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At one time, credit for that dream sale would fall almost entirely on the rep – a tribute to one’s hard work, persistence, charisma, “closing prowess” – a true triumph of individual effort. But in today’s sales environment, when a single, complex sale often depends on multiple moving parts operating together with the precision of a high-performance race car, the one-man show has ceded ground to another critical element of sales success: collaboration.
During a 25-year, globe-spanning career, salesforce.com president of worldwide sales and chief customer officer Jim Steele experienced dozens of dream-sale successes. Reflecting on these experiences, he describes the finely tuned, sales-collaboration process in almost reverent terms.
“When you have seamless teamwork,” he says, “and you bring the best experts, the best collateral and content, and the best strategy in front of a customer, when the bells and whistles all go off and everything executes perfectly and you claim victory, that’s just a beautiful thing.”
Steele says that when he meets with sales leaders around the globe, he hears one common concern: how to take these all-too-infrequent, seamless collaborative sales experiences and institutionalize them to hit that perfect selling stride every time instead of just one time in ten or one in 100.
“I used to believe that sales was more art than science,” he says, “but now I believe that sales is something you can turn into a science. There is a formula that works if you bring all the right people together and the right information is flowing to them. That’s what collaboration is – making sure that all the people who can are helping you to get the deal done, and that means the internal team as well as partners on the outside, whether they are a third party who’s helping you to win or your advocates within the prospect organization.”
According to Morten Hansen, a UC Berkeley professor and author of Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results (Harvard Business Press, 2009), the potential for collaborative selling to take place depends greatly on how a sales organization approaches its customer relationships. “When you look at these interactions, there is a collaboration pyramid you can go through,” he says. “At the very bottom, it is very transaction-oriented – request for proposal [RFP], purchase order, then quote. The customers dictate what they want; they’re looking for vendors, and you just have to provide a quote. That’s the bottom of the pyramid, where the collaboration is almost zero.”
On the next level of the pyramid, Hansen says, the customer expresses a need and then asks whether the vendor organization can offer a solution or product spec. “Even though the customers are not issuing RFPs, [their requests are] still need-based, and the customers are in the driver’s seat because everything revolves around what they want, or at least what they think they want,” he says. “As you help them tweak, refine, and finesse their needs, there is some back-and- forth, but it’s only a minimal level of collaboration. Many companies are stuck in this middle level of the pyramid.”
The apex is where true, mutually beneficial collaboration with the customer takes place, Hansen says. That’s where the salesperson is exploring for underlying pain points – problems customers may not even be aware of themselves and are certainly not likely to express to the salesperson. At this level, the customer’s expressed need represents just the launching point for a larger examination aimed at uncovering more deep-seated, systemic business concerns.
“When customers come to you with a specific need, they’ve already identified you as potentially addressing that need,” Hansen says. “So if you sell routers, customers who believe they need routers will come to you. But pain points are very different. The pain point may not be routers, it may be that the customer has a lousy CRM system and believes that new routers will make it better. To discover those pain points, you need to live with the customers, embed yourself with them, be on their premises and collaborate on multiple levels. Only that way can you understand what they’re actually going through and craft a solution.”
Hansen acknowledges that this “archaeological” approach to selling, which has sales professionals digging into customer organizations to unearth pain points, represents a marked departure from traditional sales practices. But true collaboration means breaking out of that comfort zone to talk with people who would normally not appear on the selling radar, he explains.
Up and Down the Ladder
“You can’t limit yourself to talking to the purchasing people,” he says, “because they don’t know what the underlying needs are. So if you’re selling into a manufacturing plant, for example, then you have to get inside and walk the factory floor, talk to the foreman, talk to the manager running the plant – gain as many access points as you can. Admittedly, this can (continued on page 2)
– Malcolm Fleschner
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