I’ve been having trouble with a sales person. He’s someone I’ve done business with a few times before. It started a few months ago.
He sold my wife her last car. He knows her lease is coming to an end in July. A few months ago, he politely called me (wonder why he didn’t call my wife) asking our intentions at the end of the lease. I told him, “She loves the car, she’ll probably buy the current model at the end of her current lease. Why don’t you ask her?” He politely asked, “Would you make sure to call me when you want to get the new car?” I responded we would and we concluded the conversation.
A couple days later, he calls me. I noticed it was the end of the month. “We have a great promotion on that model of car right now! You can get the new model with no penalty……..” I knew he wanted to make a deal now, I knew he had to make his numbers. I thanked him for the call, but said that we really didn’t want to replace her current car until July. I said, “Please, we’ll talk to you in July, don’t worry. Just don’t bother us until then.” I still wondered why he was talking to my wife–who is the decision maker for this purchase. But I figured I was saving her some aggravation.
Guess what, toward the end of the next month, there was a replay of the same conversation of the previous month. This time, I was a little less polite. “We will talk to you when we are going to buy a car. I just don’t want you bothering me until then. Please don’t call us until July!”
Guess what happened the end of last month? Yes, the phone rang, I picked it up, the moment I heard his voice I interrupted. “How many times do I have to tell you this. We are not interested in a car until July. I’ve told you this several times before, but you are ignoring what we want. So here’s the bottom line, I don’t want to hear from you again. We will not buy a car from you. We will find another dealership. If I ever hear from you again, I will call the owner of the dealership!”
While this is a bit dramatic, it’s not all that uncommon. The problem was, this sales person was more concerned about solving his problem–making his number, than he was about solving our problem. In the end, his focus on his issues caused him to lose the whole deal.
Too often, we find ourselves in similar positions. We’re behind on our numbers, our managers are pressuring us, our pipeline’s a light, we need to make something happen. We start focusing on our problem–we need to close deals.
It’s all about understanding what’s really important, focusing all our attention and energy on that–eliminating all other distractions.
Our job as sales professionals is to maximize our value creation and differentiation with current and prospective customers. The moment our focus shifts from this — we actually start reducing our ability to be successful in achieving our objectives.
It happens in many ways, often in just small things, sometimes unconsciously.
In the example above, the sale person had created, through past relationships and attentiveness, enough value that we intended to buy the car from him. Once he knew that, his goal shifted to buying the car on a schedule that served him rather than serving us. He has lost our business (and referral business forever).
The problem about pushing for the order prematurely, is obvious–we know how that works.
But there are other things that go wrong when we focus on solving our problems:
Our funnels are light, we need more in our funnel–we set out to solve our funnel/pipeline problem. We relax our qualification criteria, we fill our funnel, we’ve solved that problem—but the quality of the funnel has plummeted. Our win rates go down, our ability to connect in relevant ways with the customer goes down (because we’re chasing the wrong customer). Customers don’t want to see us. We try to fix this by casting an even wider net. We go into a death spiral.
We don’t have enough time to do everything that we need to. Rather than focusing and eliminating time drains, we solve our problem, we don’t prepare for calls and meetings with the customer. We waste the customer’s time, hurt our relationship. We fail to accomplish what we should, so we have to schedule another call to correct the situation—creating more pressure on our time. We may thrash about trying to do more stuff, but the quality of our activity is bad, it’s unfocused, we end up wasting the customer time and ours.
Pretty soon, all these things pile up on us—we’re too busy, we’re chasing deals—bad deals, we aren’t closing business, we aren’t creating differentiated value for the customer, we aren’t making our numbers–which was the problem we were trying to solve.
It seems counterintuitive, but we always solve our problems by focusing on the customer and solving the customer’s problems. But there are some caveats to this:
- Are we working with the right customers and prospects?
- Do they have a real problem to solve and a great sense of urgency in solving their problem?
- Do we have a superior solution to their problems? Can we differentiate our offering in ways meaningful and valuable to them?
- Does the customer consider us a serious alternative to solving their problem?
If we focus on these customers–or finding them, it’s amazing, it always enables us to solve our problems. We stop wasting time on chasing bad deals (and annoying those customers). We move the customer to buying, not because we need the order, but they need to achieve the outcomes.
