to add value to the conversation with and informed self driven prospect.
Reading a contribution by Paul McCord to an interesting discussion on sales force ineffectiveness started by Dave Brock over at The Customer Collective, lead me to this question. I think it is a real challenge we have to become aware of and have to have answers to if we want salespeople to be able to continue bringing value to their interactions with such prospects. Bringing this value is key for the salesperson to build credibility and establish a relationship to generate sustainable revenue streams.
Most buying processes, today, start by a search on the net. This allows prospects to form an opinion about a product or service and its potential suppliers without needing the help of the salesperson. Before the Internet, salespeople were the gateway to this information. What is left now is the mistrust and fear from prospects to be manipulated by the sellers. Before they did not have the choice than engage with the salesperson anyway. Today, prospects are given means to form the opinion keeping the salesperson out of the loop until late in the buying process. .
As if this were not enough, new lead generation and lead nurturing tools, mostly operated by the marketing organizations, cause that the initial contact between the prospect and the salesperson is even later in the buying cycle.
When a sales person finally can establish contact with the prospect, this prospect is already very advanced in the decision process. Salespeople just wanting to close a deal, probably will even be happy about this. They run though the risk that they might become obsolete very soon, if all they do is taking the order. The number of purchases customers are able and willing to make via the Internet without direct human intervention from the seller is growing daily.
For purchases where the customer is not willing or able to make the purchasing decision without a salesperson's help, we have to consider modifying the approach of needs analysis as it is taught today.
While a patient, seeing a doctor, will accept that the doctor goes through his/her diagnosis procedure despite the fact that the patient formed an own opinion about his/her state of health, a prospect having formed an opinion about a solution is very unlikely to accept the standard needs analysis procedure from a sales person. Such an analysis would be perceived as a waste of time. Studies done with buyers in the IT sector revealed that they already think salespeople are making the sales cycle too long compared to how they want to buy.
Why is it more difficult for a sales person to use the classical needs analysis scheme with an informed self driven prospect? Prospects rarely see a sales person as a trustworthy authority for where they seek help. Their impression will be reinforced by the fact that chances are high the salesperson will not be able to help immediately. Prospects will ask for help in their decision on a level where the salespersons first must consult with other functions within their organization. Salespeople risk giving the impression of 'just being a conduit without much value added'.
Nevertheless, a salesperson seriously interested in building a relationship instead of closing a deal,has to make sure that the prospect has not formed any wrong perceptions about a certain offering. Purchases done on wrong perceptions will end up in customer dissatisfaction.
Guess who the customer is going to blame if this were to happen, the sales person. “He/she should have told me so that this offering does not fit my needs”. It is an irrational reaction. First the prospects mistrust salespersons and make it difficult for them to fulfill their role of a consultant. When expectations are not met, customers need somebody to blame. Ironically, they accuse the same person, that they before did not let do the job properly. We cannot change the customer. So we have to adapt the behavior of the salespeople.
The remedy, I suggest is to modify the questions we ask informed self driven prospects.
Using confirmation questions could be the way forward to provide value for interaction with such prospects. Why not start with something like “I assume you have set your mind on this solution X to help you improve your business in area Y.” I think few prospects would object being asked this type of question . It acknowledges the fact that the prospect is already far advanced in the decision process. It also signals that the sales person is focused on the customer's business outcome and wants to make sure that the solution meets the prospect's expectations in this respect.
For such an approach to work, we not only need to focus on the questioning technique used by the salesperson. Being able to ask this simple question requires, that the salesperson understands what business problem a particular offering solves.
Ask yourself where the salesperson can get this information within your organization? I would not be surprised if no place could be found where this is readily available. Salespeople, aware of the need for such information, will thus have made up their ideas by themselves. Leaving salespeople alone in this important task, creates the risk of ending up with unsatisfied customers. Sales people might have formed wrong perceptions for themselves and despite good intentions will end up perpetuating their wrong perceptions to their prospects. The customer will thus end up with unmet expectations.
Preparing salespeople to add value to informed and self directed prospects will require new approaches for sales enablement. Teaching people what a product does, how it compares to competition etc. is relevant because salespeople are expected to know more if they want to gain credibility with their prospects .But it is not sufficient. Sales people also and maybe first need to understand what business outcome a customer can expect from buying a certain offering. I consider it a task of marketing to create this understanding.
Successful sales enablement will thus start with marketing expanding their focus and understanding themselves as a service provider to the sales force. After all they were instrumental, with their websites, lead generation and -nurturing systems, creating the new environment salespeople have to live in.