The Best Sellers Are Curious: Part Two

Last week, I wrote a post about the advantage of uncovering the prospect’s value proposition instead of pushing the value proposition of others onto the prospect. As a result, I received an outpouring of personal notes from my readers asking for more on the topic of sales curiosity.

For this post, I’ll explore how curiosity can project your solution as more strategic to your prospects.

Years ago, I was selling an engineering automation solution. I had been in contact with a company called Sundstrand that makes flight data recorders. You know, the indestructible black box that tells the story of any commercial airplane accident. (If you’re like me, you may have even wondered at least once; why don’t they make the rest of the plane out of the same stuff?)

After months of fending off my diligent follow up, my lead contact suddenly became very interested in my solution, and wanted to borrow our software to evaluate the capabilities. My curiosity kicked in, so I inquired about the sudden change in interest level. My contact side-stepped the question and focused the dialog on how fast we could get the software installed on his computer. I could have chosen to go with the flow, but sensing his level of urgency, I leveraged the moment.

“Because we have a finite amount of technical support”, I explained, “my management will only allow so many evaluations at any one time”. This would put him on a waiting list that might be three or four weeks out. However, I shared with him, I had successfully reshuffled the list to get evaluations started right away when I was able to explain to my boss how it might help the customer’s business.

My contact took a deep breath through his nose, exhaled, and proceeded to share the background. They were late on a project for Boeing, as a result they were already being docked $1M in contract penalties. His boss had been fired over the flap, and he wanted to show his new boss that he was on top of the problem. He was certain our software could help him chase down the problem, avoid the next late penalty and ultimately keep his job.

I nodded my head in acknowledgement, and said I think I could get his evaluation re-prioritized, but added that it would help if his manager would reiterate the situation to my manager. We prepped our respective chain of command, coordinated the phone call for the next day, and I upped the ante.

During the call with his manager, I suggested we send our best engineer along with the software to help chase down the design problem they were experiencing, eliminating a potential learning curve delay. In return, if we successfully identified the problem, we asked them to commit to buy the software and pay for our engineer’s time as a service fee. Although my contact was obviously annoyed he wouldn’t be the sole hero, his manager thought it was a prudent suggestion and agreed.

I had a purchase order in my hand on day seven after the initial conversation. In retrospect, I realized that had I simply loaned him the software for evaluation, he would have found the solution to his problem, relieving his motivation, and then sat on the purchase decision until the end of the quarter when he could pressure me for a discount.

Here’s what I learned: There are three questions to leverage curiosity and uncover the strategic issue. They are “why?”, “why?”, and “why?”. For instance: “Why are you interested in our solution?” “Why is that problem important to your senior management?” And, “Why is that issue more important than other issues on their plate?”

The first why will usually uncover the problem. The second why will uncover how the problem has created a business issue, which is what management is focused on. And the third why will usually get the value of solving the business issue surfaced to help justify and prioritize the purchase.

With these answers, you should have a very powerful value proposition that shines a light on your strategic contribution, not just your differentiated capabilities.

Lastly, should you find yourself talking to a prospect that didn’t come to you, start by explaining the most common problems your solution helps to address. (Not your capabilities!) If the prospect resonates with any of the problem definitions, follow your curiosity with at least two more “why” questions to uncover the connection to a current business issue and the strategic value of your solution to this particular prospect.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

The Best Sellers Are Curious

One of my new customers hired an outside consulting company to survey their customer base. They wanted to identify how their solution has impacted their customers’ business results. The information uncovered is impressive to say the least: Significant improvements in a variety of productivity measurements, corresponding decreases in antiquated, time wasting activities, and an overall improvement in employee morale to name just a few indicators.

Unfortunately, many of their sales people have used the results of the survey as a way to broadcast their value proposition to their prospects. Why is this a bad thing? It has stripped away their curiosity.

Instead of asking the prospect which metric is most important to them, some of their sales people are simply showing the results of the survey in hopes that each prospect will adopt the survey results as their own potential value proposition. While there is an appropriate time for the use of this information, it’s not during the value proposition development.

I call this the “push or pull” problem. They want to push the value proposition of others, rather than pull the value proposition out of the prospect to motivate them to take action.

Since I’ve already illustrated the first case, let’s explore the latter. The prospect’s value proposition is based on the goals set for them, missed opportunity, shortfalls in visible areas, or the resulting personal ramifications in all cases. For instance, in many cases, when I conduct a sales call on a chief revenue officer, one of the questions I ask them is the difference between their quota last year and their quota this year. The difference is the foundation for the value proposition that will motivate them to take action. Then I ask them to describe the selling challenges that will make closing that gap difficult. I usually hear things like ramp up time for new hires, not selling across the product line, small transaction values and more.  With this information, I can link my capabilities to their selling challenges and ultimately to their value proposition, not the value proposition of my other customers.

