This article is based on material provided by and a conversation with Susan Scott, author of the best-selling books Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time (Berkley Trade, 2004) and Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today (Crown Business, 2009). She is also the founder of the global leadership development and training provider Fierce Inc. Address: 101 Yesler Way, Suite 200, Seattle, WA 98104. Phone: 206/787-1100. Fax: 206/787-1120. Web: fierceinc.com
The biggest error that sales professionals make at the beginning of a client conversation is diving quickly into selling mode, suggesting products or solutions or telling stories about how they solved similar problems or met similar needs for other clients. This behavior is ineffective for two reasons: First, it does not recognize that no plan survives its collision with reality, and a customer’s reality may have shifted dramatically since your last conversation with him or her. Markets and economies change, requiring shifts in strategy. So even if you’re certain that what you’ve got to offer can help the client, your timing could be off and/or you may have a better offering, given your client’s changing reality.
Second, moving directly to selling alienates clients because it communicates that meeting your sales goals is more important than meeting your clients’ needs. It broadcasts that a long-term relationship is not that important to you. Your most valuable currency is not money, intelligence, multiple degrees, or deep knowledge of your industry; your most valuable currency is the relationship, which is damaged or enriched one conversation at a time.
The following is a four-step process for having a conversation with your client that will build a better relationship and therefore be more likely to result in (best case) a successful sale or at least help the customer to avoid an inappropriate purchase.
STEP #1: Identify the real issue.
Rather than deliver a sales pitch, open your client conversation with questions that are not derived from assumptions:
• Why are we talking?
• What is the most important thing we should be talking about?
• What’s at the top of your agenda?
You may be surprised to find that your assumptions about the client’s needs and desires differ greatly from what’s really going on, even if the meeting is a result of an apparent interest in your firm’s offering. Once you’ve identified the real issue, you need to understand all the aspects of that issue, even if those aspects cannot be addressed by your offering. For example, the real issue might be a symptom of a different issue or the root cause of a related set of similar issues.
At this point in the process, the conversation needs to test and strip away both your assumptions and the assumptions that the client may already have. To do this, you must ask and honestly answer questions that test and probe current reality:
• Is this really a problem?
• Is there only one problem?
• Does everyone involved understand the problem as you’ve described it?
These questions could result in a realization that the real issue is quite different from what you originally assumed, and therefore, the solution you’re offering is inappropriate for the client. While that seems like a bad thing, there is no better way to build a long-term relationship than by forgoing or postponing a possible sale because it’s not in the client’s best interest.
STEP #2: Determine present and future impact.
Once you’re certain that you’ve centered on the real issue, it’s time to look at how that issue is influencing not just the client’s business, but the client as an individual. To do this, draw out the customer with questions such as the following:
• What actually happens as a result of the problem?
• What evidence is there to support those results?
• Is that evidence hard (measurable quantitatively) or soft (anecdotal or opinion)?
• How does the problem impact the organization?
• Who else is the problem impacting (e.g., the prospect’s customers)?
• How is this affecting you (the customer)?
• When you consider the problems you described, what do you feel?
• How important is the problem relative to other priorities?
• Will there be sufficient ROI when the problem is resolved?
• What systemic implications must be considered?
• Will solving the problem create even bigger problems elsewhere?
• Who is committed to solving the problem?
• What would happen if the problem were not solved?
Throughout this process, you must recognize that the reality of the situation is always complex and far-reaching for the prospect. The most important part of this process, however, is to remain entirely present during the conversation, rather than leap to your own conclusions.
WARNING: Sales professionals tend to be impatient and can be preoccupied with anything from the next step in the sales process to future meetings with other clients. As a result, it’s easy to miss subtle cues during a client conversation that might signal subject matter that is of great importance to the client and requires the rep’s complete and undivided attention.
STEP #3: Define the ideal outcome.
In the previous steps, the conversation has been focused on the problem, what the problem is costing the organization, and your client’s emotions about the problem. At this step, you begin working with the client on clarifying ideal outcomes and specific goals, what winning would look like and how it would be measured, and what your client’s positive emotions would be if the outcomes were achieved.
During this conversation, you must guard against going into selling mode. Sadly, most people have a mask that they put on when dealing with others, usually because they’re afraid that their real self is inadequate or might be rejected. In sales situations, the mask, or the customer-facing persona many sales professionals believe they must project (e.g., the drive to always be closing), causes clients to erect barriers they feel are needed to guard against being sold.
The most successful sales professionals keep the conversation real while scouting around for the ideal outcome. They remain themselves throughout this conversation. This means disclosing opinions about what the prospect might be doing right or wrong without pretending to know everything or trying to be slick with all the answers.
STEP #4: Offer suggestions.
At this point, your client will be sincerely interested in hearing your ideas because you’ve had a real conversation with the client, rather than given a sales pitch. You’ve gained credibility because you’ve kept the focus on the client’s problems and goals, not on your firm’s offerings. Since you’ve earned the client’s trust through this in-depth exploration, whatever you suggest is more likely to meet the client’s current needs than anything you might have suggested at the beginning of the conversation and therefore will be accepted and acted upon.
