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.
If listening is important to developing a consultative selling style, the ability to ask good questions is just as critical. Asking the right sales questions will help to build the customer relationship and advance the sales process. This involves trying to understand what the customer is thinking so that we know how to respond to them and offer them the best solutions to address their concerns. We do this by asking them the right consultative questions to determine:
an understanding of each other
their personal perception
Whether they have a different view
What they think is the most important issue
What their underlying concerns are
The answers to these fairly simple questions helps the sales person to focus their value proposition on things that are important to the customer. The type of insightful questions that the sales person asks conveys a great deal to the customer about the value they can provide, but how?
How to ask the right sales questions
If you think about the news for example, a news reporter demonstrates their experience, their knowledge and their understanding of a situation by asking the right sort of questions to a politician. Similarly, a sales manager can show how much they know about the business by asking insightful questions of a salesperson about where they are in the sales cycle, or the buying cycle. You might have experienced this yourself, where the sales manager can convey a lot about their knowledge, not by telling you, but by asking pertinent questions - and it's the same for the customer - when they see a salesperson who asks insightful questions it shows more than anything else that they understand, and that they know what's happening.
Different types of consultative questions
These are the five consultative questioning types all of which can provide you a great deal of information:
Business value questions
Inspiring your team to adopt a new culture
How do you get your team to behave differently, to adopt the culture, the values and vision that you have? Regardless of how many programs you run, training you introduce or speeches you make, if the people within your organization don’t either understand or are not inspired enough to want to embrace change little will alter.
So what can a leader do about this? I would suggest one important step would be to look at the corporate culture of your company. How valued do your people feel? Do they really understand the vision and feel that they have a part to play? Do they believe that their efforts can and would make a difference or do they consider that all that anyone cares about is the bottom line, increased revenue numbers? Corporations that are successful like Southwest Airlines, Zappos and Google all have value based cultures, they care about core values such as integrity, ethics and most importantly their people, does your company?
What is a value based culture?
A corporation with a value based culture means that they, as an entity, give equal weight to ethics and business success in performance evaluations. They celebrate when members of the team show integrity and core values like honesty and trust. It doesn’t mean that sales success and increased revenue isn’t important, it means establishing a culture that cares. The corporate message to employees says we care about our people’s success, we will help with their development and equip them with the right skills to achieve the personal success they seek, we believe everyone matters and together we can achieve our goals.
How is a vale based culture created?
Changing a corporate culture so that all employees really understand and embrace it won’t happen over night and it must be led from the top.
A value based culture needs to be:
- Part of the entire corporate strategy - It has to a carefully thought out strategy led from the top down, embraced at every level and incorporated into all the processes of how business is achieved. It must run through every communication and corporate practice including performance appraisals, promotion and recruiting practices. It is not just a matter of introducing new compliance or ethics programs it has to be all encompassing evident in everything the company does.
- Demonstrated by example - The best way a leader can demonstrate a caring value based culture is in their behavior; they way they talk to people, how they treats others at every level, whether they are accessible, whether they are prepared to listen, are empathetic and understanding. Such leaders are humble and find meaningful and visible ways to show how living company values in day-to-day behavior can help deliver on the priorities.
- All encompassing within the corporation - To succeed the culture cannot function in isolation, it has to touch the hearts and minds of everyone within the organization. Leaders can achieve this by developing deeper partnerships with all departments; human resources, corporate communications, and environmental and social responsibility departments.
Recent research by the Catalyst Research Center for Advancing Leader Effectiveness, which collected 1,500 responses from workers around the world, as reported in the Harvard Business Review clearly showed that: 'Employees who perceived altruistic behavior from their managers also reported being more innovative, suggesting new product ideas and ways of doing work better…..Moreover, they were more likely to report engaging in team citizenship behavior, going beyond the call of duty, picking up the slack for an absent colleague--all indirect effects of feeling more included in their workgroups.'
A culture that emphasizes the promotion of core values, ethics and leadership produces happier workers, improved customer satisfaction and a sustained competitive advantage in the marketplace. Isn’t that a culture you would like to have?