Let’s Make Sales Relevant Again

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When Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1937 he laid the foundation for sales thinking that continues today: find folks with a need, get into a relationship, and tell them about the features, functions, and benefits of your solution in a way that induces them to buy it. But it’s no longer relevant. The industry faces a less-then 5% close rate, a 55% turnover of sales professionals, and 75% of people prefer not to engage sales people at all.

What’s changed? Well for starters, it’s no longer 1937: When Carnegie was king there was no direct way to meaningfully connect with a prospect unless they lived nearby. Phones were party line; travel was with Model T Fords. And the main marketing vehicles were Look magazine and the Sears Catalogue. Your neighbors were your customers and you were a necessary element in their decision: people relied on sales professionals to understand features, functions and benefits of products that could help them.

Those days are gone, but the sales industry continues to apply the same story:

  • just find people (the new art of finding names is a billion-dollar industry)
  • with needs that match what we’re selling (seemingly evident from the biased questions we pose to ‘expose a need’) and
  • provide well-composed (another billion-dollar industry) content using our charming personalities
  • to push solutions (people can find online) onto those we’ve found and they’ll buy.

But they don’t. Yet the industry continues to seek out people with ‘needs that match what we’re selling.’ When they don’t buy we say they’re stupid, ill-informed, seeking a lower price, or….

We’re merely finding the people who were going to buy anyway, the low hanging fruit, at the end of their decision cycle. No one’s noticed the foundational premises we’ve used for close to a century, techniques designed for a different time, are no longer relevant:

  • Folks with a seeming ‘need’ are now dispersed teams, making it difficult for them to understand their full problem set, let alone agree to something they need;
  • Getting into ‘relationship’ with, or gathering information from ‘a prospect’ is moot as there is no longer ‘a prospect’;
  • The features, functions, and benefits of our solutions are posted online, well outside the need for a human to introduce them.

With fewer and fewer buyers, less and less income, and more and more frustration, sellers are leaving their jobs to play musical chairs for jobs with higher earning potential (and commission guarantees) that don’t procure them higher income beyond the guarantee. Because people aren’t buying.

Why aren’t alarm bells ringing? We continue doing what we’ve always done when all rational indicators tell us we’re doing something wrong. The sales industry is suffering from ‘Problem Blindness’: assuming our failures are just ‘the way it is’ as we build more and more tools to fix the very problems they create rather admit failure and change the system altogether.

In this article I will lay out the reasons sales as we’ve known it has become irrelevant, the current struggles of the Buying Decision Journey (a term I coined in 1985), and how sales can reposition itself to become a highly respected and relevant profession. Again.


PART ONE: Why our standard sales thinking no longer works


OUTDATED ASSUMPTIONS

There are several stories here:

  1. Sellers are leaving jobs for similar ones in the hopes they’ll close more sales and earn more money. But without changing the core skills and premises of sales, fewer and fewer people need sellers and close rates will continue to fall. We need a new vision of sales.
  2. Sellers are no longer needed to place solutions; details can be found online. We need a new function that prospects need us for.
  3. Buying decisions involve complex environments and ever-changing norms to be managed. Problem solving is confusing and time-consuming. People need help making their change-related decisions that won’t reverberate back to leadership, job descriptions or the bottom line. These are change management issues that must be resolved before they can consider buying anything.
  4. We treat failure in the industry as if it were inevitable and aren’t attempting to fix it at the source, using the same thinking that cause the very problems they’ve created.

First we must acknowledge there’s a problem: we haven’t progressed beyond using sales as a needs/solution placement tool and face decreasing, and costly, results. Then we must redefine our jobs beyond finding and instigating people to buy and add new tools at the front end to facilitate people through their decision factors.

Right now we’re stuck in a cycle that perpetuates the problem.

Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you open a clothing store with the best cash registers available for efficient transactions, and you’ve overlooked installing fitting rooms, depriving customers of help where they really need help in making a choice. Hmmmmm. Sales keep decreasing! You decide to fix the situation by adding new capability to the cash registers: robots to make transactions even MORE efficient by finding folks in the aisles as they shop. But now, prospective customers feel pursued! Robbed of a way to make their best choice and pursued, they stop shopping in the store altogether. And it’s never occurred to you to bring in fitting rooms.