Narrowing our focus, increasing our ability to spend time with a high quality set of opportunities, intensifying our conversations around what they want to achieve and assuring they “buy it,” always produce outcomes that solve our problems.
What do you see in this picture? It’s a very famous–some people see an old woman, others see a young woman. Some of you may just be able to see one image, you’ll have to ask me for clues for the other.
Even though I knew there were two different images in this picture, it took me a long time to “find” the old woman (tells you where my mind is at). However hard I stared at the picture, however hard I tried to block the image of the younger woman, I really had difficulty finding the older woman.
After a few minutes, I finally had the “aha” moment. After that, it was amazing, I could switch my focus–I could look at the younger woman, then change my focus to look at the older woman–then go back. But I had to train myself to look at things differently and to look at different things.
I think buying and selling is often very much like this picture. We and the customer are looking at the same thing. But what we see is completely different. We may be looking at the younger woman, the customer may just see the older woman. We talk with the customer, we both are looking at the same thing, we are hearing the same thing, but we are really disconnected and talking about something that’s completely different.
Even though we know we are supposed to see things through the “buyer’s eyes,” and understand the customer’s point of view, the harder we look the more difficult it becomes. We stare at the picture, we cover one eye, then the other. We turn it upside down, but all we can see is the “young woman.” As hard as we try, all we see is our solution. We think we are seeing things from the customer’s point of view, but we are just seeing our solution. We are genuinely trying, but we are just blind.
The customer has the same problem, even if they are trying to “see” and understand our solution, all they “see” is the “old woman.” In our best sales form, we try to get them to understand, but they don’t. We get frustrated, they get frustrated, we aren’t connecting.
This problem is not just limited to buyer-seller relationships. Managers-subordinates don’t connect. Sales and marketing don’t connect. We all look at the same things, we all genuinely try to see the other picture, but we just see what we see and not what the other person sees.
It gets more complicated: We may be seeing things differently. To see things differently, we have to be seeing the same thing–but interpreting them differently. Is the young woman pretty? Is she elegant? We are see the same image, but have different points of view or assessments of the same image. At least we can discuss these differences in interpretation and reconcile them.
But the more difficult challenge is when we are looking at different things. We may never recognize it. Until we do, we can never align or connect. We will talk past each other, we frustrate each other, and waste time. All unintentionally, we just don’t recognize we are seeing different things.
And too often, we are unconscious. We may not even recognize there is a different picture. We may not recognize that customer, our manager, and others may be looking at the same thing, but seeing different things. Or we may not care.
To be successful in whatever we do, whether it’s working with a customer to solve a problem, or a manager coaching someone, or trying to align sales and marketing, we have to recognize that we all see things differently and may be seeing different things. Before we can connect, communicate, and make progress, we have to first make sure we’re seeing the same thing. We may see things differently, but we have a basis for understanding the differences and reconciling them.
How do we do this?
Putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes is one approach. We have to understand who they are, their role, what they do, what they value, their attitudes, behaviors, what turns them on, what pisses them off, and so forth. We have to invest in understanding the person. Also, hopefully, they invest in understanding us–but that’s not necessarily their obligation in a buyer/seller relationship.
We have to understand their company, their industry, their role. I have a natural affinity with CEO’s, VP”s of Sales, VP’s of Marketing, and Sales People. I’ve held those jobs. I understand the pressures, the challenges, I can bond with them easily and more easily see what they see–often because I’ve seen similar things.
But I also can connect with VP’s of Engineering and Manufacturing. I can connect with CFO’s. I can connect with Procurement Professionals, even though I’ve never held those jobs. I’ve taken the time to study and learn. I take every opportunity to talk with them, to follow them around and to try to see things through their eyes. It’s not always perfect, but I can more easily see what they see.
Setting Aside Our Own Points Of View is another critical way to see the other person’s picture. Our own point of view prevents us from seeing other’s and other pictures. We have to be able to set our own views aside. We think our products and solutions are the best. We can’t ever imagine someone thinking otherwise. We see things “with an agenda.” Until we set that aside, we’re trapped and blind.
