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Are your Salespeople asking the right questions.......
to add value to the conversation with an informed, self-driven prospect?
Reading Paul McCord’s contribution to an interesting discussion on sales force ineffectiveness, initially started by Dave Brock over at The Customer Collective, led me to this question. I think this is a real challenge we have to become aware of and need to have answers to if we want salespeople to continue to bring value to their interactions with such prospects. Bringing this value is key for the salesperson to build credibility and establish a relationship that generates sustainable revenue streams.
Most buying processes today start with 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 had no other choice than to engage with the salesperson. Today, prospects are given means to form their own 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, mean that the initial contact between the prospect and the salesperson is even later in the buying cycle.
When a salesperson can finally establish contact with the prospect, this prospect is already very advanced in the decision process. Salespeople just wanting to close a deal will probably be happy about this. They might run the risk though of becoming obsolete very soon, if all they do is take 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 purchase 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 will go through his/her diagnosis procedure despite the fact that the patient may have already formed an 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 salesperson. 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 salesperson to use the classical needs analysis scheme with an informed, self-driven prospect? Because prospects rarely see a salesperson as a trustworthy authority from whom they can 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 needs to consult other functions within their organization. Salespeople risk giving the impression of 'just being a conduit without much added value.'
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 based on wrong perceptions will end in customer dissatisfaction.
Guess who the customer is going to blame if this were to happen? The salesperson. “He/she should have told me that this offering does not fit my needs.” It is an irrational reaction. First the prospect mistrusts the salesperson and makes it difficult for them to fulfil their role of 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 behaviour 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 these type of questions. 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 therefore have to come up with ideas themselves. Leaving salespeople alone in this important task creates the risk of ending up with unsatisfied customers. Salespeople might have formed wrong perceptions 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. Salespeople 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.
Christian Maurer is a Paris-based independent Consultant, Trainer and Coach who helps B2B organizations increase their sales productivity by improving Sales and Marketing Effectiveness. He is a member of Top Sales Experts (www.topsalesexperts.com), an accredited Funnel Coach with MathMarketing and is the author of the blog “The Ultimate Sales Executive Resource” (http://ultimatesalesexecresource.blogspot.com). For comments, feedback and enquiries, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org