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Provocative Selling — The “Shock And Awe” Of Selling?

by David Brock on August 21st, 2009

I just read To Sell More, Scare Customer Spitless by Geoffrey James at BNET.  The headline catches your attention–It’s a discussion of Geoffrey Moore’s Provocative Selling.

In case you have missed the discussion, Provocative Selling is the latest gimmick to catch your customer’s attention, making them aware of problems and opportunities to improve their business.  In the case made by Moore, you are making the customer aware of things they may not have been aware of in the past.  You surface areas of under performance relative to the industry or competition, you surface opportunities for growth or improvement.

While I have the greatest respect for Geoffrey Moore, for months I’ve been trying to figure out what all the hoop-la is about.  After all, isn’t it the sales professional’s job to help their customers improve their businesses, to discover new ways to grow, or to discover opportunities to improve performance?  So what’s new here?

Using a possibly painful analogy, it strikes me that Provocative Selling is now becoming the “Shock and Awe” of selling.  Let’s remember a few things, Shock and Awe doesn’t win the war, it gets things started.  We still have to win the war.  Shock and Awe comes at tremendous cost–to all involved.  Finally, Shock and Awe is usually the last resort, after you have exhausted all other alternatives.

I’ve spent some time trying to understand Provocative Selling and what’s really different.  There are some valuable concepts, though not necessarily novel ideas.  I have great respect for Mr. Moore, and perhaps, many of his ideas are being twisted by different interpretations of them, but here are some of my thoughts and reactions.

Provocative Selling focuses the sales person on identifying opportunities or problems the customer is unaware of.  Too often, sales people respond to a known customer need, pain, problem.  If we execute a consultative sales process well, we work with that customer in really understanding the dimensions of that problem, its costs and impacts, and present solutions to that known problem.  Sales people need to help their customers identify what they don’t know and understand the impact on the business.  Sales people need to help the customer understand problems they have been previously unaware of or new opportunities.

Provocative Selling focuses on creating a crisis.  Crises are great for grabbing management attention and sometimes as sales professionals, we need to do this.  But should that be the normal course of the relationship?  The best sales professionals offer leadership to their customers–on an ongoing basis.  They naturally help their customers think about their businesses differently and constantly engage their customers in presenting new ideas, opportunities, and ways to improve and grow their businesses.  Sales people who do not do this on an ongoing basis are doing their customers a disservice.   We shouldn’t be looking to create an event or crisis, but we should nurture relationships with our customers where we are constantly advising them on improving their business.  That is real and sustained value in building the relationship with the customer.

Provocative Selling creates the crisis and captures attention.  In all the conversations I have had with people implementing Provocative Selling, the focus is how do we capture the customer’s attention and create a new opportunity.  That’s fantastic, but what’s next?  The sales process must continue.  These are not one call closes (with the carefully orchestrated call that is outlined in the article).  These create the opportunity to compete, perhaps in a most favored role, but still you have to compete and manage the process to a successful conclusion. 

Provocative Selling is waking complacent companies up.  Too many organizations have become complacent in their success.  They have strong products, strong brands and reputations, and lots of momentum based on their success.  They may have lost their edge.  Think back to much of Mr. Moore’s orginal work.  It focused on new companies introducing new technologies and trying to grow their success.  Provocative Selling is at the core of any entrepreneurial company or those introducing new technologies.  They are often solving problems or creating opportunities their target markets have never thought of.  Each successful company achieved its success by being Provocative.  Somehow, success, size, and inertia cause many organizations to become complacent, not bringing new ideas to their customers.  Mr. Moore introduced us to the product life cycle curve and how to be effective at different stages.  Part of what he is doing in Provocative Selling is getting both sellers and customers to focus on that mature phase of the life cycle. 

In it’s current incarnation, Provocative Selling requires a major expeditionary force.  I’ve been talking to a lot of people implementing Provocative Selling.  Most of these are very large companies.  They make major investments in research and analysis.  They make major resource investments in both understanding markets and specific customer issues.  While it begs the question, why haven’t they been doing this on an ongoing basis, let me put that to the side.  As these companies implement Provocative Selling, they undertake major initiatives and investments, usually focused on their very most important current or potential customers.  While these have great short term impact on results and create dramatic case studies, the challenge is, “How do we make this part of the fabric of the business?”  Not only in how each and every sales person works with their customers, but how to our organizations continued to innovate in improving our customer’s businesses.

Related to this, the heavy investment in Provocative Selling can preclude many companies from investing in it.  We need to remember the pioneers of this approach, the small, underfunded, entrepreneurial organizations introducing new technologies and ideas to the market.  We need to capture their focus, intensity, rabid enthusiasm and best practices in achieving a foothold, crossing the chasm, and moving forward.

To the degree Provocative Selling is becoming a “fad,”  I’d hate to be a customer!  Imagine it, all these companies getting inundated with provocateurs—getting pummeled from all sides.  Where were you when I needed you?  Why did it take a business slow down to get you to do what you should have been doing all these years?  Which of the five provocative opportunities am I going to select?  Sorry, my cycnism is showing.  I actually think the concept is great, since it is waking us up to do our jobes.  I just worry about Provocative Selling being the current “in thing.”  I been both at the giving and receiving end of these efforts, sometimes it’s painful.

I’m actually quite excited about the conversaton Provocative Selling is causing in the sales community.  I see it as a wake up call for all professional sales people.  It is not a new concept, start ups have been doing it for years.  Consultants do it all the time.  Great sales professionals do this every day.  If anything, Provocative Selling reminds us of what we should be doing every day.  We need to move it from a “crisis” to standard execution.

More than having sales professionals embrace it, I hope customers embrace it.  I hope it becomes the standard expectation that all customers have of their suppliers and vendors.  I hope each customer expects the people selling to them should be bringing them ideas and solutions for growing and improving their businesses.  It raises the bar on sales perfromance, sets a nes standard.  Those sales people that can meet that new standard will separate themselves from all others, creating differentiated and sustained value!

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