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Why Your Sales Process Is Bad for Sales

At a holiday party this weekend, I chatted with two friends about life at their companies.

Each has been around long enough to see several generations of approaches to selling. We seemed to notice a few things in common.

1. The term “sales approach” has increasingly come to mean a “sales management process;”

2. Which means selling has come to be seen as a business process, not as a human interaction;

3. The “management” of selling has come to mean box-checking and numbers-tweaking, much like an engineer might summarize the readings from a series of flow-meters;

4. A major objective of these processes seems to be forecasting. Yet forecasts themselves are often ignored on the upside because of the risks of hiring, and on the downside because of the cost to people of short-term firings.

Which begs the obvious question, why are we doing this?

Of course this is just anecdotal party chatter—but it rings true to me.

Sales is one business area (others include HR and purchasing) that has been hit by a case of physics-envy: the belief that quantitative analysis of physical behavior at a micro-scale holds the key to understanding business performance (and the meaning of life to boot).

Google “sales management” and look at all the process models—CRM systems, sales force automation, lead tracking, right-pointing chevron graphics—that pop up.

The message? Selling is nothing more than a simple business process. Identify leads, screen-call-screen-meet-screen them, question them, trial-close them, identify/answer objections, repeat trial-close, repeat as necessary, close. Return to start.

Identify the steps at a sufficiently detailed level, then just collect enough data, and you too can be selling, or better yet, managing the poor slobs who actually have to slap shoe leather. Just follow the steps in the order given. Paint by numbers. Connect the dots. Just do it.

Got a sales problem? It must be a process problem, which means—you must have the wrong sales process—time to switch processes! You need consultative selling, or power-based selling, or buyer decision analysis selling. You need data. Analysis. Tweak the process.

It’s easy to caricature this approach, harder to describe just what’s wrong with it. But here’s a shot.

Selling is not at root, despite what web-searches will tell you, about process. It is about people and relationships and trust. We are in most cases far, far past the point of significant value-add by linking systems. And in getting there, we have run roughshod over the value-add by human connections.

Companies are driven by vision of linking all that data so they know just what to pitch you and me—to decrease time-to-“you-want-fries-with-that?” Most customers would gladly trade some Big Brother capability for less time on-hold and more genuine concern about our wants.

Why this obsession with metrics, behaviors and processes? Like I said, physics-envy. For over a century, many academic disciplines—including business, more recently—have had a case of “physics-envy.”

They believe that only “real” data is meaningful, only particles and precision make for real “science.” Neuro-fill-in-the-blank is just the latest manifestation.  Sociologists have had physics-envy for years, as did MIT’s Business School.  Harvard used to be immune, but caught it as well a few decades back.

Hey—sales is still the fulcrum point of the commercial interaction between a buyer and a seller.  Somewhere in there humans still lurk.  Sales process descriptions leave something out. Sort of like writing about the physics of love.  Neither quite gets at the point.
 

Case Study #17: Trust-based Selling in the Real World

I bought some designer eyeglasses 18 months ago at Pildes Optical in Short Hills, New Jersey. I was well-served, and happy with the glasses.

A few weeks ago a tiny screw came loose. I took it in. The screw had to be factory-ordered—it was made of gold (I said they were designer).

They called me when the part came in, and I went to the store. While the manager was replacing the screw, I asked the Associate about getting a backup pair for travel overseas. I didn’t want to spend as much.

“You don’t have to,” she explained. “Here are some perfectly good-looking frames that are about half the price; if they’re just a backup, you may not care as much about the aesthetics."

“Also,” she continued, “you may not want all the features you have in the lenses themselves. You can get a perfectly good backup pair by changing a mix of lens and frame features."

"But”, she said, “how is your prescription? Does it need changing?”

“Well,” I replied, “my arms are getting a little short again when it comes to reading. It’s been a while since I got an exam.”

“You really shouldn’t think about getting a replacement set,” she said firmly, “until you’ve had your eyes examined again.”

“Actually,” I mused, “if I get a new set, then this one can be my backup, and it wouldn’t cost me anything.”

“There you go,” she smiled. “That would save you the most.”

The manager came out with my newly fixed glasses, and I took out my wallet. “No, no,” he waved his hand at me, “no charge.”
As I walked out, I realized what these people had done.

