The concept of provoking our customers, getting them to think about their businesses differently is a key element of providing insights. Paraphrasing Brent Adamson, to help our customers “unlearn” we have to show them what they are currently doing may be wrong. That is, there may be different ways of operating that will produce superior results, or there may be opportunities they are missing.
It’s a powerful concept. But it’s one that requires deep knowledge about the customer, their operations, their markets/customers, and their competition. It’s not something that can be pulled off without having a strong basis of credibility and trust with the customer. Executed poorly, it can produce devastating results.
But well done, it can be transformative, both for the customer and our effectiveness in engaging the customer. The power of these insights or provocative messages is they help the customer think and learn. Inevitably, they are about the customer business, not what we sell. They create tremendous value.
However, it seems too many organizations only see “provocative,” missing all the stuff required to develop and effectively communicate high impact/relevant insights. Instead they focus on provocation.
Here’s an example. It’s from a “marketing” company. Apparently, they focus on improving your communication effectiveness, demand generation, lead gen, and content. This was the 6th email they sent (the previous 5 were almost as bad). These were sent to a client, EVP of Global Sales and Marketing for a $1B plus organization.
(I’ve only changed the names and links)
Subject: Guess who’s back…back again!
You thought you got rid of me? Really [Bob], I’m surprised you thought I’d give up that easily. Rest assured, if you don’t respond on this request it will be my last.
Or will it?
Could you please take 15 seconds to help me? I am trying, as you know, to find out who the big cheese is when it comes to making your organization’s marketing decisions. You spent at least 20 seconds reading this email, and who knows how much time will be spent reading the next ten I am going to send. Responding now would just be smart math!
Anxiously looking forward to your reply.
Business prospecting email: 6 of 137
See some of the things we do[Link] and some of the clients we’ve worked for [Link]
Business Development Manager
[Street Address]| Carmel, IN 46032
(w) (317) [555-1212]
Seriously, respond to my email telling me to go away and I will.
Certainly, this email was provocative, as were the previous 5 emails my client, “Bob,” had chosen to ignore. In this case, provocation became obnoxiousness.
Clearly, the sender hadn’t done his homework–in any of the 6 emails he had sent. He didn’t offer anything new to Bob. Bob didn’t get any insights about the critical issues his industry is facing or their potential impact on his company and their customers (there are some very important regulatory changes which present great new opportunities in the market.)
Instead, the email was all about what the sender wanted. He demanded to talk to someone and he was asking for that information with no expectation of what Bob might get in return. The links they offered were no more than samples of the work or a page of vanity logos. The work wasn’t distinctive, and there was no mention of outcomes or results. (Bob didn’t click on the links or trigger their tracking, I found the locations by going to their website anonymously.)
In short, what was probably intended to be provocative ended up simply being obnoxious. Everything about the email was about the sender and what they wanted, nothing about Bob and the issues he faces.
There’s a bigger problem with obnoxiousness. Bad prospecting is just ignored. Obnoxiousness, provokes and angry reactions–responses the sender may be oblivious to. For example, Bob sent this to me asking, “Could you write a blog about this!”
For service providers–those selling marketing, demand gen, content development, or any sales related service, obnoxiousness is more devastating. Bob’s reaction, “Is this the way they would represent my company and my brand? Will they antagonize my customers the way they have antagonized me?”
Provocation, properly done takes deep knowledge, great skill and talent.
Anyone can be obnoxious!
I was reading a sales blog post on critical questions to ask the customer. One that jumped out to me was the advice to make sure you ask, “Are you the decisionmaker?”
Perhaps I’m being too nit-picky, but it seems to be a terrible question. As I reread it, I thought, what do we learn from the response to the question?
First the response can only be “Yes,” or “No.” (I thought it was conventional wisdom that open ended questions tend to elicit more information than closed ended questions.)
We really learn very little from the response to this question, and what we learn is likely to be very inaccurate.
We also know that in complex B2B decisions, there are more likely 5.4, or whatever research you rely on. So asking if an individual is the decisionmaker isn’t very illuminating, we still have to determine who the other 4.4 are.
Additionally, people tend to inflate their own self importance in things, so they are likely to answer in the affirmative, even if they are peripheral players.
Unfortunately, this is the very question sales people ask too often. And they rely on the answer. So if the individual responds, “Yes,” the sales person latches on to that individual counting on that person to be the person who will carry the day for them. We don’t need to know the latest research on buying and the number of decision-makers involved. Our experience should inform us that it’s very unlikely a single individual is the decisionmaker. We know people increasingly avoid personal risk, so they want others in the boat with them. We know in complex B2B decisions, it’s likely to impact many people and organizations, so they are likely to be involved. We know, even if we are dealing with the CEO, that she will want the complete support and engagement of her team, so she will get other people involved.
I’m constantly amazed in doing deal reviews for very large complex deals, how badly sales people do in identifying who is involved in the process. Most of the time, efforts are focused on an individual–the person we know, the person who likes us, the person who will see us. Too many sales people stop there, failing to identify who else is involved, failing to understand how the decision will be made, failing to figure out whether they are dealing with the right person.
Better questions would include:
Who’s involved in making this decision? (Or who else is involved?) It’s our job to determine the other 4.4. We can take the response, expanding to understand the interrelationships between people, how they will be organizing themselves to buy, and many other things.
What’s your role in this project/decision? At least in the phrasing of this question, we get the individual to be more descriptive of their role. We can take the response in many directions, perhaps understanding who else is involved, the individual’s attitudes, why they are involved, their vested interest, and all sorts of other things.
