The One Sales Trend that Demands Attention

Guest Post: Bruce Wedderburn, EVP Channel & Enablement, Huthwaite Inc.

As we kick off 2012 with a heightened sense of optimism after the past few years, we all hypothesize what the new year will bring to our organizations, our people and our clients.  And typical of this time of year there are no shortages of prognosticators who are allegedly spotting the trends that are going to take the sales and business world by storm.  Having read many of these predictions and having had a chance to cross reference them against what we are seeing at Huthwaite as we look into 2012, there is one trend that we feel strongly all sales organizations would be foolish to ignore.

The traditional discovery or investigating skills that have been the bedfellow of top-performing sales people for the last twenty years are being totally redefined.  That redefinition is being performed by your clients, with or without you.

The previous approach to sales quota-busting was centered on your ability to effectively diagnose the customer’s known pain, uncover their needs, and based on that discovery to then craft a targeted solution that addresses the needs as the customer articulated them to you.  Sounds right, doesn’t?  I mean, that’s the practice of the star performers, isn’t it?  They have mastered the art of asking good questions.

Maybe…

Your customers have changed their purchasing behavior to make that approach a little antiquated.  Customers have put in place strong buying systems, they are taking advantage of the availability of information on the web and social media, they’ve employed consultants, and their purchasing is more strategic, commercial-driven, transparent and professional than ever before.  That means that by the time your sales rep gets to talk with a customer, the customer may have already moved far around the buying cycle on their own.  A recent SLR report stated “on average, 57% of a purchase decision is complete before a customer contacts a supplier”.  By this time a customer is quite clear as to what their needs are, what options are available to them to meet those needs, and what price they can meet those needs for.  So a traditional discussion where a sales rep asks the customer about their needs (as understood by the customer) is of very low value.  The customer already knows their needs and the unfortunate rep is forced to play the role of solution describer and price discounter.  New customer buying behavior is driving traditional sales reps to a world where they are responding to demand, not creating demand.  They are finding customers who are already in the market vs. making customers out of those who are yet to look for a solution.

Herein lies the key to the redefined role of the sales rep in 2012 and beyond – star-performers will be applying their skills in the opposite direction.  They will increasingly create demand, not respond to demand.  That demand will be created not through providing information about products and services, and not through asking the customer questions about information the customer already knows.  It is through delivering insights to their customers in a way that creates value.  But a critical question is – how are these insights to be delivered?  Recent thinking proclaims that the best reps must “teach” customers, you must “educate customers on potential ways to change”, or deliver value by telling customers what insights are important to them.

Sounds compelling, doesn’t it?  Even seductive – but it totally misses a critical point.

We must remember that there are two rules that apply to all human communication.  These rules apply particularly to selling:

1. Customers  value what they say and their own conclusions more than what they are told. (especially what they are told by sales people)
2. Customers value what they ask for more than what is freely offered. (Especially insights that are freely offered by sales people)

These rules of communication tell us that an approach based on telling, teaching or lecturing to a customer about the insights they need to be aware of may fall on deaf or suspicious ears.  And there is factor that we must also take into consideration.  With the increased sophistication of customers in today’s market, is there a risk that a sales rep’s attempts to teach or challenge may be perceived by an experienced buyer as a little obvious and even self-serving?

The reality is that the star-performers of 2012+ in the B2B world will still be the champions of investigating.  It’s just that they are no longer only asking questions to uncover customer needs.  They are asking questions that provoke and encourage deeper thinking about unrecognized problems and unanticipated opportunities for business growth.  They are indeed educating about trends and delivering insights, but doing so by helping the customer arrive conclusions not through presentation but through discussion.

Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes and ask yourself which approach you would prefer?