This article is based on a conversation with Ryan Kubacki, president of Holden International, a sales-consulting firm that offers sales training, software/e-learning, and sales leadership/coaching. Kubacki was formerly employed at the Microsoft Corporation, where he directed sales operations and field marketing for an 18-state region with a $1.4 billion quota. He can be reached at Holden International, 20 Executive Ct., Suite 1, South Barrington, IL, 60010.
The Changing Role of the Sales Professional
Traditionally, the primary role of the sales professional has been to provide information. The act of selling has consisted largely of providing information to prospects and then, based on this information, convincing them to buy. This sales methodology worked because such information as product-configuration data was scarce and difficult for customers to obtain.
Today, however, information is not just plentiful but available directly to customers in overwhelming amounts. As a result, customers no longer value sales professionals as information providers. Not only are customers and prospects likely to be as well informed as the person selling to them, but they may actually resent being provided with additional but unwanted information.
Sales professionals are moving away from the information-provider role and instead seek to be regarded as trusted advisors who provide business value. This kind of sales methodology requires less emphasis on the gathering and dissemination of information and more on creating insight and developing the intuition that can help customers solve knotty business problems.
The Changing Role of the Sales Technology
Traditionally, sales technologies such as CRM primarily helped companies track opportunities. At the same time, corporate and competitive databases helped sales reps and their marketing-support teams build sets of information, such as buying guides, intended to help customers make informed decisions. That information, often closely guarded, was a key element of the sales professional’s value to the customer.
Today, however, sales professionals have many more sources of information than ever before. They can mine CRM databases, contact databases, news databases, social networks, and so forth, in order to learn more about competitors, prospects, and customers. But just as customers are likely to be overwhelmed by information, sales professionals now have so much data at their fingertips that it’s often unclear what data is important.
As a result, sales professionals must move away from using information as a tactic and instead use it strategically. Under an intuitive sales approach, conveying information becomes less important than providing the customer with fresh insight and perspective.
What Is Intuitive Selling?
To sell intuitively, sales professionals must make the transition from information conveyer to trusted business advisor. An intuitive sales methodology does not emphasize computer data and information, but human-generated insight and wisdom based on that data and information (see Quick Tips for Your Next Training Session). This intuition underpins everything that the sales rep does, including account planning, making sales calls, developing opportunities, and cultivating entire territories.
Here is a five-step program to implement an intuitive sales methodology:
Step #1: Adopt and coach a strategic sales methodology.
Many sales-training programs emphasize a tactical approach, emphasizing sales pitches, presentations, and closing techniques that are better suited to the information provider than to the trusted business advisor.
In order to sell intuitively, a sales organization must adopt a sales methodology that emphasizes strategic selling behaviors, such as asking successful questions, diagnosing and clarifying customer needs, and thinking strategically about opportunities, accounts, and territories. Ideally, it should provide a vehicle and methodology for communicating insights in a manner that’s succinct and understandable to the prospect. In addition, it should be simple enough that sales managers can easily coach sales reps on the effective use of the methodology in a variety of selling situations.
Step #2: Implement dynamic account planning.
Many sales processes involve the creation of an extensive document at the beginning of the sales cycle, which collates all the available information about an account in the hopes that some particular nugget might prove useful. It is not unusual for teams selling to large accounts to create account plans that are dozens of pages long. Such documents are marginally useful because they are too long to read and digest. In addition, updating such a document is so daunting, its users tend to simply keep adding information as it’s gathered, regardless of whether that information is relevant.
In order to create the conditions in which intuitive selling is possible, it’s better to create a dynamic account plan that’s short enough to be easily understood and, just as important, easily and quickly updated. Such account plans are usually two pages or fewer in length and focus on only information that is key to gaining insight into the account.
Step #3: Utilize software that makes strategic thinking easier.
While it takes human intelligence to distill insight from information, many sales professionals lack the skill and experience to determine what information is most important and therefore most likely to lead to valuable insights.