Asking For Help, Asking Them To Show You Their Picture Vividly. It sounds obvious, but we often don’t do it. Truthfully, I needed help to see the “Old woman” in the picture. I was in a meeting and puzzling over the picture. Finally, I asked someone, “Do you see the old lady in the picture?” The person said yes, then started tracing the old woman’s face–here’s her scarf, eyes, nose, chin……. It became obvious.
Yet too often, we don’t take the time to ask someone to describe their picture vividly. We don’t probe and really understand it. We need to take the time, we need to be vulnerable and ask. We need to listen openly and without an agenda.
It’s a very difficult challenge. But we have to recognize it–and that it impacts everyone.
We may be looking at the same picture, but we see different things and we see things differently. Until we recognize and address this, we will never succeed.
As much as sales people try to sell solutions or sell value, too often they fall back on great products. They focus on product, features, functions, feeds and speeds. Recently, I saw a “sales playbook” from an enterprise software company. It was 121 pages, of feature by feature comparison of their product to competition, “Our date field is structured this way, which is better than the competitors………”
Too often, particularly with organizations with great, hot, or complex products, our selling is really about the product and nothing else. We limit ourselves, we frustrate the customers. As great as our products may be, for the customer it’s not about the product.
We work with lots of organizations whose products have become commodities. Some of them sell sand—well, it’s silicon for semiconductors. Others sell basic materials like chemicals.
They face the ultimate selling challenge—how do you differentiate your solutions when your product is not differentiated?
How would you change how you sell when you are selling sand? When your product is not different than the product your competitor sells, how do you set yourself apart, maintain your margins, and win business from someone else that’s selling exactly the same product?
What’s amazing, by circumstance, these sales people understand it’s not about the product. That customers buy for a huge number of reasons that have nothing to do with the product that you are selling.
These sales people sell differently. I never see PowerPoint decks proclaiming the features, functions, feeds and speeds about why the beach they got their sand from is better than the beach competitors get their sand from (I can imagine the beaches in Fiji being decimated.) I never see 121 page playbooks talking about the molecular superiority of their sand.
They realize the customer is buying much more than the product. There are all sorts of things beyond the product that are important to the customer. It may be supply chain management, logistics services, reliability of supply, risk mitigation. They focus on the entire customer buying experience, making it easy for the customer to buy.
They exploit intriguing strategic alliances, perhaps coming up with unique formulations that help their customers better service their customers. While their product is consumed in manufacturing, they work with design to make sure the product is being utilized as efficiently and effectively as possible. And often, they realize it’s the sales person herself that’s the differentiator.
When your product is a commodity, you have to create value and differentiation on things other than the product you ship. How you sell, and what you sell changes profoundly.
How would your selling change if you sold sand?
Now imagine you have a great and differentiated product. What if you are selling complex enterprise software, a complex manufacturing or design system, professional services, something else?
How would your competitiveness change if you combined the lessons one learns from selling sand, with a great and differentiated solution? You would become unbeatable! You will have broken the magic code—one that customers tell us every day, but we don’t listen to, what the customer buys is not just about the product. It’s about so much more.
Any time you are struggling in differentiating your solutions to the customer. Imagine your product is sand. Imagine your product is exactly the same as all others your customer is considering. Now what do you do? How do you create value, how do you differentiate yourself, how do you get your customer to buy you? If you need help, just ask your customer. They really don’t care about the product, they care about what they are buying.
Could you sell sand?
(Today, Matt Heinz wrote a related article you should read, The Commodity Sale Is Dead. Thanks for the inspiration Matt.)
We all have them, Questions We’re Afraid To Ask. They’re obvious, but we’re afraid to ask them. Will we offend the customer? Will they make us look stupid? Are we afraid of the answer we might get?
Not asking these questions are what holds us back. Usually, they involve a root issue–not asking them holds us back. We may be chasing a bad opportunity, we may be missing something fundamental, we may be making an error, we may not be contributing in the most important way possible. Almost always, the question is obvious. It’s staring us in the face, we know it’s the question we have to ask, but we are afraid to.
It’s amazing, when we finally screw up the courage to ask the question, how much it opens things up. It clears the air, it’s immediately freeing–we can now talk about what’s really important, we’ve removed that block that’s stood between us, the customer, and moving forward.
