Dale had just come out of a four-day sales training program his company had sponsored for its top performers. This was heady stuff. He’d learned how to apply Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” – about ancient Chinese warfare – to modern day competitive engagement in selling.
He learned how to do SWOT analysis on his accounts and opportunities. He learned several techniques for finding key decision-makers and figuring out what the buying criteria were on any decision.
He left the session with “killer” questions to ask, strategies to execute and value propositions to deliver. He received some very elegant sales software that provided him with call planning and account analysis tools.
Dale couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle so he could call some customers and start putting his newfound learning into play. He knew that he would have to have different types of meetings with customers if he was going to have any chance of getting all of this strategic information from them. His customer meetings would have to be more information gathering meetings.
He figured he’d start with some of his friendlier, “safer,” relationships. So calling Randy was kind of a no-brainer. Randy had been a customer of Dale’s for years. They had a good, trusting relationship.
“Randy, it’s Dale.” Then, after a little chit chat, “Randy, I’d like to get together with you and go in a little bit different direction. Instead of talking about the usual stuff I’d like to learn more about your business. It’ll take about an hour.”
Suddenly, Dale could almost feel Randy’s defenses go up. There was an awkward silence on the phone… three seconds that seemed like three hours. “Well, I guess that’d be OK, but what are you trying to learn about our company?” inquired Randy.
That question naturally put Dale into explanation mode, adding to the awkwardness. But he got the meeting (and why not, Randy was one of his best relationships). But, as Dale relates the story, Randy never got comfortable in the meeting: “He just came across like he was a tad suspicious that I was up to something.”
What happened? In a word: “It.”
When Dale requested the meeting with Randy, he used the word “it” to refer to how much time he needed for the meeting. That triggered in Randy’s mind some kind of survey or something. It – literally – made him suspicious.
Dale’s disappointment is all too common. We go off to training and get everything in a nice systematic, step-by-step and repeatable process: “make initial contact,” “identify key decision-makers,” “determine buying criteria.”
But exactly how the interactions to accomplish those things should actually be carried out is – except for a few token, “try saying something like this” suggestions – left completely to chance … salespeople are left to figure it out on their own.
As a result, salespeople – now armed with a process, armed with a call plan, armed with questions to ask – try making their initial contact by, for example, opening a cold call with “how are you?” They try to identify key decision-makers by asking questions like, “Who are the key decision-makers?” They try to determine buying criteria by asking questions like, “What are the buying criteria?”
What salespeople need isn’t questions to ask, steps to take or call plans to implement. What they need is, “OK, I pick up the phone, I dial, the customer says hello, I open my mouth … what should come out?” “I show up in a customer meeting and open my mouth, what should come out?”
It’s not like salespeople don’t know what they’re doing. They’ve all developed a style that seems to work for them. But I can tell you that most salespeople have this gnawing feeling that something is missing in their approach in the way they actually conduct customer interactions.
One of the first things they should be taught is that the information they’re looking for is almost never the question they ask. For example, asking, “What role will price play in the decision?” is one of the worst ways to find out what role price will play in the decision!
Because they don’t receive training in how to actually conduct interactions, quite unbeknownst to them, too many of their customer meetings come across to the customer like an interrogation or yet another needs assessment, or yet another hyper-practiced delivery of a value proposition.
In the real world, in the trenches, something as seemingly trivial as the little two-letter word “it” will reduce his or her chances of even getting the appointment and sets up the meeting for, at best, mediocre results, which is exactly what Dale experienced.
If you’re a sales leader, then you have a responsibility to translate any training you provide your salespeople into the very words they use on the phone and in customer meetings. If you’re a salesperson, then you have the right to demand this of the people providing the training.