These open ended questions also lead us to understand their buying and decisionmaking processes. We can learn how they’ve organized themselves to buy, what’s important to each person, where we should be focusing our efforts, how we can help in facilitating their buying process.
We can even learn that they may not know. They may be struggling with buying, as a result we can help them.
Understanding who’s involved, why, what they are trying to achieve, how they will buy, who we need to work with is critical to understanding a deal and winning it. We need to know more than “Are You The Decisionmaker?”
Earlier today, I was interviewed for an article on “Closing The Sale.” The article is in a publication focused on small business owners. As we concluded the conversation, the interviewer said, “Your answers were completely different than I expected.”
I think too many of us–entrepreneurs and sales people, alike, have mistaken impressions of closing the sale. As a result, we close far fewer deals than we might. Leveraging (and paraphrasing) Adriana’s questions, I thought I’d refresh your thinking about closing the sale.
What are the key components that lead up to closing any sale?
Implicitly, this question focuses on the final few things one might do at the end of the sales cycle, leading to the close. In reality, the most critical elements of the close are in prospecting and qualifying—long before we even close the sale. The two most critical things are:
Is the customer/opportunity squarely in our sweet spot? Our sweet spot is defined by two elements, what problems are we the best in the world at solving, and who has those problems? It’s the intersection of these two elements that maximize our ability to win. We are focusing on those customers in which our solutions are most differentiated and where our value creation is likely to be the greatest. Sticking to our sweet spot is critical if we want to maximize our win rates and our ability to close with a favorable decision. The problem too many organizations or sales people have is they don’t take the time to define these well. Consequently, they tend to cast a very wide net, trying to close any one that shows interest. As a result, however, we find ourselves wasting our time and that of the customers competing for deals we don’t deserve to win.
The second critical thing is: Does the customer have a compelling need to change? Everyone fears change, people tend to avoid change. Consequently, the easiest decision for any customer is to continue doing what they currently are doing, or to do nothing. Most of the time, sales people present a vision of a great future. They talk about how great things might be. But until the customer has said, “Our current state is unacceptable. We can no longer continue doing things the way we have, we must change,” the likelihood of closing the sale is very low. There is too much going against us in getting the customer to make the change and take the risk of changing. Great sales people overcome this by disrupting the customer’s thinking. They do this by focusing on the current state, helping the customer identify the problems preventing them from moving forward, or operating at the highest levels of performance, or the opportunities they may be missing. Any talk of solutions or the future is wasted until the customer is dissatisfied with the current.
How do you instill confidence in the customer that they should be selecting you instead of someone else?
The natural response from most sales people is to demonstrate our superior value, to convince them we have a better product/solution. Under pressure, many sales people would add another element: Offer all that at the cheapest price.
Given that’s the way most of your competitors will work, focusing on their solutions and offerings, trying to outcompete each other on features, functions, feeds, speeds, pricing, the best way to compete is not to. Instead, make all your focus on the customer. What is it they are trying to achieve? What are the risks, challenges? How do they organize themselves to make a decision (remember we are dealing with the famous 5.4)? How do we help them buy, how do we address the personal and group fears about the change and decision process.
Since most sales people tend to fall into bad habits, thinking about what they want to achieve and their goals, distinguishing ourselves with the customer by focusing totally on them. It makes the need to differentiate the solution smaller, because the deal becomes less about the solution the customers choose, but of helping assure they are making the right decision and they will be successful with their project.
How does one overcome customer objections or hesitations?
This is a pretty short response: Listen, probe, understand. Only once you’ve done this, can you begin to address their concerns. The problem with most of your competitors, consequently, the opportunity for you, is they tend to react and respond before they have done this.
Are there different techniques for closing a sales based on the type of business?
There are endless articles, books, courses offering the 15 guaranteed closing techniques, the 27 ways a customer can’t say no, or any other outlandish number of manipulations.
Moving to the close is dependent on two things: How well the opportunity has been set up in qualification, and how successful we’ve been in helping the facilitate the customer buying process. It has nothing to do with anything else.
Remember, a couple of questions ago, I suggested the most important thing in qualification is to get the customer to say, “Our current state is unacceptable, we must change.” If we’ve done this well, the customer has to move to a solution. The costs, risks, problems of doing nothing have become unacceptable, so they must do something. Sometimes in their buying process, they loose track of this, we need to gently remind them. Sometimes, it’s as simple as saying, “Every week you wait, this is costing you $10M in revenue.” (This was the clincher in reminding a client on a project with my company). If they believe they can’t not take action, then we don’t need any closing techniques.
Having said that, it’s easy for them to get derailed on the way. It’s their own ability to organize themselves (the 5.4 again), align agendas, priorities, goals, objectives, and dreams to make a decision. Too often, they get overwhelmed with the complexity of their own organization, so they give up–they make no decision. It’s our job to facilitate the process, to help them help themselves.
After closing the deal, what should be the next steps?
One thing: Make sure they are successful!
The risk to each person involved in the decision is far greater than the risk sales faces. Customer failure has profound impacts on their company, and everyone involved. They will miss opportunities, fail to achieve the savings or improvements they expected. In some cases, it can cause companies to fail. Personally, each person involved is at risk, they fail to achieve their own goals–and may lose their jobs.
We have an obligation to do everything we can, before and after the close, to make sure they can be successful and support them in achieving that success (not necessarily for free). If the customer fails, then we have failed. That means, it is difficult for us to do more, to expand, within the account, to find more opportunities to grow the relationship. We never get the opportunity to leverage the power of referrals.
So the deal is never closed until the customer has achieved success!
Thanks for stimulating my thinking on this Adriana!