On the face of it, they turned down two transactions—a repair, and a sale (of backup glasses). But that’s just the surface.

At one level higher, they guaranteed a much bigger sale—a new set of eyewear for me—worth more than the two foregone transactions. Because they focused on the relationship, not the transaction.

At yet one level higher, they virtually guaranteed that that later sale would be to Pildes of Short Hills—not to anyone else. Because they focused on my needs, not theirs.

At a higher level still, they cemented my loyalty. Not just my repeat business; no, they got me to do something even more important. They got me to feel energized enough to, say, write about it for public consumption in my blog.

I think if I had asked them all this, they would have readily agreed to my analysis, but would probably tell me something like, “that makes sense all right, though we didn’t think it through that way. That’s just the way we believe in doing business.”

This is the paradox of Trust-based Selling®—-if you live by the principles of customer focus, collaboration, transparency and relationships-before-transactions, you will make more money than if you lived by the principle of trying to make money. It works in the real world.

And if you want to buy eyewear, I can recommend a good place.

 

 

Faking Customer Centricity

Customer centricity is a powerful business concept. But that’s not all it is.

Properly done— Pepper and Rogers and One to One are the class act in this arena—it is key to an approach to business that combines social good and corporate success.

Done right, it’s a goal in itself—not a mere tactic for profitability. Profitability emerges as a byproduct, not as an overriding goal. True customer-centricity yields more profit than profit-centricity alone does.

But this view is up against a lot. The broader approach to business is centered on competitive advantage as the goal, and the shareholder stakeholder as the primary beneficiary. And that has a perverse impact on the idea of customer centricity.

Remember 60s radical Angela Davis? She was a student of Herbert Marcuse, a radical philosopher who developed the concept of “repressive tolerance.” Sounds contradictory (he was a Hegelian, for the philosophers in the crowd), but makes good sense (he was also perceptive).

It means, simply, the best way for a majority to neutralize a threatening minority is to develop an attitude of tolerance. That way, the majority system appears to be un-threatened, and the minority to be un-threatening. The status quo is the winner.

While that idea has some limits (it’s hard to tolerate violent terrorists beyond a certain point), it works pretty well in the realm of ideas.

Which is why “customer centricity” is so easily hijacked by the dominant ideology of competitive advantage. The competitive paradigm—our leading view of business today—is repressively tolerant of customer-centricity. The hijacking turns the new idea into merely a tactic to serve the old idea. Customer centricity is neutralized, subsumed into the competitive paradigm.

Some examples:

1. Is it just me, or has the Ritz Carlton recently stepped up its emphasis on employees using the phrase “my pleasure?” Other companies are copying it. If delivered without sincerity, it results in a hollow mockery of the intended customer focus. Delivered too often, even with sincerity, it risks appearing obsequious—an autonomic reaction, not an indication of customer focus, thus highlighting its use as a tactic, not a goal.

2. How about, “your business is very important to us…” It clearly isn’t, otherwise you’d hire someone to answer the phone instead of routinely kicking me to voicemail hell. Which means it’s another faux version of customer focus, using the hollow shell—the words, in this case—of customer centricity, but in service merely to cost-cutting. If you’re going to put me on hold, then at least have the decency to own the decision—don’t lie to me.

3. Or, “your opinion matters to us.” No it doesn’t. If it did, you’d do something more than a simple check-box card in my hotel room. If it actually did matter to you, the desk clerk would act like he or she cared when I made a suggestion. If it did, you’d use it for something more than employee ratings.

4. Or, "I do apologize for that, sir," when the thing being apologized for is either an objectionable corporate policy or a systems screwup, but in any case has nothing to do with the poor agent doing the apologizing.

The language of relationships—feelings, apologies, empathy—has been evident in business lately. It is ostensibly about personal connections, about taking responsibility, and about focusing on the needs and feelings of the customer.

That’s the theory. In practice, it’s often just more slick sloganeering. If a company really wanted to be customer centric, they’d apologize for mistakes they made, and own up to decisions they didn’t intend to change. Imagine hearing this from a company spokesperson:

"This is a result of the policies we follow; occasionally it severely inconveniences someone and it sounds like that’s what happened here. I can promise you I’ll make sure the company is aware of this result so we can work to reduce it in future—but to some extent, that’s the inevitable result of our chosen policy, and it’s intentional. I’m sorry that you’re caught in it, let me do what I can to resolve it for you right now."

