Two recent video interviews I shared from two sales professionals I respect touched on this need to focus what we do for our clients. Tony Hughes recently completed a video interview with John Smibert extending Simon Sinek’s Start With Why philosophy to articulate you need to understand Your Client’s Why.
Then, John (if you haven’t noticed a theme, follow John!) followed this up with an interview with Tony Bananno who reinforced the fact that sales people today need to develop the skills to have Effective Commercial Conversations.
In the information rich digital age we currently live in – clients know more about our products and services than ever before. Gone are the days of simply connecting features and benefits and using ‘product sheets’ to wow clients with how great what we offer is. Now, it isn’t about the products and services we have, but whether we understand our clients well enough to deploy them effectively to help our clients meet their objectives. This starts wholly with both the themes raised by the two Tony’s (not sure if there’s something with the name).
These aren’t new concepts – every sales course and training regime is heavy on the concepts of open ended questions, deep discovery, active listening and other tools and techniques to help uncover the core needs of our clients. All espouse the need for sales people to spend minimal time talking about products and services and the maximum amount of time discovering why their clients need their help and what opportunities and challenges they are facing. Once understood, it is about wrapping what you do neatly around your clients to support where they are going. It isn’t about finding clients for your products and services.
However, here is where I wish to extend this conversation and say that it doesn’t end here. Simply knowing what you have to do isn’t the silver bullet. The real magic comes from why you do it. Simply asking these questions and finding out this information doesn’t help your clients, it is what you do with this information that creates magic for your clients. You must Ask with the intent to Act. And Act in your clients best interests, not simply your own.
Before you can act, you have to ask. So where are the pitfalls common in the sales discovery process?
Don’t Ask / Asking the Wrong Questions
The first mistake is simply not asking any questions followed closely by asking the wrong ones. This is what Tony Bananno touches on – having social or spurious conversations with clients that don’t actually go anywhere. You can’t act on information to help your clients if you haven’t asked any questions to get it. You are left guessing/assuming what your clients wants and/or needs. Similarly, and sometimes worse, you can’t act effectively if you don’t have the right answers/information.
This is a training/experience thing which most sales leaders can pick up and coach following observation. It can come down to inexperience/confidence or under/no preparation and can be resolved relatively easily once identified.Now, let’s assume you are asking and asking the right questions as most who read this will be.
Moving on to two ‘sales person’ centric issues:
Ask to Tell
Some sales people like being experts more than they like being sales people. Selling can be a great opportunity for this and, unfortunately, some sales people simply ask questions so they can demonstrate to their clients how much they know and that they are a subject matter expert. They simply use the questions as a means to directing the conversation to areas they wish to talk about. This can be an outcome of an overly prepared sales person (predetermination) or one, as mentioned, who wish to stand ahead, rather than behind their clients
Ask To Sell
As Tony Bannano touches on – some sales people simply ask questions to sell and press/push product on clients. The minute they get the sniff of the ability to shift a product or service line, they jump down the rabbit hole to sell it. Sure, sometimes they may make the sale, but often at the expense of the larger and/or longer opportunity. Or they can under/over sell and create a problem for themselves and/or company later when they realise they didn’t know as much about the client as they thought they did (significant issue in regulated industries like Financial Services).
These two are examples of the ‘old’ methodologies of sales and ones where some of the age old sales stereotypes reside. Sales people who simply wish to shift product/service.
Now, what else can happen that can disconnect the ability to ask good questions, yet not have an effective ability to act on the responses? This is where we get in to the sales person’s intent in the discovery process:
It can be very easy for a sales person to learn to ask the right questions – but do they care about the responses? Are they genuinely asking these questions because they have an interest of understanding their clients position and improving it – or simply because they ‘have to’ or are ‘going through the motions’? This is one of the more nefarious issues in sales – a sales person who doesn’t care and, ultimately, needs a reality check or new career.