As you continue to work with your clients, remember that your relationships with them succeed or fail one conversation at a time. And while no single conversation is guaranteed to transform the trajectory of a relationship, any single conversation can. Therefore, treat every conversation that you have with a client as if it were the most important conversation that you will ever have with that client. Because, in fact, it might be. –
QUICK TIPS FOR YOUR NEXT TRAINING SESSION
Here are some pointers for having better conversations with customers:
• Remember the importance of “connection before content.” Clients don’t want you to sell to them; they want you to genuinely care about them. Take the time to build a personal connection before talking business.
• Focus on individuals, not companies. You may be selling to an organization, but you’re doing it through an individual. Remember: “ABC Inc. did not buy our offering, Joe did.”
• Self-disclose when appropriate. Human beings buy from human beings. Rather than talk about golf and sports, bring up family, hobbies – whatever is of real interest to you and possibly to your clients.
• Slow the conversation down. Your goal is to earn your clients’ trust by connecting with them, thereby creating a sense of safety. You can’t do that if you’re yakking away.
• Be willing to play “little league.” Even if you know there’s a big-league opportunity, shove your agenda aside and focus on whatever game this client wants to play right now.
• Engage with customers as equals. The client conversation should contain a feeling of mutuality, rather than be patronizing or demonstrate subservience to your clients.
Sales Manager's Training Guide: At Your Next Sales Meeting
Below are 15 practical steps to help your team have client conversations that build long-term relationships. This meeting should take about 45 minutes.
1. Before the meeting, create a summary sheet based upon the customer conversation outlined in this article. Make enough copies for everyone in the room.
2. Also before the meeting, make enough copies of a one-page handout to give to a third of the team. The handout should read, “Open the conversation with this news: ‘I need to tell you before we get started that my company has been acquired by a competitor, so we’re all a bit distracted. After all, some of us might not be here in six months. I might not be here!’ Then wait to see what the other players say.”
3. Open the meeting with enthusiasm. Explain that the team is going to work on having deeper, more productive conversations with clients in order to become better connected to their real goals.
4. Explain that you’re going to begin with a role-playing exercise.
5. Break the attendees into groups of three, and have each group select which member will be the “customer.” The other two will be a sales rep and a sales manager calling on that customer, selling your most popular product.
6. Encourage the “customers” to get into the role, and give them the one-page handout. Have them read it privately and then fold it up. Tell the sales reps that they are close to closing the deal and need to get additional consensus to move forward.
7. Conduct the role play for only one minute.
8. Gather the team back into a group and ask the customers what the sales reps said in response to the statement about the company being acquired. In most cases, the answer will be, “How do you think this will affect the purchase?” If that’s the case, point out that this is the equivalent of coming home, finding your spouse weeping in the kitchen, and asking, “Does this mean that dinner will be late?”
9. Explain the importance of having conversations that build long-term relationships with clients. Emphasize the need to connect with clients on a deep level and the importance of not “selling,” but instead having a conversation. Invite the team’s questions and input.
10. Once you have the sense that team members understand the concept, ask them how they might now respond to the client’s announcement that his or her company has been acquired.
11. Explain that the rest of the meeting will be dedicated to “real play”– a real conversation between two people about whatever is most important to them today.
12. Hand out your summary sheet of the customer conversation and review the questions on the handout. Encourage team members to ask these questions, remain in question mode for the entire conversation, and refrain from selling.
13. Break the team into pairs. Have one person start the conversation with, “What is the most important thing on your mind today, the most important thing we should talk about?”
14. Let the conversations continue for at least 10 minutes. Go around the room and check to see whether the conversations seem real or stilted. Provide coaching and correction as necessary.
15. In most cases, you will discover that the participants have enjoyed having this kind of conversation. End the meeting on a high note by asking the team to have similar conversations with clients using the model questions in this article.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q: What’s the biggest barrier to building long-term customer relationships?
A: Going for the quick sale rather than doing what it takes to build a long-term relationship. Remember, your most valuable currency, particularly as a sales professional, is the relationship.
Q: What’s the most common fatal flaw of sales professionals?
A: Inauthenticity. A “fierce” conversation is one in which we come out from behind a persona and go into the conversation and make it real. When we bypass what’s real and try to project an image we imagine our profession or clients require, a real relationship is by definition impossible.
Q: How can I ensure that a client is being as honest as I am?
A: You can’t control that; however, if you are being real, it will naturally evoke similar behavior from the client. It’s up to you to make the first move.
QUICK TIPS FOR YOUR NEXT SALES MEETING
Here are six things to avoid when having a conversation with a client:
1. Don’t try to bypass a client who is ambivalent or hostile. You will make an enemy for life.
2. Don’t take a strong negotiating position and then back off. It ruins your credibility.
3. Don’t convey that you disrespect your competitors or anyone else in your industry.
4. Don’t make presentations; presentations shut people down. Have a conversation.
5. Don’t be afraid to tell clients what they need to know if you feel they might make a mistake.
6. Don’t mistake client apathy for client loyalty. The client may be just about to switch vendors.
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