Sales continues to use the same baseline thinking used since 1937, but now prospects no longer live next door and don’t need anyone explaining features and functions. Yet we continue using what worked for Carnegie, but with sophisticated technology and more manipulation tools, doing the same things over and over again, hoping for different results. All assuming if we can find-em they’ll buy.

We continue thinking of sales tactically. But that’s not how people buy: they buy relationally, and they’re resolving their problems without us. And we’re not helping them where they need help.

I have a question: Do you want to sell? Or have someone buy? I assume most sellers would respond ‘Have someone buy’. But that doesn’t seem to be true: using any rational standard, what you’re doing now is failing. Your answer, it would seem, is you’d prefer to sell, regardless of whether or not anyone is buying – which is indeed what’s happening.

Indeed, we haven’t defined the real problem we face as sellers, making it impossible to resolve: instead of finding and providing real support for prospective buyers where they really need our help, we expect them to be where we are looking for them – and blaming them for not being there! Like the joke of the man looking for the lost lug nuts under the lights because he can see better, instead of searching where he lost them.

I have proven out-of-the-box ideas and models that I’ve been teaching in the sales industry for 35 years. They truly serve employees and prospects, find real buyers efficiently, and increase closing rates dramatically in far less time. But they’re not sales! And they don’t equate with anything you’re now doing, so could potentially be rejected. Yet they solve the problems you face. Are you willing to consider doing anything differently?

Before I even introduce you to my new information, the industry must first resolve the core issue: we must stop denying there’s a problem. And then we must stop using sales for prospecting. It was never meant for that.

WHY IS A 5% SUCCESS RATE OK?

When I ran my first Helping Buyers Buy program to KLM in 1987 close rates were 10%. They’re now less than 5% and dropping, an indication that the original thinking is no longer relevant. Yet we accept ‘failure’ as normal for the sales industry. “It’s just the way it is.” But failure is not inevitable. We’re just using the wrong tools for this time in history and bringing on the failure ourselves.

Failure (a 5% close rate is a 95% fail rate) has been accepted as a ‘given’ that’s been normalized and built into the cost of doing business. Sales directors understand this, hire more sellers to make up for the lower closing rates, and do some creative accounting that ignores the real cost of a sale. A sales director recently told me he closes 30%. Thirty percent of what? I asked. Of folks we meet with. What’s the percentage from first prospecting call? Less than 2%. It goes without saying that the prospecting group is listed as a cost center and closed sales are in the profit center.

Let’s get real: Would you go to a dentist with a 95% fail rate? Or get on a plane with a 5% chance of getting you to your destination? You wouldn’t even go to a hairdresser with a 95% fail rate.

Why do we condone and maintain the thinking that leads to a 95% fail rate? Why do we accept the cost of hiring 8x more sales folks who waste most of their work hours chasing people they can’t reach, putting invalid prospects into the pipeline who disappear and won’t take calls, or seeking appointments they can’t get or which don’t end in a sale? Why is it ok to have low close rates and high turnover rates? Why?

Why aren’t these factors a sign that something is wrong? What does the industry need to believe differently so failure is not a ‘given’ and can be rectified?

We are using the sales model for tasks it wasn’t designed to do. It’s a solution placement model, evolved by necessity to include prospecting and qualifying, seeking appointments, and sharing content details – all in the name of making a sale. And for a long time, it worked. But now, in the 21st Century, it’s relevant only in the final stages of a buying decision once people have self-identified as prospects.

REASONS FOR FAILURE

All rational indicators broadcast that what you’ve been doing isn’t working. But until you admit your current practices don’t capture the clients, the revenue, the numbers you seek (i.e. until you admit failure), you will continue selling less, wasting more time, earning less money, having more turnover, and helping fewer people than you deserve.

