Situational awareness – a critical factor in B2B sales

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As regular readers will know, I’ve been a long-standing advocate of establishing repeatable sales processes, but please bear with me while I take what might appear to be a contradictory position: In today’s typical complex B2B sales environments, there is no such thing as a universal “one best way” of handling every sales opportunity.

There is simply too much variation from one opportunity to the next in both our prospect’s particular circumstances and in the specific competitive environment for a fixed and unyielding formula to work every time. The same is true of sales methodologies: there is no one universally applicable “best” sales methodology.

Every one of the commercially available sales methodologies has both areas of strength and potential “blind spots”. Each is in practice more suited to certain sales environments and situations than others. There is no such thing as a universally efficacious sales methodology, even within a single sales organisation.

Given this, what are sales leaders to do: give in to anarchy, and let every sales person work it out for themselves? Abandon attempts to establish replicable processes and methodologies? There is (as you are probably hoping) an effective alternative approach…

I’ve observed two critical behaviours in the sales organisations that have managed to master this conundrum:

Firstly, they are adopting a blended approach to both sales process and sales methodology, taking the best ideas from multiple sources and customising them to meet their specific business circumstances – and then they are implementing them in a way that gives their sales people the freedom and flexibility to adapt their approach to different circumstances. In giving their sales people systems to follow, they are creating flexible skeletons, rather than rigid cages.

Secondly, when recruiting sales people (and when developing their existing staff), they are emphasising qualities like curiosity, adaptability, lifelong learning and emotional intelligence – the essential foundations of situational awareness.

This combination of implementing adaptable systems and encouraging situational awareness is giving a new generation of flexibly-minded sales organisations a powerful and growing competitive advantage.

CUSTOMISABLE, ADAPTABLE SYSTEMS

Our sales processes need to both guide sales people in proven best practices and winning habits and accommodate the fact that (for example) selling a renewal to an existing customer is a very different and typically far less complicated exercise that winning our first piece of business with a brand-new client – and that there are usually multiple levels of complexity between these two extremes.

There are other factors that we need to take into account when guiding our sales people in what they need to think and do – for example the phase in the prospect’s buying journey when we first became aware of an opportunity. We clearly need to act in a very different way if we are with an opportunity from the start as opposed to receiving an unexpected RFP that demands an immediate response.

There are, clearly, a handful of common things that experience and best practice tells us we need to know and do with every potential sales opportunity – but there are far more examples where our behaviour needs to be guided by our tactical and strategic appreciation of the specific circumstances of each individual opportunity.

If we ignore these variations and are over-prescriptive in our expectations of our sales people, our best sales people will ignore them (and we will probably be inclined to accommodate them) and our less intelligent sales people will probably be inclined to follow the process because they have been told to and deliver frustratingly inconsistent (usually bad) performance as a result.

That is why I designed our Value Selling System® to accommodate an intelligent blend of appropriate processes and methodologies, customisable to an organisation’s particular business environment and adaptable to the unique circumstances of each individual opportunity.

SITUATIONALLY AWARE SALESPEOPLE

None of the above will help if we don’t get the right foundation in place by employing intelligent sales people. I can think of very few circumstances where the long-term performance of a new sales hire isn’t going to be far more strongly influenced by their attitude, aptitude and intellect than the recent experience they bring to the role.

And when we look at our existing sales people, it ought to be clear that those with the strongest intellect combined with the necessary attitudes and aptitudes are going to be far more capable of embracing and coping with change. Apologies if you think the following is message is a little too direct, but the obvious conclusion must surely be (1) don’t hire insufficiently intelligent sales people, no matter how good their CV looks, and (2) get rid of any insufficiently intelligent sales people that you’ve somehow managed to accommodate up until now within your sales organisation.

So how can we help sales people that do have these necessary attributes to further develop and enhance their situational awareness? The discovery process is one phase that has a particularly important impact on the potential success of an opportunity. We need to coach and equip our sales people to stick with the problem, rather than racing in to pitch their solution at the first faint whiff of a potential need.

We need to encourage them to drill into the need behind the need, and to fully explore the implications and consequences of a potential problem, and to identify everyone else who might be affected. We need them to establish a clear value gap between their prospect’s current situation and their potential future destination.

We need to coach them to identify all the potential stakeholders within the prospect organisation, and to understand where the centres of power and influence lie. We need to help them to assess whether their initial contact is a decision-maker, an influencer, or a powerless functionary.

We need to ensure that they are aware of the current phase of their prospect’s buying decision journey and are able to anticipate and relate to what the prospect’s priorities are likely to be at each stage. We need to coach them (and put systems in place, if necessary) to be very wary of investing any time on unexpected RFPs unless we have a real chance of reshaping the prospect’s agenda.

We need to develop their questioning skills and conversational fluency and (perhaps most important of all) to coach them to think about what their prospect has just said, and to seek to understand why they said it.

A POWERFUL COMBINATION

Systems that reflect an intelligent blend of appropriate processes and methodologies, customisable to an organisation’s particular business environment and adaptable to the unique circumstances of each individual opportunity, when combined with a sales organisation that has a highly developed sense of situational awareness can have a transformative effect on sales performance.

It’s one reason why we chose to implement the Value Selling System® framework in Membrain CRM – we found their approach to be the perfect platform for creating the sort of environment that I’ve just described. And it’s now available to salesforce.com users as an easily installed plug-in, as well.

Which leaves me just a couple of closing questions: are you satisfied with the level of situational awareness that you currently observe in your sales teams? And are you confident that the systems you have currently in place are capable of supporting this critical skill? 

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