In this three-part series Dr. Roy Whitten and Scott Roy, founders and directors of international sales consultancy Whitten & Roy Partnership Ltd, share expert advice on going after a true sales transformation in the new year. Based on their RACE framework - Results = Attitude + Competence + Execution®, the series kicked off last month with an article looking into managing attitude in order to produce greater results. This second article delivers an important competence tool to discover the customer’s needs.
To begin with, we’d like to reference last year’s article that presented a new context for selling – changing the fundamental motivation of the sales conversation from talking someone into buying to increasing their capacity to make the best buying decision. This process involves leading your customer to talk about the problems they’re trying to solve (i.e. their needs, challenges, opportunities) before discussing the solutions you’re offering.
This article today addresses the next step in the process: how to get your customer to actually do this – how to skillfully lead them to explore and discuss their genuine needs before pumping you for information about who you are, what you’re offering, and how much it will cost.
While this indeed seems the most logical way to sell somebody something – first, to discover the problem they’re trying to solve and then to discuss the solution you have to that problem – this process is rarely followed. Or, if there is any discussion of customer needs, challenges, or unmet opportunities, it is touched upon but briefly in a rush to explore, explain, and laud the benefits of the solution being considered.
As sales consultants, we find this happening everywhere we work in the world: from small, socially-minded businesses to vast commercial enterprises. It is such a fundamental problem, so linked to what people everywhere believe about ‘selling’ – i.e. selling is talking people into buying stuff – that very few of our clients initially realise that it’s a problem to have their sales force operating this way!
It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is happening. Stepping back, you can see that salespeople are under significant pressure to talk about the product or service they are offering as soon as possible in the sales conversation. This pressure comes at them from three primary directions.
- They are pressured by their own companies Product people focus salespeople on the features, benefits, and advantages of their line. Account or customer planning focuses on demonstrations, presentations, and case studies. Managers constantly ask two questions: How much is the sale? When will it close? Training courses focus on presenting, pitching, and persuading. Questions about customer challenges, needs, or gaps are not utilized to look more deeply at what's wrong, but instead are used to ‘funnel’ customers into one product path or another. If you doubt that this is so for your business, may we respectfully suggest you simply go listen to your salespeople work with customers; notice on which subject – problem or solution – they spend the great majority of their time.
- They are pressured by the customer This is where it gets really crazy. The customers – the ones who would have the most to gain from a thorough exploration of what's wrong, how it got wrong, how it's staying wrong – ask for presentations and quotes before requesting help to understand the business problems they’re trying to fix! They adopt buying practices (e.g. RFP/RFQ) that prevent further exploration of issues. They start sales conversations by demanding case studies, presentations, and quotes. They delegate sales conversations to people who don’t know the business or technical problems faced by the company. They block access to people in who could help the sales person uncover the root cause of their challenges. And, when they buy stuff that ultimately doesn’t work, they follow this same process all over again!
- They are pressured by their own thinking Partly because of the above, partly because they are human beings, salespeople remain in the grip of three myths that keep them talking when they should be listening:
1. I have to give customers what they ask for, or I’ll lose the relationship
2. I have to demonstrate my product knowledge, or I won’t gain their confidence and trust
3. I have to talk them into buying or I’ll lose the sale to someone who's a better talker
None of these things are true.
We only know of one way to help salespeople break through these pressures and experience another way of doing things. Having this experience is the essence of transformative learning, and it's like learning to ride a bicycle. You can think about balance, steering, and braking all you want, but the only way to learn how is to get on the bike and ride. The payoff is this: once learn by experience, you can’t unlearn it. You’ve got something to build on.
So, we suggest practicing a skill we call precision listening. While this format has some unique elements – the use of present moment awareness (PMA) and a way to take notes – it will be familiar to your people…just don’t expect them to be very good at it! It takes practice, and here's how to get them, or yourself, started.
First, get ready to talk in depth with your customer about ‘the problems they are trying to solve.’ They may want to call these things problems, issues, challenges, or unmet opportunities – it doesn’t matter. What matters is getting your customer to talk about them instead of about your offering and its price. That comes later, after the problem to be solved is mutually understood and agreed.
Second, practice leading your customer back to the problem if they happen to stray into asking about your solution. Get good at saying something like: Of course we do this (briefly describe what you offer), and I’ll be happy to tell you more and provide a quote, but to do that I need to understand exactly the problem you’re trying to solve. May I ask more about that?
Third, leave your demos and presentations at the office. If you think not having something will drive you crazy, bring 1-2 pages or slides maximum, and bury it in your bag! Instead, bring something on which to take notes: on paper or electronically. This signals your intention to listen carefully and remember what is said, and it actually helps you do it! Set up your notebook with a vertical line one third of the distance from the right edge. On the left side of this line, you will take notes about what they say. To the right of the line, you will quickly 'park' what you are thinking, want to ask about or want to offer, but at a point later in the conversation.
Fourth, follow these steps as you talk to your customer.
- Lead your customer to talk about the problem(s) they are trying to solve.
- Listen to what they say, take brief notes, and regularly play back to them what you’ve heard them say so they know you are listening. NB: play back the left hand side of your notes page (what they are saying), not the right hand side (what you are thinking)!
- After you’ve played back, be quiet and let them continue. Let them determine the pace and the subject matter of the conversation. Do not share your thinking, your questions or your opinions yet. Save that for later.
- When they run out of steam, pick something they’ve mentioned that needs more exploration and say: “Tell me more about…”
- When they’ve completed sharing what they have to say, then start introducing things from the right side of the line. Now you can guide the exploration to the other things you see as important.
Getting great at this listening technique requires personal reflection and collegial feedback. Review your customer conversations with others who were present or whose opinion you trust. How well did you do each of the five steps? How well did you maintain your relaxed state of mind and your open curiosity?
It’s simple, not easy, but so worth your attention. Master it, and you will become sharper, more confident, and you’ll move people to action – including trusting you deeply and purchasing what you sell.
Dr Roy Whitten is an expert in attitude and its role in human performance. In over 40 years as a trainer, consultant and coach, he has personally coached and trained over 100,000 people. Scott Roy, an expert in the art of selling and sales management, built and ran large sales teams as well as founding a nationwide insurance company. In 2009 they both founded Whitten & Roy Partnership, which takes a radically different approach to sales training. Today operating in 34 countries around the world, Whitten & Roy Partnership is an international sales consultancy that helps leading global businesses and organisations in the developing world transform their sales results. For more information visit their website.
© 2017 W Roy Whitten, PhD & Scott A Roy