All the new apps, the new companies that promise to help you close more by finding you names of ‘real’ prospects, are the only ones making money. I recently asked a noted Lead Gen group what the close rate was for the leads they handed over. “I have no idea. That’s not our job. We only send names and have nothing to do with what our clients do with them.”

It doesn’t need to be this way. The sales model as we’ve known it is no longer relevant as the sole tool to make sales. Designed for different times, the originating assumptions capture a tiny subset of people:

  • those who have figured out that making a purchase is the only way to resolve a problem and worth the risk of change;
  • those situations in which the full set of stakeholders are involved, bought in, and are ready NOW;
  • those who carry the cultural- and values-centric criteria of the full stakeholder team.

Even with a real need, a great solution, and a trusting relationship with a vendor, no purchase occurs until everyone buys into the risk of change; the cost of disruption is too high. And sales just keeps trying to push solutions and determine need before folks are actually buyers, before they’ve assembled the complete Buying Decision Team, before they’ve understood their risk of change.

Sales overlooks the change issues that must be addressed before people decide to bring in an external solution (i.e. buy). It’s here we can add a new tool kit and become relevant.

By breaking a buying decision into two segments – the Buy Side change management process AND the Sell Side solution placement process – we 1. begin by finding those on route to becoming buyers and facilitate their change management process as they morph into buyers extremely quickly, then 2. sell. By then they’re ready, willing, and able to buy, already know they need us and are in relationship with us. Right now we have one tool kit: we rely on our solutions as bait.

By recognizing the two legs of the Buying Decision Journey and save the sales element until the first leg is complete, it’s possible to find real prospects on the first call and reduce the sales cycle by at least half. But it gets better: it’s possible to make sellers a sought-after group who can provide real help during the decision process.

But as I’ve said, first you’d need to acknowledge what you’ve been doing is failing and look at the problem from a different angle.


PART TWO: How Buyers Buy


WHY ISN’T SALES RELEVANT NOW?

Let’s begin at the beginning: Buying is not the first thing anyone does. If your car doesn’t start you don’t go straight to a dealership and buy a new one. If your team isn’t communicating skillfully your first action is not to hire a consultant. No. Before you recognize you need to bring in an external solution you’ve got work to do, things to consider, people to assemble to understand the full scope of the problem and brainstorm with, workarounds to trial.

When people first notice a problem they’ve got internal issues to resolve that carry far-reaching consequences if not delicately handled. And while they might eventually require a purchase – eventually being the operative word – these early steps are not based on buying anything. Hence, the sales model doesn’t work here.

Sales overlooks what people must do anyway: the change management piece. In fact until everyone involved buys-in to any changes caused by fixing/reconfiguring the status quo, folks cannot make a purchase regardless of their need or the value of the solution.

Need and solution value are no longer buying motives: risk avoidance is. And because each prospective buyer lives in unique cultures, they face singular, often hidden, and hard-to-discern risks; the goals, apps, and thinking used for selling don’t apply! In fact, until the risks of change are addressed and managed, people aren’t in the market to buy anything and, again, don’t even self-identify as buyers.

Here is a Truth that must be the foundation of sales thinking:

People don’t want to buy anything, merely fix a problem with the least risk to their system. And the time it takes folks to figure all this out is the length of the sales cycle.

Making a purchase is the last – the last – thing people do, and only then when everyone has bought-in and the cost of disruption is manageable. This is what they’re doing when we sit and wait! And we’re not helping them:

  • figure out how to assemble the right stakeholders (not always obvious and always unique),
  • find the right workarounds that avoid disruption,
  • weigh the disruption/change a new solution will generate,
  • facilitate their journey as they figure out how to inspire buy-in within their culture.

Until these are resolved, folks don’t even self-identify as buyers and will not heed your well-considered content, your charming personality or your great solution.

By avoiding facilitating the journey people must handle on the Buy Side, we’re only finding/closing folks who have determined the cost of change is less than the cost of the status quo and have gotten buy-in for change. Until then they won’t notice, or heed, your efforts as they don’t consider themselves buyers.

