Challenge Buyers With A Provocative Question

When I first began my sales effectiveness consulting career, I made a list of 20 people as my starting prospect list.  They were all people I had established credibility with while working as colleagues.

Jeff was very high on my list. He was previously a general manager for a product division at my former employer. He was now CEO of a successful, high growth company. Better still, his current administrator, Pam, used to be my administrator at one point in time.

I prematurely concluded it should be easy to get on Jeff’s calendar.

When I called Pam, she was exuberant while catching up. But when I asked to get on Jeff’s calendar, her answer surprised me. She said the earliest she could put me on his calendar was four months away. My brain was racing. I know Jeff had to be busy, but four months? So I asked Pam, “why the long wait?” Her reply, “we have an IPO pending, and Jeff’s instructions were to push any meeting requests off that were not directly tied to the IPO”. I acknowledged the need to prioritize, and accepted the meeting four months away.

Then I pulled up my favorite search engine.

I was looking for any analysis on the IPO, and I hit the jackpot right away. Not as an investment, mind you, but as fodder for a provocative question. The first analysis I read by a major investment firm summed up the situation. It said that while this particular company had successfully penetrated a lucrative market, it had failed to penetrate other market segments.  Their perspective highlighted a significant risk for a major downturn in the value of the stock within 12 months should this problem not be fixed. Given their notoriety and stature in the investment market, it was likely that Jeff knew about their analysis.

Besides Pam, Jeff had also recruited Joe from our former company. Joe was a senior HR executive, who was not known for turning down a free lunch. So I got on Joe’s calendar for lunch later in the week.

My plan was risky, but it paid off. Even though Jeff was busy, I figured he had to eat lunch. The size of their company didn’t warrant a cafeteria, so I was hoping that Jeff would have to depart through their lobby to get to his car for a bite to eat. I showed up for my 12:15 lunch appointment with Joe at 11:45 to camp out in the lobby. Lucky for me, Jeff’s Jaguar was parked in the front of the building.

Sure enough, at just about noon, Jeff came striding into the lobby on his way out of the building. From my perch on a couch, I waved and said, “hi” to Jeff. He smiled and greeted me warmly, but did not break his stride. I asked him if he had a minute to talk. Amusingly, he said, “no, but call Pam and get on my calendar, we should catch up.”

That’s when I got provocative.

I nodded my head at his suggestion to call Pam and added, “ok, but can I ask just one question?” Jeff lifted his chin with a nonverbal gesture to proceed, but continued his gait. I pulled the trigger with, “so what’s going to happen to your IPO stock price if you can’t break into other market segments?”

I could hear Jeff’s foot plant. He stopped, turned to me with a quizzical look on his face and asked, “Is that something you can help us with?” I said, “yes”. Jeff sat down on the couch with me for a 10 minute conversation about how I could help his sales team break into other market segments.

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, the Internet gives your prospects’ the advantage in shopping for solutions without your involvement. As a result, sales professionals have to challenge the buyer’s vision of the problem set to expand their perspective and re-engineer the vision to the seller’s advantage. However, I would also add that getting their attention is the first part of the vision re-engineering obstacle.

The next time you have a prospect that won’t engage, try this three step process:

  1. Use the Internet to your advantage. Try to uncover a looming issue that’s likely to have visibility at multiple levels. Perhaps it’s a product that’s late to market, or a cost to revenue ratio that’s much higher than the competition. Something that has a potential fallout. (See my article about finding Business Issues for more ideas.)
  2. Develop your provocative question in advance. Start with “what happens if…” and fill in the rest with the unresolved issue. Try it out on a friend first. See if it causes them to want to engage, or to run. If it’s too provocative given your rapport with the intended recipient, you can tone it down. Conversely, if it’s too mild, you can always add more power to it with the words, “to you”. For example, adding to my question for Jeff: “what’s the impact to your IPO stock price, and to you, if you can’t break into other market segments?” The dagger hits closer to the heart, but requires a lot of existing rapport to pull it off without ruffling feathers. .
  3. Then apply. It might have to be over the phone, or email if you can’t get to them live. And you might have to preface it with the context of your past attempts to get their attention, and/or curiosity. For instance, “I know you said that you were too busy to talk, but something has piqued my curiosity…”

Your objective is not to get the answer. It’s to get their engagement in a conversation. Jeff never answered my question, nor did I need the answer.  But he did engage me in a conversation on the topic and subsequently introduced me to other stakeholders who needed help with the problem.

Finally, Joe popped up promptly at 12:15 in the lobby and we had a nice lunch.

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 Confused Buyer Leads To Higher No Decision Outcomes

There were four people on the other side of a blind web meeting. As the call unfolded, I knew I had a confused buyer on my hands.

While I rarely run into a confused buyer, my clients experience it on a daily basis. The reason I don’t witness it often is that I typically engage the VP of Sales as my first contact. It’s rare to find one that is confused about what he or she is trying to achieve and the problems that are contributing to their challenge. On the other hand, most of my client companies sell to IT or some other technical organization where their first point of contact is usually at an implementer level and unaware of the business challenges or objectives for the organization.