Unfortunately, CRM, like traditional account plans, tends to become a repository for all available information, rather than for the information that is most relevant. If Sales 2.0 is implemented with the same “capture everything” attitude, technology such as social media and sales portals can actually make this problem worse. The sales team will become overwhelmed with information, making it more difficult to focus on what’s likely to be important to each customer.
Sales technology should be implemented in a way that helps sales teams build insight, rather than simply collect data. To do this, the software should provide at least a basic level of automatic data analysis – extracting and comparing what’s likely to be important and hiding what’s likely irrelevant.
Step #4: Build time into the schedule to think strategically.
Even with the assistance of software, intuition and the building of plans to take advantage of it require human intelligence, creativity, and attention. Unfortunately, many sales organizations (and indeed the people who work in them) have adopted an extremely proactive sales model that emphasizes direct and frequent contact with the prospect. This is often at the expense of time that could be better spent in more thoughtful activities, such as planning.
Ironically, when selling as a trusted business advisor, it’s more important that every contact with the prospect be productive. That is only possible if the sales professional has insight and intuition, both into the account (so that the right people are involved in the meeting) and the prospect’s business (so that the seller’s offerings are positioned appropriately). This kind of deep understanding of a customer account cannot be created on the fly. Digesting relevant information, perceiving patterns, and determining the unique approach that will work in each unique selling situation require a sales professional’s time and effort. Sales management must provide sales professionals with enough time to focus on planning, researching, and thinking, rather than overvalue constant contact with the customer.
Step #5: Only measure what’s important and strategic.
Finally, sales organizations must change the way they measure themselves. A major unintended consequence of the computerization of the corporate world is that it’s now possible to measure sales processes and activities in myriad ways. This, however, creates the danger that the sales team will be flooded with metrics, most of which are not going to be helpful in developing accounts and closing sales.
Specifically, sales organizations should measure not only lagging indicators, such as final results, but also leading indicators that are most likely to distill information into insight, such as time spent on research, coaching, and planning.
Q: How can I find the time to think strategically when I’m working at full speed to close business?
A: It’s a matter of prioritization. If you are willing to spend the time to rethink your approach, you’ll find that closing business will require less time, and the amount of your average sale will go up.
Q: How can I convince my management to simplify our metrics?
A: The irrelevant metrics and associated data gathering were probably imposed in a well-meaning if misguided attempt to improve productivity. If you’re going to ignore them, you’ll need to consistently exceed your sales targets, at which point your management will probably no longer care about those metrics because they’ll be rendered largely irrelevant.
Q: Are you saying that we shouldn’t be presenting information to the customer?
A: Not exactly. Information still plays a role in providing credibility and background to your insight and wisdom. The thrust of your interaction with the customer, however, occurs at the higher level, where your business acumen is more important than the fact at your fingertips.
Q: How does Sales 2.0 influence sales intuition?
A: Sales 2.0 is a tremendous opportunity for sellers who can make the transition from information conveyer to trusted business advisor. Be forewarned, though: Sellers who are not able to make the transition will further decrease their effectiveness and relevance to the customer.
Sales Manager’s Training Guide: At Your Next Sales Meeting
Below are 14 practical steps to help your team sell intuitively. This meeting should take about 30 minutes.
1. Prior to the meeting, write a case study on a typical prospect. This should include a corporate history, information about his or her organization, brief executive biographies, and at least a page of financial data. Note: To facilitate this write-up, go to www.sec.gov, click on “Search for Company Filings,” and locate the 10-K report for a competitor of one of your larger customers. Make copies of your case study to distribute to your team, as well as one copy for yourself.
2. Also prior to the meeting, create a slide on the levels of business knowledge discussed in Quick Tips for Your Next Training Session.
3. Set up the meeting room in classroom style. Make sure that every participant (including yourself) will have a colored highlighting pen.