PROVIDE THE HELP FOLKS REALLY NEED

A buying decision is a change management problem before it’s a solution choice issue. And this change management process is a conundrum, filled with confusion, false starts, and unfamiliar options – the reason the sales cycle is so long. Sellers sit and wait, push and lower the price, and refer to this as ‘no decision’. But it’s not ‘no decision’, it’s just ‘no purchase’.

The tasks people must complete are cultural, idiosyncratic, and unique to each group. Using the needs-based, solution-placement sales model, there’s no way to connect until they’ve completed their objectives. Until then what they need is different from what we’re offering. This is why they won’t take an appointment, call us back, or read our marketing materials. They’re not ready.

But it’s here that 40% more real prospects reside, people who WILL buy once they’ve completed their change management steps. And it’s here we can become relevant: we can first help them manage change as a precursor to selling.

But we need different assumptions, goals, and skills: we begin by seeking those on route to change and help them traverse the confusing bits that are risk- and change-oriented. Instead of pushing and hoping they’ll close, we can put on a ‘facilitation’ hat and help them do what they must do anyway.

MY JOURNEY TO THINKING DIFFERENTLY

I learned the differences between the Buy Side decision process and the Sell Side solution-placement process when I went from being a highly successful sales professional to starting up a tech company in London. As a new ‘buyer’ who had just left the sales profession, I now realized why many prospects hadn’t closed: I needed to consider my staff, my investors, the market, our strategies and goals, before we considered (together) the most effective routes to problem resolutions. As a seller I had thought because I could see a need that they were buyers. They weren’t.

As I worked at resolving our problems I took 13 very specific steps. I didn’t even fully understand the ‘need’ until step 7, or realize we needed to go ‘outside’ to buy anything until step 9 when I realized we couldn’t fix the problem inhouse and we all understood the risk, the cost, of change. We finally considered ourselves buyers at step 10 – where the sales model is needed to clearly define how the solution would fit our need. (I describe the steps in my book Dirty Little Secrets).

Here’s a summary of what my team (all teams!) considered on route to fixing our problems with the least risk:

  • All stakeholders must be assembled. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes HR needs to come aboard. Sometimes there’s a hidden influencer (Joe in accounting) who needs to join the decision team. But unless the full complement of folks are onboard, the full fact pattern of the problem cannot be understood. This fact alone takes quite a bit of time. And speaking with one person and assuming a need is just silly.
  • All possible workarounds must be tried: known vendors, other teams.
  • The ‘cost’, the risk, of doing something different must be fully understood as less than the ‘cost’ of the status quo. If the cost is too high – if they must fire people, reorganize, go against policy, etc. – they will continue doing what they’re doing.
  • Once the cost is understood – the new job descriptions and responsibilities, the habits they’d need to change, the new norms – everyone must buy-in.

It’s ONLY when everything plausible to fix a problem has been tried AND the ‘cost’ is manageable that people consider seeking an external solution. And the time it takes to complete this process is the length of the sales cycle. I’m sure you also noticed that none of these steps include a desire to buy anything.

Why not use different thinking and new tools to help? We’ve overlooked serving people where they really could use expert help. It’s here you’re needed now and would be welcomed, so long as you refrain from pushing your solution until they become buyers.


PART THREE: How Sales Can Be Relevant


FACILITATE CHANGE MANAGEMENT FIRST

We must modernize sales by adding new goals and tools to facilitate the Pre-Sales, non-solution-oriented journey people must traverse BEFORE self-identifying as buyers and find – and serve – people during their change management process and on route to buying instead of using our solutions as bait.

During my experience as a buyer, I developed a model that facilitates the change management portion of the Buying Decision Journey. I named it Buying Facilitation®. I trained it to my own staff and we tripled our sales in months. Then I trained it to my tech folks who used it to understand a client’s full problem set upfront and lead them through to their best decisions before they even began programming, and halved their time to complete. And then I trained it to 100,000 sales folks globally with 8x results over the control groups.

