Chapter 8: How do you spell ASSUME?

We all know the “to assume is to make an ASS out of U and ME” line, but how far are you willing to go to reach an understanding on the facts of the problem you are trying to solve?  In Chapter 7 we talked about creating trust so that you can mutually discover the full set of facts, but there is actually more to this than asking great questions.

The first assumption problem involves terms.  If you are a 20-year industry veteran, and the client is new to your industry, there is a potential minefield of errors that can get in the way of your fact digging based on differing ideas of what terms and phrases mean.  For example, let’s say that your client wants to talk to you about cloud-based CRM systems. We all know that it is poor form to talk in endless acronyms, but worse, CRM might mean one thing to you and another to your client.  And the cloud, as used in the computer industry, is so new and abstract to some people that you would definitely need to make sure you both were talking about the same thing.

How do you agree on the meaning of terms in a way that doesn’t sound condescending to your client?

Done properly, a quick discussion on terms can be a great way to show that you want to be 100% accurate in every aspect of the solution process (at the same time, it helps with your continuous prospect qualification process).  It might be something as simple as saying, “We’ve found that cloud-based customer relationship management systems (notice CRM is defined here, not abbreviated) can mean different things to different people.  To make sure we are on the same page, can you tell me what that means to you and what you are trying to accomplish?”

You might find out that to the client, CRM means Consumer Research Methodology. Better to find that out now than 30 minutes into a presentation.  Or you may find that their idea of a cloud platform is a Hotmail account when you think it means a hosted software platform with full redundancy and real-time failover.  Whatever happens, you have removed assumptions, clarified intent, and set up a pathway that you can now both go down together.  In addition, the client has had a chance to think about what her real problem is, and what a successful outcome might look like.

Using the example above, let’s assume that you and the client have agreed that a cloud-based CRM is a software package that resides on your company’s computer servers, is accessed over a standard web browser, and allows you to import, export, and sort data on the company’s staff and customers (an example of this is SalesForce).  The next step is to find out why your client wants this.  The client may answer, “I Googled it and found that it is cheaper to get a cloud-based system rather than a self-hosted system.”

If you sell cloud-based CRM systems, it is time to fire up the PowerPoint, show 12 slides of your company’s org charts, and close with the classic “sign here, three copies, press hard” and run for the door, right?

Not so fast.

If price is the only reason that they are buying this type of system, then you are now in the commodity business; in a race to the bottom to see who can have the lowest price and margin.  There is a place in every industry for the lowest cost product or service, but I’ve always preferred to be known as the Most Expensive Guy In Town (more on that later). There must be another thing other than price that is driving this decision.  There almost always is.

This is where real sales begins.

What about the other things that your company can do, such as give  24/7 for tech support, automatic software upgrades, user-friendly software, special customizations, etc? What about other advantages of cloud-based systems, such as real-time security against spam, malware, hackers, and Nigerian e-mail scams?  Only after agreeing on what each of these terms means to the client can you proceed in a way that makes you a resource to your client, and if you are resource, you can earn your way to Trusted Advisor status (see Chapter 3).

These are just assumptions on terms.  In Chapter 9, we will look at other types of more complex assumptions, all based on the frailties of the human mind.

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Chapter 7: Earning Trust Before You Ask the Tough Questions

To fully succeed at sales, we must think and act with a client-centric mindset at all times.  To do that, we need to first gather accurate information from our prospect, and to get that information, we must have trust.

We can’t have trust until we earn trust.

What happens if at our first meeting, we ask, “what were the three biggest failures of your department last year?”  Count yourself lucky if instead of a door in the face, you only get a blank stare followed by a variation of, “our department has had no major issues over the past fiscal year.”  Either way, you are shut out, possibly for good. But you read “Chapter 6:  Partnering with your Prospect,” and you understand the need to ask those tough questions.  Why are our prospects afraid to answer those questions?  Don’t they want to help their company by doing a better job?

People are people, and whether it is due to personal ego, petty internal politics, the inability to get to useful information, or just because there has been so little trust built with past salespeople, most prospects have built up wide moats and massive walls to protect their world from people like you.  Don’t take it personally – it is just part of the dysfunctional sales dynamic that was built long before you were born.

