There is a leaning in selling towards ‘sales as a science’ over an art. The main thrust behind this is science provides us with some certainty as sales people, leaders and organisations that it being an art doesn’t.
Science is about facts, objectivity, repeatable outcomes and, important systemised processes. All these factors provide certainty – certainty that if we do step A, followed by B, C and so on – we’ll get the outcome we want. But the reality of sales is it as much an art as it is a science and it is the artistic side of sales which often makes the compelling difference to the overall experience and outcome the client obtains.
So why is sales arguably an art?
If you’ve ever taken the time to watch artist’s paint, they don’t simply try to paint the end result straight on the canvas. They often pencil in the key outlines and then go about building up the picture in layers. Layers of colour and area. Eventually, once all tied together, the picture becomes clear. They lay down both the big and small elements with the same amount of care and often in strange order, but it makes startling sense once the picture is complete.
Selling is no different, we don’t walk in to the client with a solution from the outset and, in fact, the solution may not even be in our minds eye when we commence talking with our client. We have an idea of the outcome, but paint it as we go along. We ask deep and shallow questions to help shape the picture of our client and their situation and goals. We undertake small and large tasks to help build credibility and value for the client. The initial process of discovery is iterative rather than linear. It is through the layering of the sales process, like painting, that helps us develop the end picture. Like the painter, if we simply tried to deliver the big picture at the outset, our solution would lack depth and substance – exactly like if an artist were to do the same.
As sales leaders, it is these layers that lay the foundation to great client solutions. Whether engaging experts, client advisers, hosting clients, doing them favours, learning about their industry (or participating in it) – all of these soft and hard sales layers help build up the bigger picture to a successful solution.
Very few artists start without a vision of what they wish to end up with. They may not end up with exactly what they envisioned when they started or have what they wish to end up with identified in fine detail – but they start with some idea of where they’re going.
Selling is no different – if you sell aimlessly, you end up with aimless outcomes. Sure, you may not know exactly how you’re going to help your client – but you should know you want to and, in turn, know broadly how what you offer them could help them. It is then a matter of filling in the finer details to shape your solution to match the specific needs of your client. It is very hard to build up the layers of the sale if you don’t know what you’re building up to.
As a sales leader it is as important to discuss and continue to redefine the end result as it is to focus on the sales stages and minute detail of progressing the proposal.
If you watch a good artist paint, you’ll see that it isn’t the big swaths of colour that make the difference how we view the painting. It is the smallest of details which have the biggest impact. The reflection in an eye or definition of a line. Take the Mona Lisa – her ‘smile’ is feature that makes this painting famous (notwithstanding the artist of course).
Sales isn’t any different – it is the top 10% that makes the largest difference to the client. The extra mile. Your price can be matched by your competitors and is usually long forgotten once the sale is completed. It is your ‘eye’ as a sales person which makes the key difference to your clients experience. It is your ability to fine tune the solution specifically to the client where real value hides.
As a sales leader, it is often attention to the small details which can trip up a successful outcome. Not engaging with the correct people in the organisation, spelling names incorrectly, using the wrong client logo, emailing rather than hand delivering and presenting the proposal.
Many Techniques & Perspectives
Art shows us that there are many ways to paint a bowl of fruit and many interpretations as to how that bowl of fruit should look. Painters can use brushes or palette knives, charcoal or water colour. Paint it in abstract or realism. They will all see the original bowl of fruit, but their finished work can vary greatly. Which technique is right? All of them.
Sales is no different. So is choosing one process with limited room for your sales people to choose their own style right? Yes, you will end up in uniformity in your sales process, but at what cost does it come? What if your client is abstract, but your sales process is realism? A process should be a framework, not a rule. If the same were to occur in painting, our art gallery’s would be pretty boring. Case in point – our clients are now often knee deep in digital, does your sales process include digital? Should it?
Also, two people standing in front of the same piece of art can have completely different interpretation of and feelings about the art. I could love it and you could hate it. I could see a cow and you and field of roses. Regardless of what the artist painted, our perception is our reality.
The same goes in reverse; as sales people our perception of our clients situation is limited by our field of reference and, as a result, so therefore is our solution. So engaging with our peers and specialists to widen our field of reference is crucial to delivering a deeper value proposition to our clients.
As a sales leader it is important to ensure our process and techniques are matched to the client, not the sales person/leader/organisation. So it is therefore important to ensure the process is fluid and your sales team have the autonomy to use varied techniques to help their clients. Equally, it is often your sales person the client ‘buys’, so driving their personality out of the sales process is to be avoided at all costs.
As a sales person, you can’t proclaim your solution as great no more than an artist can their painting. Like Art and the patron – the only perspective that matters is that of the client. Many artists have died before their work has found fame. In sales, many sales people have starved because their clients didn’t find their solutions great.
At all times, when composing sales solutions, it is your clients perspective that should be at the forefront of your mind as they are the one writing a cheque out for it. This is the unique situation of conflict before artistic flair and compromise. In sales, you may actually have a fantastic solution but if the client can’t see it, to their mind it isn’t fantastic and therefore valueless.
As a sales leader, it is important to ask questions like ‘what would the client think?’ through the sales process. No perception matters in sales more than the clients. Therefore you need to understand their perception well and, where appropriate, manage it through out the relationship. Too often sales people forget this.
Like the above, many artists haven’t seen the success of their work as their work outlived them.
Sales is no different, often the success of your work will be realised long after you put it in place. Costs savings or efficiency gains will be realised, and therefore valued, over time rather than immediately. In some complex sales situations, the ROI could be measured in months or years and, sometimes, long after the sales person has moved on.
Great solutions have long legs – much like great art. They are appreciated and valued over time. They become memorials to the great work of the artist or sales person and they depth of understanding they had of their subject matter as experts in their field.
As a sales leader, long term sales solutions and client value is what you should be driving your team to provide. Great businesses usually have great supplier relationships supporting them – NOT great transactions. They trust their suppliers with key and often commercially sensitive information to ensure you deliver compelling solutions to their business.
Sure, we aren’t painting the Mona Lisa in sales but the creative side of selling is as important as the scientific side. As sales leaders, the scientific side is easy to measure – it is often reflected in a report or leaderboard but it only show us, at best, half of the inputs that go in to the entire sales relationship with a client.
In fact, I view that the artistic side of selling is where the real value sits. This is born true simply by the fact that if sales were purely scientific, successful results would be easy repeatable and everyone would be successful.
Next time you’re looking at your sales process as a sales leader – consider how much scope your sales team has to exercise their creative flair and how you go about encouraging and fostering this.