Buying Facilitation® finds those people on route to becoming buyers (the 40% actively trying to resolve a problem but haven’t yet self-identified as buyers), helps them assemble real decision makers and define their needs from many viewpoints, figure out the best workarounds to consider, and sanctions the risk. By then sellers are in real relationships with real buyers, with a real need, eager to buy. And as true servant leaders we will rise above the competition.

But it’s predicated on sellers beginning with a wholly different goal: find and serve folks actively involved in resolving a problem in the area your solution can provide support, then lead them through their change management steps to the point they’re ready – and asking! – for a pitch.

Yes, during your facilitation process a percentage of them will discover ways to fix their own problems; these weren’t prospects anyway and you’ll both realize this in ten minutes on your first call. And yes, because of the way you enter a call, with a goal to serve not sell, more people will take your calls.

Once you recognize your real buyer population you’ll sell faster, with no objections and no price issues. The KPMG Partners I trained went from a three year sales cycle to a four month sales cycle for a $50,000,000 solution; working with phone sales at IBM they began making one-call closes that originally took three months. Remember: people are happy to resolve their problems quickly; they just don’t know how.

Here’s one more thought: we must – and this might be difficult for sellers accustomed to having all the answers – trust that each client has their own unique, culturally-appropriate answers. While we are well-versed on product details for our solutions, we truly have no idea what people are going through in their own environments – a boss that won’t approve funds for training, a newly hired director who’s not up to speed.

Let’s help people use their knowledge of their own unique environments as they go through their problem resolution discovery. With our knowledge in our fields that gives us an understanding of the types of change required, we will be recognized as real assets and become a part of the Buying Decision Team. It’s a perfect way to serve, be competitive, and close more sales.

Btw I’m not overlooking the selling function. By the time the facilitation process is complete, the sales process is used for what it was originally intended to do: sell solutions to those who know exactly what they need and are already bought-in to buying. It’s SO much easier! And sales becomes a needed service and relevant again.

DIFFERENT THINKING; DIFFERENT GOAL

It’s possible to make sellers a sought-after group who can provide real help during the decision process. But given the new function and new prospect base, different thinking and assumptions are needed:

1.    Instead of seeking folks with ‘need’ seek out folks in the process of resolving a problem in the area you can potentially provide a solution. This is where folks really need help.

a. They don’t always know the right folks to involve, and until all relevant stakeholders are involved they can’t fully understand the problem to be fixed. Plus, with everyone on board they think, create, decide quicker.

b. They need to be assured they cannot fix the problem themselves and need help determining relevant workarounds.

c. Folks don’t self-identify as ‘buyers’ until they’ve recognized that they can manage the risk of disruption when something new enters (i.e. hypothetically, if they must fire 8 people to buy a new CRM system, the ‘cost’ may be too high.) Sometimes, the status quo is their best option.

2. Instead of assuming the person you’re speaking with has answers, assume they are part of a decision team in the middle of discovery and don’t represent the full fact pattern.

a. You can help this person assemble all the right people who must be on board to assist in decision making, information sharing, and buy in.

3.    Instead of listening to make a pitch, listen for where they need help determining their risk of change.

4.    Instead of trying to make an appointment, use your first call to discover who is actively seeking change, help them assemble the full Buying Decision Team, then lead them through their change issues. (Again, read Dirty Little Secrets where I lay out the decision/change steps.)

5.    Instead of a purchase being the goal, help people recognize the ‘cost’ – the risk to their culture – of bringing in something new.

6.    Instead of posing curiosity-based questions to discover a need, use Facilitative Questions to help them through their unique discovery.

7.    Instead of entering with a goal to place a solution, make your first goal to facilitate change.

This thinking will find people on route to buying – a much higher probability of buying than random names chosen with a mythical ‘needs’ criteria. The hard part will be to make sure you don’t try to slip in a pitch or biased question as you facilitate change. Because if you do, you won’t be trusted and prospects will feel manipulated.