How do you ask 100 MPH hardball questions when your prospect is used to underhand slow pitched softballs?  Or maybe even even used to hitting off the Tee?

(A note to my international friends:  sorry for the baseball sports analogy.  While I understand your puzzlement with an American sport that has an event called the World Series but negates to invite teams from outside North America, my shameful lack of cricket or rugby analogies forces my hand here.  Client-Centric Sales will endeavor to keep sports metaphors to a minimum.)

If you haven’t already, read Chapter 3:  Becoming an Expert in Order to Qualify Successfully.   When you become an expert on your prospect’s industry, company, and problems, you are taking down the first set of barriers that prospects usually put up. They will open the door quite a bit wider for you if they have “discovered” you through your previous industry networking on LinkedIn, through trade associations, or by referral.  If you managed to invite yourself for a meeting to discuss industry best practices and how upcoming regulations may impact their business, they may drop their defenses even further.  If you keep your corporate brochures and PowerPoints under lock and key (believe it or not, they don’t want to see your 12 slides of org charts), you have the possibility of opening up a real dialog.  And if during that initial dialog, which may take place over several meetings, you can keep your mind off your quota and instead focus on your prospects issues, you may become successful at avoiding the salesperson’s biggest offense:  Listening With Intent To Sell.

We’ve all done that.  We get a great dialog going and then 20% into the discussion, we start to tune out and figure out how we are going to sell the prospect the new POS-2150 GlurpMaster 2.0 with an extended warranty agreement.

Wrong.

Keep listening.  Don’t think solutions yet – that’s a ways off.  Listen some more.  Ask questions that help you both discover the deep sources of the problem instead of the more easily recognized topical symptoms.  Your competitors have already tried to sell bandaids; you, my friend, are going to do surgery. So listen.  When the prospect comes to what he or she believes is the end of the answer, keep digging. Your prospect may declare that he or she has reached a conclusion, and that you are ready to discuss a solution.  Don’t take the easy way out and stop there.  If you are working on what appears to be a promising line of questioning, keep going.  It is often as easy as taking a short pause, and asking, “what else?”

Asking “what else?” is an amazingly powerful question.  A local Fortune 500 company turned into a long term client due mainly to the fact that I kept asking that question. When the prospect got to the point that he thought he was done, I would ask “what else?” It was only after asking “what else?” 14 more times that we finally drilled down far enough for us both to understand the problem.  Reaching that understanding allowed us to zero in on a solution which saved the client almost $1M.

I didn’t sell anything that day.  I helped someone understand his business, identify a problem, and enact a solution.  The solution was simple and had nothing to do with my company or what I had to sell.  But you can bet the next time I met with this company, I was treated as a trusted advisor, not a salesman.  At that point, I was in a position to ask the really tough questions, discuss the elephants in the room, and mutually engage with this company to look at other issues that I could directly help them resolve.

Chapter 6 – Partnering with your Prospect

In the last chapter we looked at the three most common ways to fail at sales.  Those three methodologies have been repeated and perfected through the years, and are very effective at making sure the client doesn’t get what he or she wants while turning you into ineffective salesperson.  As you have probably guessed, there is a better way.

Let’s work with a simple example.  Do you have a friend who is a gadget freak? Someone who drools over technical specs, compares all the different models, and camps out overnight at the Apple store every time a new product is released?  If you were in the market for a new cell phone, you might seek guidance from this person, discussing the pros and cons of different models and operating systems, all the while interacting as equals.  Perhaps at the end of your discussion, you might trust his judgement in this purchase more than you would your own.  This friend has little or nothing to gain in advising you, and you would probably take the advice given as trusted, impartial, and based on your true needs, resulting in your purchase of a perfect new cell phone.

It is this kind of dynamic that we are trying to create with a client-centric sale.

