People now expect instant access to information. Sound bites abound. We expect immediate resolution of problems afforded by faster and faster search engines, more and more capable of giving sales people all the information they need at their fingertips.
Is account planing still necessary?
But where does this leave us when we come to account planning? Is there still a need to develop a long-term strategy for how we are going to develop ongoing future business with an important account? The activity is one of developing a strategy, taking a long-term view, looking ahead perhaps 1 to 3 years out.
Account planning is a long term strategy, the opposite of instant gratification
Account Planning requires time and thought. It requires the exact opposite of instant gratification. Sales professionals need to gather all the information they can and carefully assemble a plan to align themselves with the customer’s strategy and to show that they are a valued partner in helping the customer to achieve their business objectives. To that end the information they gather needs to be not only that which they can harvest from the web but more importantly from a series of meetings and discussions with key people in the customer’s team. Most likely it will also include information from other members of the extended team.
Will account planning become a dying sales skill?
Account Planning is thus something which requires a very different set of skills than those which distinguish most sales people. I wonder if it is a skill which will become even more rare? Will sales people entering the profession today be prepared to take the time required to develop a good Account Plan? Will newly promoted sales managers keep expecting their young sales people to develop plans? Is this a management problem or an individual problem? Or is it cultural, a function of company culture?
With so much focus on trying to help sales people to develop a consultative sales approach, to help them move from a product-led approach to a more consultative, solutions-led approach, what are the qualities which are most important to success in sales?
What makes a sales person successful
He/she is a born sales person' – we hear that all the time, but what does that mean to you? What is it that makes a sales person successful? Is it really just based on some magical innate ability, or is it based on hard work and determination?
There are certainly many, many different types of sales person. If you look at the cadre of sales people in any large enterprise you will find many different types of personality. You will also find many different types of background (in terms of career experience and education), not every sales person is cut from the same mold. So why do some people succeed and other’s do not?
Qualities of a successful sales person
Having a great product to sell
Some people would argue that it’s all about the product. If you have a great product, it’s easy to sell. That might be true up to a point but it’s rare to find a sales person, or company, who has the luxury of having the best product in the market all the time. The nature of the competitive market means that other players get involved and create differentiated solutions.
Having good luck
Some people might say it’s luck. Being in the right place at the right time. Having an account which just happens to be in the market for a major upgrade. If you’re lucky in sales, you take over the account just as they are about to spend big!
Following a process
Some people might say it’s all about following a sales process. Sales is a numbers game. The more sales calls you make, the harder you work, the more hours you put in, the more successful you will be. Focus on analyzing the customer, plan and prepare methodically. Follow the process, do what’s required and the results will follow.
Some people might think it’s all about relationships. Successful sales people are the ones that are able to build and maintain great relationships with their prospects and customers, and business flows as a result. It’s all about people. People and relationships are all that matter.
Others might argue it’s all about skills, sales skills. Sales people who develop their selling skills will be more successful than those who rely on their so-called ‘innate’ ability. Successful sales people have developed better questioning and listening skills, they are better able to articulate value to the customer, they can close deals effectively because they have good qualifying and closing skills.
What do you think?
Read any book, article or blog about sales and you’ll probably come across some reference to the need for the sales person to provide value to the customer. But the real question should be “how can a sales person make their value more visible to the customer?”
Sales people who differentiate their value succeed
Most sales people work for a company where they have developed solutions which can add value to the customer’s business. The challenge is to persuade the customer that the value that one company (or sales person) provides is greater than the value presented by their competition. In many cases it is not the ‘best company’ or ‘best solution’ that wins the sale but rather the sales person who was able to make their value more visible to the customer. You’ll often hear people say that company 'A' was simply “out-sold” by company 'B'. What they really mean is that the sales person in company 'B' did a better job of making their differentiated value more visible to the customer.
How sales people make value visible
It’s no use having the best solution for the customer if you can’t make that value visible. So how can sales people make value visible? The starting point has to be to focus on the customer first, not on your product or service. This may appear counter-intuitive but the problem is that most sales people think that the value proposition is all about themselves and their product. It’s not; the value proposition
should be all about the customer and what your product or solution can do for the customer. Therefore, the sales person who can articulate the value that their solution can provide to the customer is more likely to win the deal.