That would at least be honest. Alternatively, one could change the policy in question. But for heaven’s sake, don’t lie to us and fake it.

Fake customer-centricity is like counterfeiting. Counterfeiting harms retailers, or wine merchants, or tech manufacturers, or software writers. Fake customer-centricity harms customers. It turns our commercial relationships into low-integrity lying.

We’ve got enough of that already. Insist on the real thing.

Here’s a video clip that says it all.

The Point of Listening Is Not What You Hear, but the Hearing Itself

In the category of “Things We Find Completely Obvious—But Aren’t True,” number one—the classic in this category—was “The Earth Is Flat.”

Number 27 is: “Listen to Customers to Identify their Needs and Wants.”

Seems obvious. Listen to learn, so that you can then:

• tweak what you’re selling to fit what they need, or
• find someone else who can give the customer what they need, or
• change the problem definition so you can help them get something else they need.

That’s what just about any sales book will tell you.

But—just like Flat Earth—it turns out to be wrong. Or, to be clear—less than 100% right. Way less.

Sure, you listen for specs. And you listen for missing benefits. And you listen for opportunities to meet those needs and wants and provide those benefits.
But there’s something much, much bigger at stake.

The main reason for listening to customers is to allow the customer to be heard.

Really heard.

As in, another human being actually paying attention to them.

Listening for the sake of listening.

Listening to understand, period—no strings attached, no links back to your product, no refined problem statements.

Not listening to do a brain-suck.

Not listening to pounce on needs, which are one nano-second away from selling opportunities.

Not listening with an ulterior motive, or even a secondary motive.

Just listening for the sake of listening.

Because that’s what people in relationships, at their best, really do. They listen because they want to know what the other person thinks. About whatever the other person is interested in talking about.

You won’t find that in sales books. You’ll find a million questions aimed at furthering problem definition, or moving toward a close, or “handling” objections.

But you won’t find too many books (mine is an exception; so is Brooks and Travesano’s “You’re Working Too Hard to Make the Sale”) that talk about the power of just plain listening.

But that power is huge. Pure listening, for its own sake, validates other people. It connects us to them. It provides meaning.

Brooks and Travesano note that people greatly prefer to buy what they need from those who understand what it is that they want.

Read that over again, carefully.

People prefer to buy what they need (stuff they’re going to buy anyway), from those who understand them on the basis of what they want (things in life they’d love to have—wishes, hopes, desires.)

You don’t even have to give them what they want; it’s enough to understand them.

This triggers the reciprocity interchange between people; according to Robert Cialdini, the most powerful factor affecting influence.

And therein lies the paradox. The most powerful way to sell depends on giving up your attachment to selling—and instead, just listen. Not listening for anything. Just listening.

Listen not for what you hear—but for the act of listening itself.

It is that act that creates value, and relationships.

And—if you can let it be a side-effect, not a goal—sales too.

(Here are some ideas on how to do it).

The Limits of Needs-based Selling and Consultative Selling

These are popular concepts in today’s sales world:

Consultative Selling Amazon 568 mentions
Consultative Selling Google 270,000 mentions
Needs-based Selling Amazon 158 mentions
Needs-based Selling Google 22,800 mentions.

Both approaches ask questions to define buyer needs, so that the seller can alter or position the product to address those needs, thereby raising the value to the customer and the likelihood of closing the sale.

This may sound stunningly obvious and commonsensical. To that extent, it’s a tribute to the triumph over the old product-focused approach of convincing people they needed whatever it was you had to sell.

(At the same time, sounding obvious doesn’t mean it gets practiced all the time, or even usually. Product-based selling is far from dead).
The mainstream view among sales practitioners is that needs-based selling and consultative selling represent the state of the art, the high road, professionalism in selling.

But it’s just not true.

Reading the consultative or needs-based books, websites or training programs, you’ll find two beliefs—implicit or explicit—that limit the value of these approaches to selling. Those beliefs are:

1. Their primary intent is to close the sale
2. A secondary intent is to qualify prospects.

Those may sound obvious and benign as well, but look at it from the customer’s side.  Together, those two beliefs mean that if you’re paying attention to me as a customer, it’s only for as long as you think this transaction will result in a sale for you.

