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Numbers Make The Conversation More Interesting

by David Brock on December 31st, 2015

Numbers are the bane of many sales people’s existence.  Everyone wants to talk about numbers, but it’s far more fun and easy to talk about our cool products, the flashy features, and all the bells and whistles.

Or in conversations with our managers, it’s easier to talk about all the stuff we are doing, or the stuff the customer isn’t doing, than to talk about the numbers.

But let’s face it, numbers make the conversation more interesting—the right numbers!

Numbers catch the attention of executives and decision makers, so if we aren’t comfortable talking about the numbers, we’re going to struggle with producing results.  We may have lots of nice conversations, but we won’t drive the customer to commitment.

Our customers are interested in solving problems, producing results.  We measure results in numbers achieved in a specified time period.  It may be revenue uplift, expense reduction, improved capital utilization, increased productivity, better cashflow, improved customer retention/acquisition, improved market share, better time to profitability in a product launch, improved throughput, better quality, greater customer satisfaction, better gross margins, greater shareholder value, improved profitability.

We use numbers to assess risk, to forecast outcomes, to project what we might achieve, or to set targets/goals.

Numbers are what make the conversation real, personalized, and specific to the organization and people we are speaking with.

Decisions are made based on numbers—unfortunately, too often the only number we equip our customers with is the price.  So they have to figure out all the most important numbers.

Numbers are the great “fix” for the dreaded 57-70% of the buying process the customers are claimed undertake without sales.  They can learn a lot about products, solutions, issues.  They can even learn about someone else’s numbers.  But they can’t learn about their numbers.  We make the conversation interesting by helping the customer understand their numbers–both where they are currently, and what they might achieve.  They can’t get this from the web, they can’t get this from content, they can only get this when we engage them in conversations about their business.

We tend to focus on our product capabilities, the features and functions, how our offering compares to others.  But those primarily address the What and How issues.  We need numbers to address the Why issues — fundamentally, why change?  (Because our current numbers are unsatisfactory and the future numbers get us to where we need/want to be.).

We tend to push the numbers discussion until late in the sales cycle.  Part of this is because we confuse the numbers discussion with the price discussion.  Part is that we won’t know the specific numbers–the results and outcomes the customer expects to achieve until the end of the process.

But what would happen if we started having discussions about the numbers in our first or initial discussions with the customer?  What if we did enough homework to suggest, “We think you may be missing these opportunities which have this impact on your results?”  “We think you can improve the utilization of your manufacturing plants, or the productivity of your sales people, which may produce these results?”

What we’ve done is we’ve moved the “interesting conversations” to the start of the buying/selling process.  We may even provoke a customer that hadn’t intended to change, to realize they must change.

Yeah, I know many of you are saying, “But we don’t know enough about them, or what if we are wrong?”

I don’t buy those excuses.  There’s too much data available about our customers and their industries.  A few of the right questions can elicit enough data to start interesting conversations.  There are great tools that help you conduct the conversation.

But the most interesting thing, is you don’t have to be right!  You do have to be in the ballpark.  If you don’t know the problems you solve or your customers well enough to be in the ball park, then you don’t deserve to be in the meeting.

But if you have that estimate, if you can start the conversation with, “We think there is an opportunity….” it provokes the customer to respond, “How did you arrive at those numbers?”  Now you are in an interesting conversation.

It’s a conversation about your assumptions.  The assumptions may be off and the customer can help correct those assumptions.  Or the customer might says, what about this.  Soon the interesting discussion has become a discussion about potential outcomes they might achieve in working with you.

Isn’t that the interesting conversation you want to have with your customers?

Numbers make the conversations more interesting with our managers–but I’ll save that for another post.

My thanks to Jim Berryhill, CEO of Decisionlink, and Martin Schmalenbach for provoking this post.  By the way, the single best tool I know of to help you with these first and subsequent conversation is Decisionlink.  It was the CEO of one of their large customers that made the observation, “Numbers make the conversation more interesting.

Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

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  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    I was thinking a little more deeply about a statement towards the end of this blog, Dave: “Yeah, I know many of you are saying, ‘But we don’t know enough about them, or what if we are wrong?’”

    This is something you and I have discussed several times. For other readers, the background to these discussions is that my company is an engineering company – we are basically a bunch of engineers that design & manufacture semiconductors. If you’re not familiar with this process, just know that it is incredibly exacting, and a typical factory for making these things, known in the trade as a ‘fab’, will run cost you several $Billion (with a ‘B’!) to build…

    Being engineers, they don’t like to get things wrong – they want to be very accurate. Understandable, and highly commendable in our industry. And historically our industry has drawn its sales engineers from a similar pool of folks – the clue is in the job title….. sales ENGINEER. It used to be that your Field Sales Engineer or ‘FSE’ had to be very knowledgable about all the products you sold, so he (typically) could discuss product features and benefits with the customer. When things got sticky for the customer in terms of using these highly complex components, the Field Applications Engineer would go in and help out, often being the final link in the chain to getting a successful outcome for the client, and an order for us. And ‘back in the day’, with the industry growing at 25-30% in a BAD year, to sell, you just needed a pulse – sales skills as we would classify them today were a bonus it seems, not so much a ‘must have’. But that was before people changed the way they buy… something for another blog…

    So we’ve struggled at times to get our sales people to let go of the fact they need to give a 100% accurate and correct number to the client before the conversation can move on, and they don’t need to have a 100% correct number before they even APPROACH the client to start the conversation in the first place.

