I was conducting a coaching session yesterday with a sales rep in one of my client accounts. He’s relatively new to sales, having transitioned from the customer side to the supplier side, but he’s learning fast. After guiding him through some opportunity reviews, I asked him to share his perspective on the toughest challenge he’s identified as a professional seller. He said, “It’s the uneasy feeling of not knowing.”
Having spent my career in sales, I had to agree. But I wanted him to know that he didn’t have to dangle in the wind as often as he was.
Here are the top three tactics I shared with him for reducing the unknown:
1. Anticipate the problem. I suggest something I call “conditional access”. If you’ve ever engaged a high level stakeholder who acknowledges a need but wants to hand you off to a lower level contact to validate your offering, this is a valuable tactic. When they suggest you continue the dialog with one of their underlings, acknowledge the direction, but ask for access back if something should go awry. Then document it in your email recap. I’ve never been turned down on the request, and have enjoyed the benefit on the occasion I’ve had to call the higher level contact when my calls were not being returned at a lower level. Many times it’s a matter of reinforcing the sense of urgency from the leader, which is more powerful if it comes from their lips.
During a contentious telephone call with a rude purchasing agent a few years ago, I acknowledged that we had reached an impasse and suggested we call the General Manager that initiated the discussion with me. The purchasing agent actually said she didn’t think he’d take my call. She was completely caught off guard when I added him into the call, and became very compliant after he reinforced how important it was to get the contracts sorted out that day. Had I not lined up the conditional access beforehand, the alternative would have been to spend a couple of weeks leaving voicemails for the purchasing agent who would have happily watched me sweat until I met her demands.
2. Confirm, confirm, confirm. Confirm the problem set in writing after your first dialog. Confirm the value proposition in terms of the cost of not making a decision in writing. Confirm the evaluation process in writing. Confirm every agreement you make along the way. If your contact goes quiet or won’t share some information that you need to understand the buying process more clearly, recall one of the agreements to refresh their memory on the priority of the initiative.
One of my sales methodology students, a sales representative at Cisco, shared the results of this tactic. Near the end of particularly harrowing quarter, the point of contact for his most important opportunity said they were going to delay the purchase until the next quarter simply because they had too much going on. He nodded his head in disappointment, and said, “ok, I understand, but I can’t get this picture out of my head.” He piqued the buyer’s curiosity, because the buyer asked, “what picture?” The Cisco rep replied, “I have this picture in my head of you rolling a wheel barrel full of cash out into the parking lot, dumping it over, and setting it on fire. You told me that you were burning way too much money supporting a constantly failing network.” The contact nodded his head at the reminder and placed the order that day.
3. Fan out. If you find yourself selling to one set of stakeholders, say IT for instance, and you convince yourself they are the right people since they have the budget, have purchased something similar before, and have demonstrated interest, your setting yourself up for the queasy feeling of the unknown sometime in the future. The point is, they can become easily distracted by the fire fight of the day, and they are probably buying your solution to satisfy their customer, another set of internal stakeholders.
When the phone calls go unanswered, your best bet is to have already made friends with the stakeholders on the business side of the house. If they have a vested stake in your solution, they are most likely to give you some timely insight or rattle a door if asked.
Also, if the infrastructure contact wants to keep the order size small due to budget constraints, a well-placed supporter on the business side can probably fatten the budget with other discretionary funds. Keep in mind most IT organizations get 1-2% of the company budget, while General & Administration (including marketing and sales) get upwards of the 50% of the budget.
In summary, the learning opportunity is to plan ahead for the uneasy silence. Everyone gets distracted, most people find it easier not to reply than having an awkward conversation when the situation changes, and most IT people adjust to a tight budget by squeezing the seller, not the end customer who would rather have the proper solution. Incorporate the conditional access, confirmation habit and fanning out as a daily practice and you should see the number of unknowns diminish and your forecast accuracy improve.
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Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.