That means:

a. while you’re definitely in it for you, you’re only in it for me if it bodes well for you, and
b. while you’re willing to talk about my needs, you’re not willing to do so unless you see a sale close at hand.

Either way, it certainly appears you don’t have my interests very much at heart.

There is another way. It’s called Trust-based Selling®. It says focus on buyer needs, so that you can better articulate them and get them met.  Period.

You don’t focus on their needs because it’ll get you the sale—you do it so you can help them better articulate their needs and get them met.  Period.

You don’t focus on buyer needs in order to screen out buyers who don’t need what you have to sell. You do it so you  can help them better articulate those needs and get them met. Period.

The key difference lies in liberating sales from the transaction.  Trust flourishes only when then quid and the quo have some blue sky between them.  Screening at the transaction level screams “I only care about your wallet;” trust-based sales screens at the strategic customer selection level, not the tactical transaction level.

For needs-based or consultative selling to become trust-based, you need to migrate away from the tight leash of the transaction.  Loosen up.  Get free of the “pay me now or I quit doing this consulting” mentality.

Trust-based selling says, if you consistently do the right thing by your customer, then when the customer needs what you’re selling, you’ll get the first call. And you’ll therefore make more money.

The highest profit comes when you make profit a byproduct—not a goal—of a truly customer-centric sales process.

How Sales Contests Kill Sales

Salespeople are motivated by money and competition.  If you want them to sell more, offer more money, and have them compete for rewards.  The sales contest is the perfect motivational combination.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom.  But it’s wrong—and many of the best salespeople will tell you so.  Here’s why.

Money and competition are about getting more money from your customers than other salespeople can get from theirs. And contests are typically short-term affairs—usually a matter of months, a year at most.

Salespeople in a contest are therefore in a rush to see who can extract the most cash out of his customers the fastest.  As one of the hoary old “jokes” about sales goes, “selling is the fine art of separating the customer from his wallet.”

I don’t happen to think that joke’s funny, and I doubt too many customers do either.  But that’s the mentality fostered by a race to extract maximum money per short term time period.

It turns customers into objects.  It telescopes time into the (very) near future.  And so it flies in the face of developing relationships based on helping the customer, and based on a longer time-frame that allows the evolution of strategies beneficial to both seller and buyer.

Here’s the paradox (there always is a paradox when it comes to trust).  Sales contests are usually held to juice up short-term results.  But the best short term results actually come from the ongoing execution of long-term strategies.  Sales contests actually hurt long-term performance.

The mania for measuring short-term has led many companies to execute a massive faux pas—managing for the short-term.   You know the saying: “you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.”  The unspoken corollaries are, “more measurement is better,” and “if we can measure it short term then we’d better manage it short-term.”

None of it is true.  If you were to manage all the other relationships in your life this way—maximizing the short-term monetary benefit you can extract from your spouse, your friends, your children—then you would live a shallow life that will come to bite you.  It is no different in business.

Do you grant your loyalty and future business to someone who views you as primarily a source of their own short-term financial gratification?  If not, why should you expect anyone else to?

Sales contests are just one of the more obvious manifestations of this mania for short-term, treat-‘em-as-wallets, manage-like-you-measure mentality. It infects comp systems and sales process designs as well.

If you’re a sales manager, measure short-term results—but teach everyone that the best way to get them is to manage long-term.

If you’re a salesperson, then—unless you’re a year away from retirement and don’t give a damn about your reputation—act as if you plan to be in service to your customers for a long, long time.

That’s how they return the favor.

And there’s that paradox again.  The best way to make money is to stop selfishly looking to make money.  Instead, be trusted—by being trustworthy.

When On-message Marketing Makes for Off-trust Sales

Being “on-message” is a sort of  First Principle for marketers.  (You may be more aware of the term through politicians, who in recent years have become astute consumers of marketing technologies).

The “on-message” concept is closely allied to the broader strategic term “alignment.” The core idea is—if you get all the parts humming in sync, you will certainly avoid contradictions, and probably create synergies.

Who could argue with that?

