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What Do I Talk To Them About?

by David Brock on September 24th, 2009

Just got off a call with some experienced sales people.  We are starting an initiative in contacting current and past customers, hopefully to discover and pursue new opportunities.  I sensed some apprehension in the meeting, finally I paused to ask them, “It seems like you have some concerns about what we are doing?”  There was that pause, which on the phone seems like forever, when one of the sales people finally said, “I’m OK with calling these customers up, but what do I talk to them about?  What should I be presenting, what should I be pitching, what should I be trying to sell?”

For a moment, the question floored me.  After thinking a moment, I realized these sales people–as with so many–had been used to calling customers either in response to a specific need, or they had been used to calling around a marketing initiative and pitching a new porgram.  They had never taken the opportunity to talk to a customer and learn from them.  Upon further reflection, I realized this is a bigger issue than I ever guessed.  Another client is launching a new product.  As part of the launch strategy, the sales people are expected to talk to end users—people they have never met before.  These sales people are asking the same question, “What do I talk to them about?”  Several months ago, another client launched an initiative to expand relationships and visibility in their key accounts, the key concern was the same, “What should I be presenting, what do I talk about.”

Don’t misunderstand me, all of these people are experienced and successful sales people.  They are capable, know their products, and have produced results.  Somehow, they have lost the ability of talking to a customer unless they are responding to a specific opportunity or presenting specific solutions.

It’s important for sales people to understand how to engage their customers in a conversation about the customer, not about the sales person’s product, solution, or pitch.  What do we talk to them about—-we talk to them about them, their jobs, their goals, their dreams, their concerns, their problems.  Rather than going into a customer meeting with a briefcase full of brochures, case studies, and the latest PowerPoint presentation, we need to walk in to the customer with a blank pad of paper, and a list of questions.

Rather than going into the customer and saying, “We have this great product that does these wonderful things for customers like you, are you interested in buying it,” we discover more opportunities by asking questions like, “What keeps you awake at night?”  “What are your plans or major projects for the next 6 months?  What are your top priorities now?”   ….and the list goes on.  We need to get the customer to talk about themselves and then we need to listen and take notes.

“But, what do I talk to my customer about?”  As my friend, Jill Konrath says, “The best sales questions have your expertise wrapped into them.”  So if I am selling IT services, in talking to the IT staff, I want to learn about their application backlog, their plans for expanding and growing their systems, any problems they are having meeting end user demands.  In talking to users, I want to learn about how they are using the systems and tools available to them, I want to learn about things they’d like to do or see in a system.  I might like to explore some “what if” opportunities with them.  For example, I might ask “If you had the ability to do this (something specific), what would the impact be on this (something they do in their job)?   The responses to these questions are things that I might be able to do something about. 

This morning, after we went through the discussion, the sales people were still a little uncomfortable.  “OK Dave, once we ask them about what they are doing, what their plans are, and what their problems are; what should we be pitching to them?  We need to start selling them something, what do we do next?”

“What do we do next, “—there it is again, our instincts are to start presenting.  If a customer mentions something important that you can act on, you may want to start talking a little about it, but generally opportunities don’t present themselves that clearly.  So, what do we do next?  First, we thank the customer for their time.  We explain to them that understanding what they do, what their priorities are, and what their concerns are help us better support them in achieving their goals.  The we say, we need to take the time to reflect on their comments and ask if we can call them up later to talk about some ideas.

The most important thing we can do next is to go back to our offices, read our notes, and reflect on the issues they raised.  Is there anything we can offer that will help them achieve their goals or eliminate problems?  If there is, we can start developing our strategies to get back to them, qualify a potential opportunity and move through their buying process.  Or perhaps, if we can’t provide a solution for them, we can direct them to a resource that can help them.  Or perhaps, we can’t help them directly, but we use the insight they have provided to go to others in the company and talk about solutions they might provide–with our help.  For example, if I am selling IT services to IT people, I can take the insight I have gained from end users and talk to the IT people about how they, with our help, might solve that end user’s problems.

“What do we talk to them about?”  I have to admit, I am still surprised by that issue.  To me, learning about my customers, what they do, where they are going, how they are going to get there; is one of the most exciting things about selling.  Learning about my customers, getting them to talk, makes my job much easier because it helps me quickly find new opportunities—perhaps the opportunity is different than I anticipated, but I never would have discovered it if I had been pitching rather than listening.  But after all, aren’t we just trying to find new opportunities?

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  1. It’s the conversation that makes the difference. Sales is about influence. Without the conversation there is less to influence. The less there is too influence, the more difficult it is to get the sale.

    Nice post

    • Jim, you are right on target. Sales is all about establishing a meaningful conversation with the customer, yet too few sales people take the time to do this. Sales becomes much easier through the conversation, but sales people choose the hard way, pissing off customers on the way by pounding them with the latest greatest pitch, making them suffer through endless and mindless powerpoints, leaving them with 20 pounds of brochures.

      The customer, if they have had the patience to suffer through this, is then left to figure out on their own, “does this solve my problem.”

      With your team, try this out: Ask them to call on an individual they don’t know in one of your established accounts. Tell them they cannot take any collateral, but they can only take their business card, a pad of paper, a pen, and a call plan with their qeustions. First look at the fear in their eyes, they really don’t know what to do, then coach them in doing it. Afterwards review the results. They will be tremendous!

      Finally, you’ll enjoy the post I put up today, We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know. I’d love your comments on it.

      We will have to connect in the real world someday. I have a feeling the discussion would be a lot of fun.

  2. Thanks, Dave. This is a very insightful post.

    In my own point of view, I think that the best thing about sales is the opportunity to fully develop your interpersonal skills and transform them into something productively positive.

    Not quite bad to become a salesman, isn’t it?

  3. I found this to be so very true across the whole article. Most sales people fail to understand their clients circumstances, problems and issues and launch in to tell and sell mode with product benefits without fully understanding circumstances.

    If we do as david suggests and gain insight through targeted and sympathetic questioning we will uncover areas where we can help. the most important thing however is to understand how our product and service can not only help the client but how it can help them to deliver better to their own clients. And there’s the value add.

    To understand this takes an intimate understanding of the client and thought as to how best to wrap your own value proposition into this. A by product of understanding how we can help them better serve their own clients teases out issues that they may have with a current supplier or indeed your own service.

    Really great article – thank you


    • Great comment and insight Randal, I really appreciate it. Look at the article just published today: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know. Our customers often don’t know what they don’t know. Sales can offer real value and insight helping cusomters both improve their own operations and deliver value to their customers.

      Thanks for the comment.

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