One of my current customers provides analytics to video on demand providers. Their customers include HBO, NBC, AT&T and others. One of their current prospects is a large entertainment provider in Europe. To quantify the value proposition for this potential client they asked the following questions:

  • What is your current subscriber churn? Answer: over 17% per year.
  • What should it be? Answer: They’d be happy to cut it in half, to 8.5%
  • What is their current subscription revenue? (I’ll say $1B to keep the client identity confidential and the math simple).

Putting pencil to paper, under these circumstances this prospect has an $85M churn problem. (0.085 x $1B) When asked what contributes to the churn, the prospect cited content and quality as the primary problem areas; both of which this solution provider can help them to identify and address. In comparison, the cost of their solution is miniscule compared to what’s on the table for the client. The difference can be a powerful motivator for action if it can be articulated.

So when do we use the value proposition of other clients?

My first sales manager told me there is always a sale within a sale. First you have to sell the prospect on making a change (their value proposition), then you have to sell them on you as the best alternative. That’s when the success with other customers can be used to differentiate you over alternatives. The list of other customer successes is a better tool for differentiating and establishing credibility, not necessarily value. A friend of mine cites the acronym YMMV, your mileage may vary, as the reason pushing value doesn’t effectively motivate most people to action. They know they have a different situation than your other clients.

The next time you’re facing a new prospect, get curious. I’m certain you’ll sell more.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

Jury Duty Can Help You Sell More: Disqualifying Prospects

If you noticed my lack of posting last week, it’s because I was called up for jury duty.

The dread was palpable when I saw the envelope with the familiar red stripe across the top of the envelope and the bold “Jury Summons” label. In my household, it seems like I always get a jury summons every two years. Nobody else in my family ever seems to get one.

The thought of a week in a courtroom was not a pleasant one. But I know it’s my civic duty and I’ve drilled the concept into the heads of my now adult children, so sucking it up was the only answer.

The courtroom was filled with 78 potential jurors in this criminal DUI case. The process for selecting, or rather, deselecting potential jurors was arduous and repetitive. But something caught my attention about the people they let go.

While many people were granted deferments for a variety of scheduling problems, there were at least three categories of people that were outright dismissed from duty:

  • The Heavily Biased
  • The Poor Communicators
  • The Quiet Type

The heavily biased were drilled by the judge to qualify whether they truly were heavily biased or just trying to get out of the assignment. Most, who started with a claim of bias, eventually capitulated to the judge’s expert grilling and said they could weigh the evidence and reach a verdict of not guilty or guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Only two were let go with a claim of bias, but around ten people originally claimed they were.

There were three poor communicators. One gentlemen who simply shrugged and quietly smiled at almost every question the judge asked, a trauma nurse who would take two or three whole minutes in silence while formulating her response to each question, only to spur the judge to dig in more after an incomprehensible answer, and the unfortunate guy who apparently enjoyed the 60’s a little too much. He sounded a lot like the present day Ozzy Osbourne if you know what I mean.

Although I was grateful for the dismissals of the poor communicators, and I developed an appreciation for how skilled the judge was at disqualifying bias, the quiet type dismissal caught my attention the most.  These people did not raise their hand when either the prosecutor, defense attorney or the judge asked a group question. When asked questions directly, they gave very brief answers. No elaboration whatsoever. At a high level I could discern they weren’t inarticulate. The speed of their response and vocabulary were strong indicators. They also didn’t announce any bias one way or the other, yet they were dismissed by either the prosecutor or the defense in round after round of peremptory challenge. (No reason has to be given by either party, but each side is allowed a certain number for juror dismissal.)

Then it dawned on me. They couldn’t get a gage for how that person was feeling. They were holding their cards too close to their vest, and neither side of the case wanted to take a chance on the quiet type.

So what does this have to do with sales?

The biggest productivity challenge and frustration for most professional sales people is the no decision outcome. Our research indicates the three largest contributors to a no decision outcome are:

  • Inability of the prospect to articulate or agree on the problem set.
  • Inability of the prospect to articulate or agree on the value proposition.
  • Inability or refusal to mobilize other more powerful stakeholders into the dialog.

All three of these behaviors are often masked with silence, short but nonproductive answers, redirection, or outright refusal to engage on the subject. In other words, they operate like the quiet type juror. You can’t tell what they are thinking; they keep the information to a minimum, and end up wasting your time.

The next time you’re sitting across from someone who won’t discuss their problems, can’t estimate the value of resolving the problems, and/or refuses to bring others into the conversation, remember the prosecutor that is trying to sell his case beyond a reasonable doubt. Then politely excuse yourself from the conversation and move on to someone who is better prepared to buy.

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Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.