4. Open the meeting with enthusiasm. Explain that the team will be learning how to sell intuitively by using insight and wisdom, rather than information, to develop the opportunity and move the sale forward.
5. Distribute the case study and give team members three to five minutes to read it. Ask each team member to highlight the information he or she believes is relevant to selling to that prospect. Do the same with your own copy, but mark only the three to five most important items, based on your own judgment.
6. Once everyone is finished, ask the participants to hold up their copies so that you can see how densely they’ve marked up the pages. Select the person who has the most color on his or her case study and ask why that person marked those items.
7. Afterward, show your own copy, pointing out that you marked far less than almost everyone else. Explain that you marked sparsely because, in your judgment, those items of information were most likely to underpin insights about the prospect’s business and company politics.
8. Show your team the first slide and explain the basic difference between data, information, insight, and wisdom. Explain how too much information can get in the way of uncovering insights and hinder the wisdom to act on those insights.
9. Have your team reread the portions of the case study that you deemed to be particularly important. Now ask everyone to come up with a compelling reason why that prospect (the firm) and a particular individual (one of the people named in the case study) would be interested in buying your firm’s offering. Tell participants that they have 10 minutes to complete this task.
10. While the participants are writing, use your experience to write a single-sentence description of why that individual at the prospect firm would be interested in purchasing from your company. Make the value proposition compelling, according to your best guess at that individual’s personal motivations, e.g., “The CFO will support the purchase because reducing costs will position him to become CEO at a competitor’s firm.”
11. Ask a volunteer to read his or her compelling reason to the rest of the participants. In the unlikely case that the reason is short, i.e., a one-liner like yours, praise the participant and move to another. Once you’ve got a long one, thank the participants for sharing.
12. Read your own one-line description. Admit that you’ve taken some latitude with the exercise to make the point that insight is always succinct, even when the information supporting it is exhaustive.
13. Give the participants a homework assignment to go through the account plans of their three largest opportunities and reduce them to two pages or fewer. Ask them to include simple statements of what’s going on in the account, what’s really important, and what they intend to do to take advantage of it.
14. End the meeting by thanking the team for participating, and commit to reviewing the participants’ plans one-on-one.
Quick Tips for Your Next Training Session
To sell intuitively, it helps to think about business knowledge as a knowledge continuum. Holden International defines this knowledge continuum as a hierarchy, with data at the lowest level and wisdom at the highest.
Level 1: Data. This level consists of points in a domain, the sort of material that’s typically provided as the result of searching the Internet or various databases.
Level 2: Information. At this level, the data has context and purpose. The data points make sense in relation to each other and begin to tell a simple story.
Level 3: Insight. Human creativity begins to come into play. A human understands and decides what’s important and what the information actually means.
Level 4: Wisdom. Human creativity is now predominant. Based on experience and insight, the human decides what needs to be done to accomplish a goal.
QUICK TIPS FOR YOUR NEXT SALES MEETING
Selling intuitively involves thinking about sales engagements in different and often unconventional ways. Here are two examples:
Tactical selling – The sales rep acquires or builds an organization chart showing roles and responsibilities and documents how purchasing decisions are made. The rep then calls on the various powers that be who have official authority, according to the organization’s structure and defined roles.
Intuitive selling – The sales rep looks for one or more influential bodies of closely networked people who informally make the real decisions. (Holden International calls such networks “power bases.”) At the center of this network is a very powerful individual, but not necessarily at the top of the organization, who can work in exception to company policy and is rarely surprised by events. (Holden International calls this person a “fox.”) The reps find this individual and work with him or her to develop and close the opportunity.
Tactical selling – The sales rep writes a proposal, closely matching the prospect’s RFP, showing how the rep’s product is more likely than the competitors’ products to fulfill the prospect’s perceived requirements.
Intuitive selling – The sales rep works behind the scenes with a key influencer to change the buying criteria so that the RFP, when issued or reissued, reflects the strengths of the sales rep’s offering while simultaneously exposing the weaknesses of the competitive offerings.