In the real world of sales, this isn’t always easy.  Most prospects have been trained over the years to expect salespeople telling them what they need (usually based on selling what they have) without really understanding their business.  As the saying goes, “If all you sell are hammers, after a while everything starts to look like a nail.”  If not that, prospects are used to telling salespeople what they want, eschewing any kind of value-add dialog from the salesperson that might benefit the prospect’s company.  If it is a large, complex, or technical sale, it is very likely that there will be a great deal of guessing by both the salesperson and the prospect.  These dysfunctional selling practices were covered in greater detail in Chapter 5.

A better way is to focus on a collaborative and consultative sale, acting as if you were not on commission, but instead were hired to help your client complete a successful project. Just as a hired consultant would do research with the client in able to unearth useful data, you will need to do the same with your prospect. During this question asking process, it is very likely that your client will not have all of the answers you require to create an optimum solution.  This is good news, not bad.  I have learned over the years that in the end, the salesman with the best answers does not win the sale.  My experience has shown the opposite:  the salesman with the best questions wins.

It is here that Client-Centric Sales takes a sharp turn away from the well known traditional consultative sales techniques that have been taught for decades.  At first, things might appear very similar to what you are used to.  But as we get deeper into the salesperson-prospect relationship, you will see that success comes from asking questions that your contact won’t be able to answer.  This opens up the opportunity for both you and your prospect to engage others within the organization.  Besides creating a greater sense of corporate buy-in, you may learn, for example, that you have been talking to the wrong person, that the project doesn’t have firm funding, that the European division wants the same solution, or that the president has squashed the project several times in the past. The right questions will help you continually qualify your prospect.

Client-Centric Sales is based on this methodology.  The chapters that follow will help you learn how to ask tough questions, obtain relevant data, meet key people within the organization, verify funding, cooperatively build a business case, jointly present it, and reach a definitive decision.

So roll up your sleeves.  We’re about to get our hands dirty.

Chapter 4: How Does Your Client Measure Success?

If you were to ask your prospect, “How will you know if this project is successful?” I’m betting that they wouldn’t know how to answer you. A study on IT system implementations showed that 37% of them failed. That means only 67% of IT projects succeeded, which in any school would be rated a “D.” Why did they fail? The study cites that the requirements for the project were unclear, resources were lacking, schedules were unrealistic, planning data was insufficient, and risks were not identified.

Does this sound like any of your past projects?

Whether you are in the IT industry or the TP industry, there are lessons to be learned here. The most important lesson is that it was, at best, only after the project was completed that thought was given to how success would be measured. As customers are (thankfully) getting smarter, more and more are learning to define the scorecard in advance to measure the success of the project.

The greatest opportunity with your prospect is to help them develop the scorecard that will be used to determine what success looks like.

What kind of measurements will your clients be using? Return-On-Investment (ROI) is a common business measurement yardstick. It is certainly one that is dear to the CFO‘s, CEO’s, and Board of Director’s hearts. If you can show your prospect that your product or service can reduce costs, increase revenue or margins, increase productivity, increase quality, or increase customer satisfaction, then you have a good chance of moving your proposal up through the organization. If you can help your contact at that company matter to the C-Suite, and help him or her enable the company to survive tough times and even grow, then that contact will start to treat you like a trusted advisor who is out to help the organization.

After you have proven yourself to be an expert and have identified the key people you need to meet and work with (Becoming An Expert In Order To Qualify Successfully, Chapter 3), you are ready to start writing the score card that will be used by your client (and hopefully forced upon your competitor). The sum of that scorecard needs to be firmly anchored in the Client Centric Sales model of win-win; it is imperative that you work together to create and supply the optimum solution to the company’s most important problems.

Win-Win is easier said than done. The most difficult part of this is that the contacts you have at your prospect’s organization will most likely not have a full understanding on how the project affects the business drivers of their company. They may have secured budget money, and may even have a specification written. The project may have been funded to solve “Problem X” which is funded for “Y dollars” for a period of “Z months,” but has a business case been developed that would enable your contact to justify the project? Are you in a position to help your prospect show the C-Suite how the proposed project is a win for them?

You probably have a good understanding of your prospect’s industry, and an even better understanding of the challenges your prospect’s company faces. You will need to identify how your product or service can address at least one of those challenges, and you will need to help your client develop the scorecard that will be used to both establish the success of the project and can be used to make sure that your competitors are being measured to the same standard.

