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge in relevant/impactful ways–sometimes called creating value.  In doing this, we have to remember it’s something we don’t do to or for the customer, but with the customer.

As happens when at least two human beings get together, we bring baggage, per-conceived ideas, mistaken impressions, lack of knowledge, and many other things which impact our abilities to connect with each other.  Masterful sales people know how to navigate these with the customer, their teams, and others.

Ultimately, complex buying and selling comes down to human to human interaction and how effectively we engage each other.

Ironically, we seem to spend more time on all the other parts, often doing everything we can to minimize and avoid this human to human interaction.

Some will argue, that much of this interaction can be eliminated—and it should be.  There are many transactional or very simple buying decisions.  But this isn’t new, it’s existed at least since the very first catalog was ever mailed to a customer (RIP Sears Roebuck).  The tools enabling each of us to do this keep reaching new levels.  Increasing numbers of transactions will be done through technology enabled channels–perhaps our bot talking to the customers’ bots.

But there is always the challenge of the complex buying decisions.  Whenever more than one person is involved in the process–whether multiple buyers reaching consensus, or sales people seeking to engage with them.

The messiest part of buying/selling is that human to human interaction.

And this seems to be the area that too few look to master.


Afterword:  Thanks to my friends Charlie Greene and Andy Paul for stimulating this post.  Charlie wrote a great post on the same theme, Seduced by Tools and Processes.


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Jul 9 18

Hearing What We Don’t Want To Hear Is Critical

by David Brock

It seems, as human beings, we are increasingly less open to hearing differing points of view.  We immediately reject those that have a different opinion or world view, not taking the time to understand it, learn/evaluate, perhaps challenge it, or perhaps even shifting our own opinions as we learn more.

We seek those that share our points of view, continually reinforcing what we want to hear, exposing ourselves less and less to other thinking.  We isolate ourselves to tribal thinking, discounting anything that is outside of the tribal view.

Technology is here to help us, it watches our browsing habits, our contacts, our engagement on various platforms.  In trying to be helpful, we start seeing our feeds and other information we are presented is aligned with those habits and conversations.

Pretty soon, all we see are very narrow perspectives, all reinforcing everything we have looked at or have done in the past.

Confirmation bias kicks in, accelerating and amplifying this cycle.  We tend to believe in things that confirm our own beliefs and views.

This cycle continues daily, cycling faster and faster, narrowing our perspectives.

Soon, it looks like the “world” is composed of people, activities, data, that reinforces everything that we have seen, read, or believe.  We begin to believe everyone has similar perspectives.

This is hugely dangerous and limiting.

Increasingly, we navigate with increasingly obtrusive “blinders.”  Reality becomes hugely distorted–eventually bearing no resemblance to the circumstances that really exist, but just a very narrow interpretation.

This impacts everything we do, in our communities, with our friends, in our businesses, and with our customers.

From a business point of view, whether it’s our overall business strategy, how we approach markets/customers, or how we work a “deal/opportunity,” it leaves us hugely exposed.  We tend to see what we “want” to believe, not what might really be happening.

We are blinded to what’s really happening with our customers–missing opportunities to better serve them.

We are blinded to what’s happening in the markets and our competitors, particularly non traditional competition, putting our business at risk.

We are limited in our abilities to be creative and innovate.

While this narrowing of our perspectives seems to simplify things, it is terribly dangerous.

It turns out we can’t overcome this passively.  We have to actively fight it.  We have to actively look outside our tribes.  We have to turn off some of the technology filters that keep providing us information we want to hear/see, not what we need to hear/see.  We have to actively seek different points of view, differing perspectives–even those we don’t want to hear or see.

We have to look for insight, answers, perspectives in radically new places.

Sometimes the most important thing we can do to increase our success is look for and hear things we don’t want to hear.


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