Caution: Sales Experts May be Hazardous to Your Sales
Neil Rackham’s classic SPIN Selling book is famous for many reasons – the depth of research, his clarity of thinking, the deeply commonsensical conclusions he draws. It’s a great book, and deserves all the acclaim it’s gotten over the years.
Yet I’ve always been amused and delighted by a small item he mentions almost in passing: the fact that certain techniques developed for small-item selling – notably closing – actually backfire when applied to larger, more complex sales. In other words, “sales expertise” of a certain kind may actually be hazardous to your sales health.
That may not seem like much of an insight, over 25 years later. Since the book’s publication in 1988, we have seen major growth in thinking about B2B sales, as well as the transformative impact of the Internet on the sales function. Nowadays no one would be caught dead trying an “assumptive close” in a modern B2B sales interaction.
Now, that may seem obvious too, to most everyone. Yet does that mean all sales expertise these days works, more or less? I think not. In fact, there still remains a glaring assumption at the heart of almost all sales systems which, if not properly understood, will actually decrease your sales effectiveness, just as much as improper closing techniques.
It is the assumption that the point of selling is to get the sale.
What is the Point of Selling?
You may think the “point of selling” is obvious. What else could the point of selling be, except to get the sale? And I’m not talking about the difference between single transactions and repeat business, either. I’m talking about the very purpose, the underlying goal, aim, objective, of the salesperson, sales process, and sales function. What else could the purpose be, except to get the sale?
The alternative purpose of selling, I suggest, is – to help the customer. That is not a trivial distinction – it’s meaningful. It’s also a powerful distinction, and one that’s not easy to achieve. But if you do achieve it, you’ll do better on many dimensions – including sales.
To see why this is a meaningful and powerful distinction, let’s first explore what it would mean to have a different purpose for sales – a purpose other than to get the sale.
Design Implications of Helping the Customer as a Goal
Suppose your primary purpose was to help a customer. What exactly would you do differently?
You’d be less concerned about whether you won or lost the sale. You’d spend a little more time on situations where you thought you could help – and a little less time where you thought you couldn’t. You’d take more time with leads to help them determine the best way for them to find and receive help; and you would often refer them out to other providers where you thought they might get better help.
You’d seek out slightly different leads and targets than if you focused solely on where you thought you could sell. You’d view your competitors differently – as alternative offerings to help your customers get what they need. You’d give up time and expertise on occasion, if you felt it would help your customers advance a key cause. Conversely, you might be quicker to embrace value-billing in cases where you clearly bring value to the table.
You’d talk less about your own capabilities, and more about what would be good for your customer. You’d be naturally curious about what your customer needed, and what would make their business better. Your curiosity would extend outside and beyond your own company’s service offering, to include those of other firms.
If your organization similarly supported a goal of helping the customer, then the metrics you operate under would be changed as well. Instead of an emphasis on quarterly sales results, progress against closing, and forecasted probabilized backlog rates, you’d see consumer-focused metrics which spoke to customer performance and result of that performance. Noticeably absent would be much of the fine-toothed combing by lawyers enumerating the thou-shalt-nots of the relationship.
Operationalizing a Customer-Helping Goal
Looking at the above list, you’re probably having three thoughts:
- “Not a bad list, actually, we could do with a bit more focus like that,”
- “Yes, but you have to make money,” and
- “Yes, but you can’t be letting customers just take advantage of you.”
Note that thoughts two and three have an implicit assumption: the assumption that if you don’t focus on getting the sale, then you probably won’t get the sale. And that’s where the miracle happens: because precisely the opposite is true.
People don’t like to be told what to do. People don’t like to feel controlled. People respond positively to a sense that they are being listened to, and to people whom they feel have their best interests at heart. We respond positively to generosity, and negatively to greed. We tend to return favors, and to avoid those who have burned us.
In short, we reciprocate. The lessons of game theory, marriage therapy, and political organization all point in one direction – favors done, attention paid, and interest shown all beget the same in return. This simple truth is deeply embedded in our simplest human interactions (think handshakes, smiles) and our most complex ones as well (cultural affinities, political alliances).
And the main result of reciprocation is – more reciprocation. If you listen to me, I will listen to you. If you treat me well, I will keep coming back. If I buy from you and you respond well, I’m likely to keep buying from you.
Unless, that is – the seller gets selfish. All bets are off to the extent we perceive the seller as completely self-oriented, selfish, manipulative, driven only by his own needs. If we as buyers feel objectified, treated solely as walking wallets by the seller, then we reciprocate – we coldly calculate the value of the seller to us, and become willing to walk, in part because we also feel insulted by such behavior.
The Paradox at the Heart of Great Selling
The best sales come from interactions where the sale is not the goal, but a byproduct. Where the sale is a natural outcome of an attitude of other-focus, genuine concern, and focus on the other. Where the attitude is long-term, not transactional, and built on an assumption of win-win, rather than of scarcity.
There’s a paradox here. The best selling comes when you stop trying to sell, when you simply focus on doing right by the customer. This doesn’t mean you turn into a non-profit charity. There is still a role for profitability metrics, CRM systems and funnel statistics. But they must become subordinated to the broader goal – helping your customer.
Dial those metrics back 90%, lengthen their timeframe, and don’t think of them while interacting with customers. I know, you’re worried there are customers who’ll take advantage of you, those who are just looking for a free ride? Yes, though not nearly as many as you think. And those who act that way are the ones you gift to your competitors anyway.
If you help your customers, they’ll help you. That’s a rule that doesn’t need your thumb on the scale to work. Don’t force it. Make customer help your goal.
An earlier version of this post was published at RainToday.com.