In my last writing, I introduced this idea that the unflinching pursuit of an outcome or “next steps” in the sales qualification process will more often than not create a barrier to making the sale. That chasing an outcome will limit your ability to perform the most important skill and behavior necessary to sales – listening.
How about an example? Here’s one that connects the quality of your listening to the questions you ask, what you learn, the obstacles you have to overcome, and the results you create.
You’re twenty minutes into a conversation with a key prospect and they suggest that their current provider (incumbent) hasn’t been able to keep up with the growth and demands of their business. They are looking for a more strategic and proactive approach. For most, this would be categorized as something you want to hear. Adding some real color to this – let’s assume it took you a year of effort to solidify the appointment, and a win with this type of client would add momentum, confidence, and a financial lift to your year. What do you do? Let’s dissect…
You have lots of experience, and you recently won a new client in a very similar circumstance. You’re feeling confident that your approach and stories will impress upon the prospect that you and your team have the blueprint to help solve the prospect’s issues. So, you calmly shift to sharing your experience with the prospect, highlighting the opportunities and pitfalls regarding the situation they’re in – delivering details and ideas. The prospect agrees to another meeting.
Danielle, a competitor of yours, isn’t as technically experienced, but she knows the power of listening. When she hears the same thing from the prospect – she slows the conversation down and starts asking questions. What do they mean by strategic or pro-active? She takes the time to ask for examples. And she doesn’t stop there. She presses – when did the prospect start to feel this way? What have they already tried to do to solve, and how will they define success if they make a change? As a result, she too gains a second meeting.
Think about what each of you has accomplished. Did both of you really achieve the same thing? You have positioned yourself as a credible alternative – which only matters if in that rare instance the prospect has already done the difficult debate regarding change prior to you showing up. As with most sales opportunities, this debate that your prospect goes through will occur throughout your conversations. The catalyst for this “change or no change” evaluation is the innate human tendency of the prospect to over-estimate what they have in place (incumbent), and to under-estimate what they could gain (from you or Danielle). This “decision uncertainty” and “change hesitancy” manifests into “sales objections” – barriers to the sale. Between you and your competitor, who’s learned the most to be able to work their way through an objection?
In your case, you’ve assumed that your definition of strategy and proactiveness was the same as the prospect’s. You heard a “sales” trigger – something that over time your experiences have told you it’s time to pitch and align because this could be the part of the conversation that generates a next step – a second meeting – outcome. Though very talented, you only listened enough to find a path that would allow you to present your expertise.
So, once the prospect’s change comfort zones arose, the only thing you and your team could do was prove, promise, and persuade harder – based on assumptions that you made in your conversations.
Danielle, on the other hand, took the time to learn. She resisted the sales temptation to pitch and focused her energy on better understanding what the prospect has been through, and if a change was really necessary. She compartmentalized her internal distraction of seeking “next steps” and prioritized the learning – even at the risk of losing a sales outcome. With Danielle’s approach, she would either be in a position to vet out the prospect’s change objections early in the conversation, or to establish herself as the right consultant to help the prospect think them through later.
The process of making a change requires debate and assessment of many uncertainties. So, back to one of my questions: did you two competitors accomplish the same thing? The answer is no.
You created credibility and positioned yourself to have a sales conversation in which you were left trying to pull the prospect toward a decision for change. The ironic thing is, the more you pulled, the more vested you became in winning the business – and the more skeptical the prospect probably became regarding your capabilities and intent. Your expertise became less credible, because you weren’t asking questions to guide and ensure the change process. On the other hand, Danielle created trust and positioned herself to be a part of the prospect’s thinking and debate process to make a change. She is in a far better position to consult and help the prospect maintain objectivity in the evaluation process.
If you were the prospect, and you were uncertain about making a decision that required embracing the unknown of change, which approach would you value? Which experience would provide you the best process to debate your alternatives, and give you the confidence and trust to make the leap?