I see these questions every time I do a review with someone. They never bring up the question, they talk about everything except the question. When I ask them about it, the response is, “Can I really ask that question?”
Here are some that I’ve encountered:
“Do you have a real need to buy?” Actually, this is my shorthand, it’s almost never posed this way. In qualification and actually through the sales process it keeps popping up. We’ve engaged a customer, they seem interested in talking to us, they seem interested in learning and getting information–but things don’t move forward. It just seems to be one nice conversation after another. We suspect they may not be doing anything, at least soon. We begin to wonder what it takes to move the deal forward, when they are going to buy. We have them in our pipeline, we dutifully updated CRM and review things with our manager. We strategize getting them to move forward. How do we create that compelling event of reason to get them to make a decision. When what we really need to do is ask them, “Do you have a real need to buy?”
We’re afraid to ask that question, particularly later in the sales cycle. We’re afraid of the answer–it might be, “No.” We’ve invested a lot of time in the customer, they have invested time in us. We will pursue a deal forever, rather than face a thoughtful discussion that might end up with, “Now that we talk about it, we really don’t have a compelling need to buy right now.”
“Why would you possibly be interested in doing business with us?” I encounter this often. Typically, there is an incumbent competitor. They have served the customer well. They have a strong offering, the customer seems happy, or at least we have never asked. Or we may be a small player competing against a much larger and very capable competitor. We have good meetings with the customer, but something just doesn’t seem right. In our deepest thoughts, we wonder, “Why would they possibly want to do business with us?” When we are honest with ourselves, we think if we were in their shoes, we wouldn’t change from the current vendors—the risks are too high, the costs are too much, there just isn’t a compelling reason.
We’re afraid to ask that question, because, they might say, “You know you are right. There is no reason to change.” On the other hand, we have the opportunity to learn where they are really concerned, what they are really unhappy with, why they want to consider changing, why they want to look at buying from us. Years ago, I was working with a team on a very large deal. They had the opportunity to displace an incumbent vendor. The customer had $100′s of millions invested—between systems, programming, process changes, and so forth. The decision maker was the keynote speaker at the upcoming user group meeting.
In our internal planning session, I posed the question, “Why would the consider changing?” The response was, “We don’t know, but they are talking to us, let’s not rock the boat!” I persisted, saying that it really didn’t make sense to change–as good as my client’s solutions were, putting myself in the customer’s shoes, based on what we knew, a change just didn’t make sense.
In the end, they invited me to accompany them on a call on the decision maker. Eventually, I posed the question. The flood gates opened. It turns out the customer was very unhappy, but the team didn’t know because they never asked the obvious question. Once the customer was given the opportunity to talk, he told them precisely how to win the business–which they ultimately achieved.
Many years ago, we won a huge piece of business, competing with a very large, well known consulting firm. I was so thankful in getting the business, but was afraid to ask “why did you choose us?” Eventually, I had the courage to ask this. The response startled me. It wasn’t what I expected, but the single thing that caused us to win that business has become a cornerstone to our business and success. Had I never asked the question, I wouldn’t have learned something that has been key to our growth and differentiation for the past 10 years.
There are many other questions we are afraid to ask:
- What did we do wrong? Why did we lose your business?
- What could we do better or differently?
- What should we change?
- Do we make a difference? Have we delivered to your expectations?
We’re often afraid to ask the important, obvious questions, so we never do. We move forward, blindly, hopefully. We don’t ask, often because we are afraid of the answer. But when we do, there is immediate clarity. There is a path forward. While we may not like the answers we get, we can take action. If we ask the question, “Do you really have a need to buy,” and the answer is “No,” we can stop wasting our time and the customer’s. If we ask, “Why would you ever consider buying from us,” and they say, “You know, you’re right, we really shouldn’t change at this time.” We stop wasting our time and the customer’s.
Without asking these tough questions, we tend to fool ourselves. Without being asked these tough questions, the customers may be fooling themselves as well. Asking, answering, discussing these tough questions brings great clarity and simplifies everything.
Think about those tough deals that are stalled. What is the question you are afraid to ask? Go ask it immediately. The answer, good or bad is the answer you need to move forward.
What are the questions you are afraid to ask? I’d love to learn.