Well, like any good concept taken to excess, it can turn nasty.  That’s what happens when marketing pushes the “on message” concept too hard onto sales.

What caught my eye was the cover story of the September 2007 issue of PharmaVoice (though it’s not an issue unique to Pharma—it can be found in professional services or technology as well):

The pharmaceutical industry can no longer afford to be off-message—not even once—in this exceedingly competitive marketplace…
Innovative pharmaceutical companies are redefining the communications process by tearing down the walls between the different factions: agencies, sales, marketing, and public relations.

By including “sales” with agencies, PR and marketing in a broader process called “communication,” sales is potentially being set up for lowered trust.

Sales should be about dialogue between seller and customer. That means two-way conversation—synchronous—at the individual level. PR and marketing by contrast are largely one-way—asynchronous—a monologue, and almost always one-to-many, rather than individual (one-to-one marketing is largely aspirational).

Customers have no problem with marketing, as long as it doesn’t claim to be personal and synchronous. Customers have no problem with sales, as long as it is a true personal dialogue.

Trouble happens when one mode pretends to be the other. And that is what happens when sales is forced to operate mainly in the “on-message” mode. For a salesperson to be “on-message” means they are “off-dialogue” and asynchronous—while still pretending not to be. Result: customer disconnect.

Basically, we don’t trust people who insist on mouthing ad slogans at us.

That doesn’t mean salespeople should be random content-generators, or that they should shy away from marketing dialogues. It simply means that, past some point, treating sales as an extension of marketing will erode sales effectiveness.

What that point is, is hard to define. Just where do the plains end, and the mountains begin? The fact that the transition point may be hard to define doesn’t mean mountains don’t exist.

Think of it this way. If marketing is in charge of all your sales collateral materials—you may be an “on-message” abuser. If marketing is scripting selected sentences at the individual word level—you may be an “on-message” abuser. If marketing gives sales a list of “don’t-talk-about” topics—you may be an “on-message” abuser.

If you believe sales could and should be replaced by significant improvements in targeting and delivery via alternate media—then you probably are an on-message abuser, because you don’t believe in the unique value of human one-to-one contact.

Humans have their own message wave-length. And if you want your message to be heard, you’d better start with hearing theirs.  Being on message isn’t much good if it means no one’s listening.
 

I Can’t Make You Love Me–If You Don’t

That’s the title of one of my favorite songs; a soulfully beautiful breakup song by Bonnie Raitt.

I’m not alone; one commenter on the song says, “I personally consider this the best song of the 90s.”

My favorite detail: the very first notes on the track are a brushstroke and two taps on the snare drum, followed by a big, mellow electronic piano-cum-bass drum chord. The mics on the drums reveal a warm small-room echo—this is live, real, unprocessed music by a pro—singing about reality. Like the song.

Songfacts says the song

…was written by the songwriting team of Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. Reid got the idea from a newspaper article about a guy who got drunk and shot up his girlfriend’s car. When the judge sentenced him and asked him what he had learned, he said, "You can’t make a woman love you if she don’t."

Never mind my taste in music. Red and Shamblin had an ear for one of those micro-moments that serve as metaphor for larger truths. You can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.

Ain’t it the truth.

And ain’t it a metaphor. You can’t make a man love you if he don’t, either. You can’t make your child do what you want, if they won’t. You can’t make your ex- do what you’d like, if they won’t. You can’t make an alcoholic stop drinking, if he won’t.

You can’t make someone trust you, if they don’t. You can’t make a person change, if they won’t. You can’t make an organization change, if it won’t. You can’t make someone buy from you, if they won’t.

You can’t make someone like you, if they don’t. You can’t make someone want what you want, if they don’t (even a great song). You can’t make someone believe what you believe, if they don’t.

There are pretty much only two things you can do. One is to give up the attachment to those outcomes. The other is to change yourself.

Because you can do all those things—to yourself.

You can make yourself love someone; as Steven Covey reminded us in Seven Habits, love is a verb, not a passive state of consciousness.

You can make yourself happy—or not. You can make yourself trust someone—or not. You can live in the moment—or not. You can stop drinking, or eating, or smoking—or not.