    This may explain things for my industry… in terms of struggle to engage earlier in the sales cycle about numbers…

    But what about all those other industries and markets out there – the ones I don’t play in, but where there are still issues about numbers? This got me thinking…

    Where my mental meanderings brought me to was this: people will use the excuse about the numbers not being accurate enough in order avoid the conversation with the customer because, in part, they are not confident in having these conversations about value and the client’s challenges – they have a quota to make, and their focus, driven in part by the promise of a nice commission cheque at the end of the month/quarter, is on themselves more than it needs to be on the client – and clients pick up on this very quickly…

    Moreover, they may not agree with this focus on the client, or this more nuanced approach to sales – where ‘sales’ perhaps don’t even appear in the name of their process – not a ‘sales process’ but a ‘client engagement process’ for example (as is the case for my company).

    This little ‘ah-ha’ moment for me opens the door to what we can do, and how we can do it, in terms of helping our current sales people, our future client engagement people, to engage with this alternative approach, to focus on the client more, and to have these conversations about relevant, even if inaccurate, numbers nearer the start of the engagement process.

    One area to address is self confidence – the confidence the client engagement manager (no longer just or mainly a sales person now…) has to start and sustain a conversation with a key influencer and decision maker, about relevant numbers. Confidence in the value proposition itself, confidence in the framework for making the client aware of this proposition, and confidence in engaging with a client contact who, hopefully, will be appropriately awkward in the way they engage – awkward because they will push back, awkward because they won’t accept all your numbers or even the premise of the question behind them, awkward because they will push and challenge you to show them why they should change, why it should be now, and why they should do so in partnership with you. Because these awkward client contacts are being awkward BECAUSE they are engaged, and they are ENGAGED because they see possibility in what you have to offer… that there is sufficient value to them right now to continue the conversation…

    How do you build confidence in these areas? Well, first you need to have a value proposition – not an easy thing to pull together. And actually you need several – one that is unwavering, and is the ‘corporate level’ value proposition – why, irrespective of your products & services, doing business with you is a good idea. Then there is a more specific value proposition… this is the one that is build together WITH the client, and arises from the conversations you have with the client… you build it together, so now it is THEIR value proposition about doing business with you, that THEY built. They will rarely argue with their own creation!

    Developing these skills and capabilities is a largely practical affair – some training in the value proposition and the ability to create and tailor a further value proposition WITH the client – the product of teaching the client something about their situation (insight), tailoring a value proposition around THEIR situation as well as your products & services, and taking control of the client engagement process so you can get the client through their decision process more quickly than if they were left to their own devices… they actually value this last aspect tremendously – it can be a great differentiator!

    So, some up front training. And then a lot of practice and feedback – simulations in a safe environment – realistic, challenging, but of sufficient quality and fidelity to enable the individual to build his/her confidence…

    … and then a mechanism and framework for getting feedback after a conversation with a client contact – either by having a buddy/coach be in the meeting/call and observe, or being able to ‘self coach’ or give yourself feedback that is honest & constructive. Part of this last aspect is in having some key metrics that can’t lie… for example, a count of how many times the deal date has been pushed back… THAT should be the trigger to have a searching period of reflection by yourself, as well as aided by a respected coach/peer, as to why this is happening, and what it really means, and what to do about it that is different from before…

    I know from my limited forays in to studying neuroscience that people need a context against which to make a decision. If you don’t give them one, they all create their own.

    What does this mean in the world of sales? If you don’t provide the context needed for the client to make the decision you’d like them to make, by discussing amongst other things, these key numbers early in the engagement, then you literally are forcing the client to look at the only numbers they can get their hands on, that you are willing to give them, which is price. A number, which, because of your approach, is almost certainly WRONG when you give it because very quickly after giving it, you are in a discussion about REDUCING it… mostly because the rest of the needed context isn’t there and the client is juggling PERCEIVED RISK as well as PRICE, and one way to dial down perceived risk is to get a much lower price – we use this justification all the time when we are buying stuff for ourselves – “It was only $5 instead of the usual $20, so I thought I’d give it a try – it’s only $5 if it doesn’t work out…” – and often times, in sales, the quality of the product or service being good enough is assumed…

    So, have the numbers conversation EARLIER, and don’t care about it being accurate numbers – the conversation, in my experience, tends to be better when the numbers are OFF – not way off that they aren’t credible, but still…

    Have a successful 2016!
    If you don’t giver

    • Wow Martin, I should give you a “guest blog” on this response. There’s so much in here. I’ll only address and reinforce a couple of points.

      1. As I’ve reflected, I think numbers–a preliminary business case as early in the buying process as possible is critical. In the very least it addresses the issue of “why do anything at all?” Without this, the customer has no reason to look at buying.
      2. The numbers don’t have to be right, they have to be in the ball park, all you are trying to do is capture the attention and imagination of the customer, provoking the question, “How did you arrive at those numbers?” With that, the process becomes a collaborative, jointly owned process.
      3. From 2, now we move into developing the value collaboratively. Once they start getting engaged, we can work to identify assumptions, risks, areas of improvement, refining the business case as we go. But we are doing it together, co-creating value.
      4. Huge issues on sales people’s knowledge, confidence and skills on this. It’s beyond business acumen and building financial selling skills (many of the numbers will be operational). It’s about giving the sales person the confidence to engage in the conversation, to challenge the numbers/assumptions, to know what to look for and help the customer. I think this is a huge area that’s missed in most sales training, as well as sales tools.

      I’ll stop here. As you know, you’ve fueled a number of ideas for new posts 😉 Thanks and best wishes for the New Year! Regards, Dave

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