Problems?

Many, and half of them are caused by ourselves.  We don’t listen, we make assumptions, we think of solutions that we have already sold instead of working to understand every aspect of our prospect’s business, and we assume that we are talking to the right people within that organization. But it is not all our own fault. It doesn’t help that our prospects don’t really know what they need, can’t find a way of accurately describing the problem, keep key information to themselves, won’t let us near the right people, are unrealistic about expectations, and are more concerned with company politics than end-results.

This is why you need to help write the scorecard for your project. Granted, it is not easy, and it takes a lot of time. The good news is that each step you take will help you to continually educate and qualify your prospect. In coming chapters, we will examine a simple methodology that you can use to create a concise, measurable, and justifiable scorecard that you and your prospect create together that will help put you in the driver’s seat.

Chapter 1: Why the World Hates Salespeople (and Why they Should)

Wouldn’t it be great if your prospect gave you a checklist to complete, and if you followed that checklist, they would buy from you?  Of course it would – what fool wouldn’t follow a set of directions handed to them by the person who writes the check?  And yet it happened to me this week. Six times.  And all I was trying to do was buy a new car.

That’s right.  I was dealing with one of the most despised creatures on earth:  the car salesperson.

The checklist was simple.  It gave the exact make and model, the options I wanted, and the color.  In addition, I explained that I would not be paying for any other factory options or dealer ad-ons like floor mats.  If they didn’t have the exact car I wanted or couldn’t get it, they could hit the magic delete button on my e-mail.  All I asked for was the price of the car, the monthly lease fee, and all the other nickel and dime things up front before I stepped in the dealer’s showroom.  I wanted the paperwork all done through e-mail before I picked up the car, and wanted to spend no more than 45 minutes in the showroom the day I took delivery, no test drive needed.  Nowhere did I say I would choose a car based on price.  Simple, right?

Well, no.

All six dealers sent me form letter e-mails, inviting me come in for a chat, look at the colors and options, discuss my budget, and take a test drive or two.  So with all of my “buying signals” given to them in writing, how is it that six different companies blew a sure thing sale?  Professional salespeople attend expensive week long seminars to learn how to detect these buying signals.  Senior level sales professionals are paid more than junior level sales professionals because they have decades of experience which enable them to pick up on these barely visible signs that buyers try to hide.

Is there a more dysfunctional selling paradigm than that of the automobile sale?

Doubtful.

And yet I see variations of this every day, from the simple consumer electronics gadget sale to the multi-million dollar global IT system sale.  Why is this?  Why are so many salespeople so bad?

Maybe that is an unfair questions, but not because most salespeople are good.  It is an unfair question because half of the blame resides with the customer.  That’s right.  The guy on the other side of the table, the one with the checkbook, the furrowed browed guy who keeps looking at the price page of your proposal?  Yes, that guy.  He has been taught by you and dozens of your peers over the years that he needs to protect his company against you and your ilk, because he thinks that you’re out for yourself, trying to charge as high a price as possible, and will then head off to your condo in Maui for two weeks and ignore his phone calls.

Is it the buyer’s fault that they see salespeople as adversaries instead of partners?  I don’t think so.  But there is a better way forward for salespeople.  If you choose your prospects and clients carefully, if you can develop a relationship to the level where they are willing to learn from you why your product or service is the best overall value, and you can then have them bring you up through their company to the decision makers, then you can dramatically improve your sales and waste far less time.

This is not hard stuff.  I’ve been successful selling this way for decades, and I’m as lazy as a salesman can get.  Maximum results for minimum effort is my goal.  I have taught these skills around the world in various formats, from two day crash courses to week long full immersion courses.  You can get the same information right here (minus the important student interaction portions, unfortunately) on this blog.  So go ahead and bookmark this page and come back to it for the next chapter at least once a week.  I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.

And the car fiasco?  Finally, one dealership figured out how I wanted to buy, followed my format, and sold me the car.  He wasn’t the cheapest, but he made it the easiest for me, and with this purchase, that is what I was looking for.

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