Like the man in court found out, trying to make other people do things they won’t is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Pain is inevitable—but suffering is optional. You don’t have to take the poison. There are other girls, other guys, other days, other organizations.

Detach from the outcome.

Then go create yourself a new one.

Does Your Customer Trust You? The Acid Test

Most salespeople will agree—there is no stronger sales driver than a customer’s trust in the salesperson. And, I suggest, the best way to be trusted is to be trustworthy—worthy of trust. You can’t fake it.

Is it possible to know if your customer trusts you? Is there one predictor of customer trust? Is there a single factor that amounts to an acid test of trust in selling?

I think there is. It’s contained in one single question. A “yes” answer will strongly suggest your customers trust you. A “no” answer will virtually guarantee they don’t.

The question is this:

Have you ever recommended a competitor to one of your better customers?

If the answer is “yes”—subject to the caveats below—then you have demonstrably put your customer’s short-term interests ahead of your own. This indicates low self-orientation and a long-term perspective on your part (I’m assuming sincerity), and is a good indicator of trustworthiness.

If you have never, ever, recommended a competitor to a good customer, then either your product is always better than the competition for every customer in every situation (puh-leeze), or—far more likely—you always shade your answers to suit your own advantage. Which says you always put your interests ahead of your customers’. Which says, frankly, you can’t be trusted.

Here are the caveats: don’t count “yes” answers if:

a. The customer was trivially important to you
b. You were going to lose the customer anyway
c. You didn’t even offer a product in the category
d. You figured the competitive product was terrible and you’d deep-six them by recommending them.

The only fair “yes” answer is one in which you honestly felt that an important customer would be better served in an important case by going with a competitor’s offering.

If that describes what you did, and it is a fair reflection of how you think about customer relationships in general, then I suspect your customers trust you.

If not—well, then why should they? Would you?

Don’t Believe What They Say About Listening and Sales

Try Googling “sales” and “listen.” Here’s a sampling—look for the common theme:

Rhonda Abrams, from Gannett News Service, says:

When calling on a customer, it’s tempting to want to immediately launch into a sales pitch, especially if you’re nervous. But by listening, you can better understand how your product or service meets the customer’s needs and desires.

In Business Week’s Savvy Selling section, Michelle Nichols says:

Although speaking clearly, succinctly, and persuasively are crucial selling skills, sharp listening skills are equally important today. In fact, it’s the professionals who ask good questions and then listen hard for the answers who are closing more sales than peers who are stuck in the "smooth talker" era.

At SalesPractice.com, we get:

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason – we’re meant to listen twice as much as we talk. This maxim is never truer than it is in negotiation. It’s amazing what you will learn about the "true" negotiation position, just by listening better. Don’t do all the talking – keep asking questions and listen to the answers.

The admonition to listen is usually justified—as in these three cases—on the basis of the answers’ content. If you listen more—particularly in response to good questions—then you will hear answers that help you sell. That’s the received wisdom.

If that sounds self-evident, think of what is not being said:

that the larger value of listening lies not in the content of the response, but in the act of listening itself.

Q&A listening for content is the hallmark of consultative selling and needs-based selling. You got a need? I probe and find out the specs of that need; I tune my offering to meet it. And so forth.

Nothing wrong with that; but it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the power of a different kind of listening.

Needs are just mechanical specifications for stuff we gotta have anyway—toothpaste, audits, bicycles.

Wants, by contrast, are where the action is—wants are hopes, fears, ambitions, wishes, desires.

>Listening for answers identifies needs; but listening for listening’s sake gets to wants;

>Listening for answers generates a list of specs; listening for listening’s sake generates a connection;

>Listening for answers generates transactions; listening for listening’s sake builds relationships.

If your listening always has an agenda—to sell—then you’re not doing much to build trust. If your listening has no agenda beyond being in service to that customer in that moment, then you are potentially creating a trust bond with that customer.

We often hear that listening is a skill that we should practice. But that’s Q&A listening they’re talking about, listening with an agenda—your agenda. And it’s got limited benefits.

By contrast, listening for listening’s sake is not a skill; it’s a gift—the rare gift of your fine attention. It’s also one of those gifts that gives back.

And—the icing on the cake—listening for listening’s sake ends up more powerfully driving sales than does listening to execute the sale.

It’s a trust thing.