I was put in contact with this task team charged with finding a sales methodology for their organization. When I asked them to describe the sales challenges they would like to overcome with this initiative, it was like one of the current presidential political debates. No one could answer the question directly, but they all had something to say.  Most commonly it was a complaint from their individual perspective about some other organization: marketing material is bad, internal approval process is horrendous, our customers are competing with us, and the like. When I tested for challenges like selling across the product line, facing new competition, getting to more powerful stakeholders and the like, there weren’t any takers. (And believe me, I did my homework on this organization!)

Not having clarity on the problem definition would seem bad enough, but then one of the team members dropped a bomb on my lap that my customers also run into every day. He asked if they could spend half a day with me to dig into the depths of our offering. On the surface, a request to engage in a deeper evaluation can sound like there’s genuine interest in a solution, but in reality, it’s the death spiral of the snake and prey about to begin.

Lacking a cohesive agreement on the problem definition, each stakeholder is likely to prefer a different solution based on their individual perspective, resulting in a chaotic buying process. Further, the invisible problem statement also makes it impossible to develop the value proposition to weigh against other uses for the money, leading to a drawn out process, or more likely, a no decision. When I brought the lack of a cohesive problem definition to their attention, one of the stakeholders recognized the implication and suggested a step to develop the problem definition.

My strategy is to encourage the development of the problem definition by including the ultimate decision maker and myself in the process. If they can’t or won’t, I will consciously limit my exposure to a potentially huge time sink.

For those of you selling to infrastructure or operations organizations, I suggest a checkpoint before you begin the evaluation process. Try to answer these two questions:

  • Can you clearly articulate the problem definition and would the buying team agree?
  • Would the decision maker agree?

If the answer is “no” to either of these questions, be cautious about engaging in an evaluation process unless you have time and money to burn. This unproductive buying behavior is rampant and is the biggest contributor to the common 40% to 60% no decision results most professional sales organizations tolerate.

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.

Getting To Decision Makers Just Got More Difficult

The challenge of getting to more powerful stakeholders is getting more complex. In the past, a senior level executive would usually decide to take or not take a vendor meeting request based upon recommendations from his or her team. Now, according to a recent poll by DemandGen, 72% of executives said they also check LinkedIn profiles.

Your LinkedIn profile can now make or break your attempts to call higher or wider. Let me explain why.

Imagine trying to sell a car without cleaning it inside or out. What does the buyer see? A car that isn’t cared for, perhaps indicating that more important maintenance items like oil changes were neglected as well; ultimately reducing the perception of its true value.

The same thing applies to your LinkedIn profile.  Specifically, does your profile look like a resume for a sales person, or does it look like a customer-centric business focused adviser? Does it cause a reader to conclude that you are a potential valuable resource, or does it cause them to hide their wallet or plan how to beat you up for more discount?

A regular part of my role as an embedded sales coach is to help sellers individually learn how to gain access to more powerful stakeholders. This requires developing skills in a number of areas: gaining an understanding of the challenges in the target’s business, being able to articulate a value proposition in the customer’s terms, and building executive level credibility with lower level contacts by projecting the image of a credible business adviser, not just a technology seller. A well thought out LinkedIn profile can aid your cause.

Unfortunately, nine out of ten times, the LinkedIn profiles I review scream out, “I’m a salesperson looking for my next job!”

If you’d like to leverage the power of LinkedIn, here are three simple suggestions for tuning your profile so that it projects the image of a customer-centric business adviser:

  1. Ditch the title! The title is located just below your name. Unfortunately, most titles fit you into a neat little box that doesn’t help you sell more effectively. Instead, replace it with what you bring to the party for the target audience you want to reach. For instance, rather than “Senior Account Executive”, try something like, “Delivering Higher Profits to the XYZ Market”. Or, if you can target it even more, specify the buyer type: “Improving Revenue Results for Sales Leaders” as an example of something I might use.  (Your employment history can still retain your actual title, but most people will reach a conclusion about you within the first few sentences of your summary.)
  2. Tell a story. Use the summary to tell a story. Define the problems you help your target audience overcome. Take note that I didn’t say “solutions”. People resonate with problems much more than they do a techno-jargon filled solution description. For example, rather than saying, “I deliver security solutions.”, spell out the most common challenges or problems you help to overcome. In this example, a security solutions adviser might say:
    1. Eliminate DOS attacks before they happen.
    2. Prevent former employees from accessing sensitive information.
    3. Identify unsecured IOT entry points that now pose the biggest security risks according to recent research.

           Add a short example from a customer that also has credibility in your target market if possible. Include the business issues they were facing, the problems you uncovered and the resulting value they accrued. Use bullets and bold font to draw their attention to the words or descriptions that would most likely cause them to see themselves in your description. You want their unconscious mind to conclude, “wow, he/she really understands my situation”.

3. Provide links to valuable information that builds your credibility. You don’t have to be the author.  Demonstrating that you keep up on and share the latest research can project an image of credibility and value add. Look for white papers, research summaries, SlideShare presentations, and anything that adds to your image as a knowledgeable resource. If you can’t find any examples, then substitute quotes from other customers about your ability to deliver value.

For brevity, I’m stopping with a list of three things. These are easy edits that should only take you a few minutes, and they can have a huge impact on your ability to gain access to more important stakeholders. If you want to learn more, there’s lots of information posted on Pulse articles about using LinkedIn more effectively, or if you want to have it provided to you in a really engaging format, take a look at Social Selling by Donna McCurley.

Remember, you are in the best position to sculpt the image you want people to see and the conclusions you want them to reach about you. But you have to take action!

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.