There is a real issue here when it comes to sales leadership. Some organisations have the view that certain fields in the CRM ‘must be completed’ or questions ‘must be asked’ – but unless you give the context of why these questions should be asked and what should be done with the information – you run the risk these questions are asked and the information collected – never to be referred to again.
No Active Listening
Asking one fantastic question usually leads to a fantastic answer. This answer usually leads to one or more fantastic potential follow up questions/lines of thought. The joy of asking great questions is you often get surprised by these great answers. Being able to follow these threads but stay on point is a real sales skill. Being able to follow up your client with insightful questions along their thought line leads to the real gold. As Tony Hughes identified, this is where you uncover the clients why. One fantastic question seldom makes the meeting – it is the ability to act on this within the meeting to drive the conversation deeper that does. This can be symptomatic of an overly scripted process. Sometimes this can be confused with the ‘don’t care’ issue – but they are distinct. A lack of active listening doesn’t mean the sales person doesn’t care, it can simply mean they are inexperienced or nervous.
Asking fantastic questions and receiving fantastic answers is great – but if you don’t make notes of the conversation you are doing your client and yourself a mis-service. Great conversations can change course quickly – and diamonds can be exposed in conversation only briefly. As good as your memory is, I guarantee it isn’t as robust as your pen. When you get back to your office without notes, it is almost a certainty you’ll remember the meeting in bullet points and miss some of the key points as the memory fades. It is hard to act on information if you can’t recall it. The next step is to ensure this information is captured in your CRM (or where appropriate) so you (and you’re wider team) can access this information later, whether tomorrow or weeks/months later. So it can be compared over time.
An aside, taking notes also slows thinking down, allowing time to a) better remove ‘unconscious bias’ (ie assumptions), b) reflect and connect thoughts/ideas along with c) a better spatial recollection of the meeting later.
Now assuming you’ve dodged all the bullets above – you’re gold, right? Here is where many sales people let themselves down…..
Not Acting On It
The fantastic information captured from your fantastic meeting after asking fantastic questions is meaningless unless you do something fantastic with it. Unless you Act on it. CRM’s the world over are littered with such information – sitting dormant, gathering dust. If we’ve done the above, we have immensely insightful information about our clients and, by giving us this information, our client hasn’t just empowered us to make a difference to their business, they’re actually compelled us to. Why ask the questions if you don’t wish to act on them? What is the point of asking questions simply to fill our a CRM? Why even bother meeting with your client in the first place?
Ask yourself – why do you meet with clients? What are you trying to achieve by having the meeting? What is your real agenda? If it isn’t to help them, improve their position, reduce their risk, help them realise opportunities or discover more about them so you can do any/all of the above and more – why ask the questions?
Acting isn’t an overly complicated process – but it starts with recognising that you often need as much time after the meeting as the meeting took to reflect on the outcomes of the meeting, plan ‘what next’ and execute. Effective action doesn’t happen by accident. Some ‘actions’ post meeting include
- Definitely completing your CRM – thoroughly and usually within close proximity to the meeting itself. Bulk loading your CRM doesn’t work as you will find you will shorten your notes.
- Following up your client with some immediate proximity to the meeting with an email/note reflecting on the meeting and some immediate value
- Connecting them with people in your community who you know can help them with areas of opportunity/risk outside of your expertise, yet important to the client
- Share information/insights/research with them which helps them on their journey as you have or come across this information
- Invite them to functions/events which help them on their journey
- Diarising future contact (and why!)
- Follow up on key milestones/events identified in the meeting to see how it went
Then it is about, re/assessing whether you could and should do business with your client based on the information discover, and how you should move forward. You lead with your value as it relates to your clients situation. This is why you collect information – to allow you effectively deliver what you do to provide the most value to your client. It only works if you put the information you gather to work.
Asking insightful questions and collecting insightful answers is wonderful if that is all we are measured on – but ultimately we’re measured by our client on the difference we make to them and their business. This only comes from acting on the information we obtain, in their best interests.