IanPriceIan Price, co-director of Sales-Mind (UK)
“Thinking has come to sales.” This pronouncement was made by Professor Neil Rackham, author of SPIN Selling, to the Sales Performance Association at their September 2012 meeting at the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and, for some, the arrival of thinking to the business of selling may come as something of a surprise.
Rackham pointed out that in the post-financial crisis era, the once abundant flows of cheap debt had dried up; this means that companies can no longer look to acquisition as a source of growth and are more dependent than ever upon their sales people to deliver.
“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door,” runs the phrase often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth century. It suggests a simpler age when basic product differentiation and innovation was all that the sales person needed to communicate to the willing customer. But in the twenty-first century web-based product information negates the “walking brochure” dimension of the sales role; and sales people are no longer selling mousetraps – the buying of simple transactional products has moved online and sales people are increasingly required to sell complex products, solutions and managed services.
And this is why thinking has, in Rackham’s words, come to sales. His own highly successful SPIN Selling requires sales people to follow a simple but demanding four-step process in identifying customers’ problems and implied needs before presenting the customer with their product or service in the form of a solution to the problem. SPIN is powerful but, by Rackham’s own admission, is not easy and requires practice. “The reality is that good questioning is a complex skill that takes years of practice to master fully,” he writes. Indeed, in spite of all the investment in training in SPIN and similar approaches, sales people too often revert to type and fail to follow the process. With sales training and methods, there is no fault to be found with the methods themselves – it is frequently the case, as G.K. Chesterton said of Christianity, that it “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
Similarly, the latest contribution to the sales literature, The Challenger Sale, is based upon in-depth research into the customer’s experience of the most successful sales people: they take control of the sale, “challenge” the customer and deliver business insights. This approach to sales works but is dependent upon a high level of confidence and business acumen in the sales person. As Rackham, an advocate of the Challenger approach asks, would the prospect actually pay you for your most recent sales visit?
Suzanne Fogel and her co-authors of De Paul University summarized the trend neatly in their Harvard Business Review article of August 2012 in which they point out that: “Critical thinking, analytical skills and the ability to negotiate have become more important than an outgoing personality.”
So confidence, critical thinking, business acumen and the delivery of insights to the customer are all attributes of the successful sales person in the twenty-first century. Thinking has, indeed, come to sales, so much so that we believe it to be the single most important source of competitive advantage in a sales force. To express this in the language of psychologists, selling has become a cognitively complex job. And yet how much help do we give our sales people in developing and sustaining a high level of cognitive performance?
It is our view from working with sales teams for over two decades that – albeit unwittingly – we crowd out cognitive performance in selling. The demands of reporting and forecasting are such that sales people are constantly required to report upwards on their pipeline. In extremes, we have witnessed daily reporting! To reassure managerial anxieties that sales people are setting up the required number of meetings, an algorithmic activity-based approach is often taken to selling. While managerial tools such as salesforce.com play important roles in the sales process, they can also be used as a means of sales force surveillance, requiring sales people to enter data that may have more to do with reducing management anxiety than with advancing the sale. The resulting environment for the sales person is often an unrelenting 24/7 hamster-wheel of frenetic reporting, one that is hardly supportive of a high level of cognitive performance.
So how can the sales person be helped with performance in the demanding environment in which they find themselves in the twenty-first century? Our experience is that companies approach the issue of sales effectiveness almost exclusively through training – training in skills, techniques and process. But what about personal development in cognitive performance? We call this the selling mindset.
We have developed our sales-mind programme to focus on the mental performance of sales people and enhance it for the organisation’s competitive advantage. The programme draws upon the learning to be gleaned from the sciences of psychology and neuroscience reflecting the grounding of the authors’ intervention in evidence-based research. As a construct, we define the selling mind-set as comprising four dimensions: focus, resilience, motivation, and empathy. Our experience of working with sales teams is that these qualities are often pre-existing in high-performing individuals. But to those who believe that great sales people are born, not made we would point to case studies that show how lifting performance across these dimensions leads to significant improvement in sales outcomes.
We are not suggesting that training in sales skills and techniques is not important but that it should be additive to development in the selling mind-set; to us, the selling mind-set is a foundation upon which to build functional capabilities but without it, traditional sales training all too often has little impact with, as research by SPIN trainers Huthwaite International suggests, as much as 87% of it being forgotten within three months.
So we begin with Focus. As Ian explained in his book, The Activity Illusion, we often equate activity with effectiveness but the relationship is more likely to be a negative one. The de facto way of working today is to exist in a multitasking welter of distractions – emails, LinkedIn alerts, instant messages – squeezed in around meetings, conference calls and phone calls. The latest thinking in neuroscience suggests that this way of working crowds out cognitive performance. To maximise mental energy requires the ability to focus – to identify the small number of important things that will drive success and which need to be performed with maximum mental acuity.
The second dimension of the selling mind-set is Resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity which, in sales roles, takes the form of rejection from prospects and often just silence. Increasingly, our biggest competitor is no sale rather than a competitive loss. Given the complexity of decision-making, our customers all too readily take the path of least resistance and do nothing, which means emails and phone calls go unreturned. It takes persistence and a consistently optimistic view of the world to sustain a high level of performance in this environment. Some go through life naturally with the ability to shrug off rejection – for others it is a learned behaviour; but the good news is that it can indeed be learned. Confidence and self-belief are vital to the sales role and proven tools exist to help sales people learn the habits of optimism.
The third element is Motivation and we challenge the received wisdom that sales people are “coin-operated” and motivated exclusively by money. We look at why the carrot of mouth-watering bonuses does not necessarily combine with the stick of performance management in order to drive sales people to ever-greater success. The study of the psychology of motivation by scientists such as Beth Rogers and Dan Ariely has some surprising answers which has caused us to advise our clients to use some non-monetary sources of motivation to great effect.
We also exploit the under-utilised power of the team as a source of motivation. While often managed and incentivised on the assumption that they operate best as lone wolves, sales people are, like everybody else, social animals and respond powerfully to group norms.
Empathy, the fourth dimension of the selling mind-set, is another virtue of the sales role often crowded out by work. Empathy is critical for active listening. Rackham analysed thousands of sales people conducting sales calls and concluded that the best spend more time listening than talking. Our observation in sales visits that we’ve attended is that, under pressure, sales people tend not only to push their own product hard – regardless of any undiscovered needs that the prospect may have – but, when they do ask questions, often talk over the prospect when he or she is trying to offer an answer.
Empathy is the key dimension of mind-set that supports active listening; it is the ability to, in the words of the old proverb, “walk a mile in another man’s” shoes before criticizing them. This is important for relationships not just with customers but also with teammates, suppliers and colleagues.
The result? “The sales-mind programme has changed the language we use in our company,” says James Eborall, MD of BT’s Local Business operation in Cambridgeshire. “An improvement in focus, confidence and motivation has led to a 15% uplift in sales performance.”