NEW MEASUREMENTS OF SUCCESS

Buying Facilitation® is a Pre-Sales skill set. It’s

  • NOT sales, although it works with sales;
  • NOT based on selling a product, although 8x more products will be sold;
  • NOT ‘needs’ based, although our solution has a high likelihood of handling needs;
  • NOT based on understanding a problem but based on facilitating folks through their change management problems that only they can understand as insiders.

Buying Facilitation® employs an entirely new form of decision-detection question (took me 10 years to invent Facilitative Questions), a new form of listening (not for need!) and facilitates people through their 13 steps of change. And there are different measurements of success:

  1. A much higher close rate – 40% of would-be buyers can be found on the first call using a relevant list.
  2. Minimal turnover as sellers make more commission and face less rejection and frustration.
  3. Uncovers people who are real prospects but haven’t yet self-identified as buyers.
  4. An accurate pipeline.
  5. Fewer price issues.
  6. Prospects request appointments; all stakeholders are present.
  7. Competition shifts to recognize sellers who best facilitate change.
  8. Maintain the client base.
  9. No time wasted following people who will never buy (and sellers know the difference).

Success will be measured by closed sales (I know companies that now pay sellers per visit, assuming if you get an appointment you can make a sale!); by brevity of the sales cycle; by accuracy of the pipeline; number of referrals; ratio of active prospects to closed sales. Even Lead Gen would bring in prospects with a 40% close rate and not merely uncover names of people who agree to hear a pitch.

To make sales relevant again, the sales profession needs to help people where they need help: add a front end to facilitate the Buying Decision Journey. Then prospective buyers will recognize sellers as professionals who can truly serve them and then everyone wins: clients get their problems resolved sooner, you get to close more sales, and everyone is happy. Win/Win. Worth a try, no?

For those wishing more information on Buying Facilitation®, go to: www.sharon-drew.com. Read the section: Helping Buyers Buy. There are several articles linked, plus hundreds more in the blog section. Or contact me with questions: [email protected]

2 COMMENTS

  1. Sharon, lots of great information in your article. You stated: “To make sales relevant again, the sales profession needs to help people where they need help: add a front end to facilitate the Buying Decision Journey. Then prospective buyers will recognize sellers as professionals who can truly serve them and then everyone wins: clients get their problems resolved sooner, you get to close more sales, and everyone is happy.”

    While I agree with this, buyers have learned to be skeptical as they perceive sellers as promoters of one-trick ponies – e.g. “My product is the perfect solution to whatever problem(s) you have”. With that said, your approach has a great deal of merit and in the end, it will be evaluated to the degree it boosts revenue.

  2. Thanks, Christopher. 1. buyers certainly perceive sellers negatively. But when you enter with a facilitation and change management hat on the entire conversation – from the opening! – clearly is very very different. Your first question will serve them. At KPMG my client called his prospect (first call) and asked (first question): “How is your global management team communicating to ensure a timely sharing of data so they’re all on the same page at the same time?” The responder was the Tax Director. He told my client: “Hang on. I don’t have an answer to that question.” and 3 minutes later he brought the CFO on the line, thereby collapsing 6 months of sales time. The entire trajectory is changed; the goal, the skills, the intent, the listening is wholly different. This portion is Change Facilitation and NOT SALES.
    2. my clients close 40% of prospecting calls FROM FIRST CONTACT. I’m not using sales, not pushing my solution, not posing biased questions based on my need to sell and gather data so I can sell something. That’s the point of this article: start at the Change Facilitation end with a wholly new skill set and wholly new thinking, use Facilitative Questions (took me 10 years to develop – they help people discover their unconscious change/decision making criteria – they DO NOT gather data), Listen for Systems instead of a ‘way in’. A wholly different beginning, different skills, and very different outcomes. you find people during their 13 steps of change, facilitating them down the steps until step10 where they self identify as buyers – THEN sell.
    Remember: people don’t want to buy anything, merely resolve a problem at the list cost/risk to their system.
    my website has 1000+ articles and a full explanation of how i developed BF (and my other change models).
    and btw please use my name. it’s Sharon-Drew,never sharon.
    Thanks for your care.

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