Understand the value the customer is looking for
In complex sales scenarios (where there is more than one person involved in making the buying decision) this is even more important. This is because the sales person has to determine what type of value each individual member of the customer’s buying team is looking for, and then make that value visible to them personally. If they succeed in doing this they are more likely to win the support of all involved.
For example, let’s say that one sales person believes that part of their value proposition is that they are the market leader in their space. What does that mean to the customer? What is the value to the customer of this vendor being the market leader? The answer depends on who the sales person is addressing in the customer: for the CFO, or financial buyer, it might mean financial stability, the fact that the company is likely to be here for the long-term. For someone in marketing perhaps it has to do with brand and market perception. They want to be seen to business with a successful company. For someone in the implementation team perhaps it has more to do with experience and having a trusted, tried and tested solution. For others it might represent the potential economic value of being able to buy a solution at a fair price because the vendor has better economies of scale.
Sales people tell customers engaging stories to articulate their value
The key task for any sales person is to determine what their differentiating value is, and to find a way to make it more visible to the customer. One of the most effective ways of doing that is for the sales person to have a story to back-up any claim or value proposition. People remember stories. They re-tell stories. Customers are far more likely to remember a story which provides a good example of the value that the vendor provides. Good stories, customer success stories, references and market innovations help the customer to see and appreciate the real value that the vendor can bring to them. People will buy from sales people they trust – and sales people who are able to bring their value to life, to make their value visible by telling meaningful success stories.
When we teach people about consultative selling, adopting a consultative sales approach, what exactly do they need to do? We believe that becoming a consultative sales person requires becoming more proactive and developing a new mindset. A mindset which is different from the traditional transactional focus.
Transactional salespeople focus on the transaction, on making the sale. They focus on what they have to sell, their products and services and how these might be able to benefit the customer. The focus is on closing the deal; and therefore it tends to be short term.
Truly consultative selling requires a new mindset, a different approach, a change in the way we are seen by the customer. A consultative sales person wants to be viewed by the customer as being an expert, as someone who is focusing on them, and on their clients too i.e. the customer's customer. Consultative sales people focus not simply on winning the deal but on helping the customer to win. This requires developing a more long-term focus. Clearly the objective is to still win the business, but at the same time a consultative sales person wants their customer to win too – so more business can be developed with their customer in the future.
Developing a new mind set
This new mindset is fundamentally about being more proactive and less reactive in the sales approach. Reactive, transactional sales people respond to customer needs and react to customer demand. Proactive sales consultants look for ideas and opportunities to help the customer to win in their market.
Consultative sales people understand that customers value insight
Research conducted by Huthwaite research reinforced this point; thousands of senior executives said they would be willing to meet with a sales person who was proactive and could deliver real value and insight. These executives said they would be happy to meet with a sales person who could do the following:
1. Identify unrecognized opportunities
By this they meant they wanted ideas, proactive ideas about new opportunities, opportunities ‘that they had not recognized themselves’. In other words, the value to the senior executive wasn't from the sales person’s products or services but from their potential insight, being able to suggest and discuss new ideas and opportunities which the senior executive had not yet considered and
helping to identify a new business opportunity.
2. Find solutions to problems
Senior executives also said they would talk to sales people who could help them to find a new solution to an existing business problem, which they were struggling to resolve. They thought that the sales person might be aware of a solution from talking to other customers. Again the belief was that the sales person could bring insight from outside the company.
3. Highlight future business problems
The third area was perhaps the more challenging for sales people. Senior executives said they would meet with sales people who could highlight a future business problem which they might not have realized was coming. Again, the sales person's value is in their insight and expertise, because they are out in the market, they are aware of what’s happening; observing trends, being proactive.
The insight and value of a consultative sales person
The value a consultative sales person provides comes from their expertise and insight, not just from their products and services. It comes from their ability to identify new opportunities, to find new solutions and to identify future business problems. A consultative sales person's value is in their proactivity and in being able to articulate these to the customer - this is the approach and mindset we advocate for consultative selling.