Sales process guidelines for taking a consultative selling approach.
One of the reasons that I and many others I know are attracted to selling as a profession, is the freedom that most jobs offer.
Rules are restrictions that many resent, ignore, or break, just because they can. I mean the kind of policies that seem to restrict freedom rather than those that provide a foundation for civilisation.
Examples include policies such as these:
- “We only buy from those on our approved suppliers list.”
- “You must speak to a nominated contact and can’t speak with those who are involved in the decision.”
- “It’s our policy not to divulge budget details”.
Despite having a well developed dislike for any regulations that seem unnecessary, I have three consultative selling rules that I do my best to obey. Having broken them on numerous occasions and suffered the consequences of unexpected losses, I have concluded that these particular three principles are important. So much so that we now teach them in many of our training courses.
They are explained here:
1. Make no assumptions
On the surface, this first rule seems like common sense. While this may be so, it isn’t common practice. When you consider a conversation, the first opportunity to make an assumption stems from language. Despite having a common language, people develop their own independent interpretation of the words and phrases they use. For instance, the term, ‘a communication problem’ even in the context of telephone use, could have dozens of different meanings.
If you think you know what someone means when they use a particular term, acronym, phrase, or piece of jargon, you are in danger of breaking the first rule.
If you could listen in on a conversation and were to adopt a devils advocate perspective, you would find it easy to list the assumptions made when the participants begin to talk about a solutions.
People often begin by discussing the product or service that might provide a solution. This presumes a lot about the nature of the problem or opportunity. In many cases, the parties never get around to discussing the real cause for buying something.
Before you laugh and think, “it wouldn't be me falling into this trap”, ask yourself how often you have found it difficult to persuade a manager that your forecast was realistic?
It is easy to say, “I’ll make no assumptions” and surprisingly difficult to adhere to the commitment.
In thousands of meetings, training courses, and training simulations, we have observed how difficult it is for a salesperson to avoid assuming they know the underlying reasons for positions or statements.
Even the experienced veterans leap to conclusions capable of leading to a disastrous result.
To help buyers and sellers minimise the amount of guesswork, we developed a sales process labelled ‘CLEAR’. Before I explain ‘CLEAR’, I need to explain the other two rules.
2. Declare your intent to make no assumptions
If you make an agreement at the beginning of a meeting to try to eliminate each assumption as the potential occurs, you double your chances of getting cooperation when you press for a better understanding of a need or requirement.
At the beginning of a meeting, it is easy to gain agreement on this point. No one wants to make guesses.
It is a trivial thing and easy to forget. If you don’t make a point of doing it and haven't prepared a way to ask smoothly, you are likely to overlook or consciously discard this step.
3. Don't talk about your products, services, or solutions
The third rule is harder to observe than the first.
After all, what are you there to do if it is not to talk about what you have to sell!
Even if you have learnt that a seller’s first need is to understand the circumstances that prompted the interest, most often customer's prefer to talk about what they want to buy. It is the easy path. It doesn't involve the pain of considering what isn't known and what must be uncovered to guarantee a good outcome for both buyer and seller.
Once a need has been identified and the value of satisfying it qualified, the sales process should prove that what is being sold would deliver the promised results.
At the same time, the buying process is about customers satisfying themselves that what they buy will deliver the desired outcomes.
In financial and legal terms this rigour is known as ‘due diligence’.
It is in the interests of both parties to get this part right. Failure will lead to unpleasant or even catastrophic consequences for buyer and seller alike.
Business to business sellers cannot afford unhappy customers. In most cases, buyers will blame sellers for performance failure whether it is deserved or not.
CLEAR is a guide that helps transform an adversarial situation into a collaboration that adds value for the customer and almost always leads to a better result for both parties.
CLEAR stands for Circumstances, Leverage, Expand, Advantage, and Requirement.
A number of barriers are often thrown up when the three rules and the CLEAR steps are adhered to. They are the same barriers that arise when using other methods.
The buyer won't reveal the underlying reasons for their interest or requirement.
This may be because the person tasked with speaking to potential suppliers, doesn’t have all the information. Sometimes the customer thinks that it is not in their interests to tell outsiders. Another reason is a lack of trust in a particular seller or all sellers in general.
The buyer will disclose the reasons but can't or won't reveal the extent of the affect on their business.
In many cases, the customer hasn't measured the impact and doesn't have a good assessment of the business value that might result from buying.
The buyer won't reveal how much they are willing to spend to get the results they want.
This may be because they don’t know or because they think it is not in their interests to tell the seller. As for No.2, it is common for buyers to involve sellers before they have a clear understanding of the issues they want to address and the results they want to achieve.
The buyer won't allow access to those with decision influence.
Sometimes this is an imagined problem arising from a salesperson’s reluctance to go around an established contact or to press for access. Sometimes it is a declared policy designed to protect staff from vendors. In other situations, vulnerable individuals try to prevent access. Reasons include fear about losing control, appearing weak, and exposing previous poor decisions.
The buyer is vague about their decision making process.
Sometimes this is because buying decision making is ill defined. Sometimes the person being asked, doesn’t know their procedures. Sometimes procedures for a specific decision have yet to be defined. While less common, some buyers think it is in their interests to keep their decision making approach a secret.
The buyer resists attempts to establish a sales process agreement.
More often, salespeople either never consider the possibility or think it unnecessary. Once a sale is qualified, agreeing a step-by-step time bound process leading to either a yes or no decision is valuable to both parties.
The buyer stops taking calls after the seller delivers the presentation or proposal.
I call this the post proposal black hole. It doesn’t happen in every situation and being in one, doesn’t necessarily mean that the sale is lost. A firm sales process agreement will usually prevent a post proposal black hole forming.
The ‘CLEAR’ guide provides solutions for each of these seven obstacles. It defines a method that makes a substantial contribution to the customer’s thinking and differentiates the seller. The steps allow the seller to demonstrate integrity. The diligence observed in the infers trust in the seller and their proposed solution.
Consultative selling is a process that should help customers achieve their objectives. If it does anything else, such as persuade buyers to do things that aren't in their best interests, then the process is broken and all sales people are suspect.
Those who find themselves fighting a broken process have an opportunity to repair it. Doing so creates value, sets the vendor apart from competitors, and raises the value of all salespeople.
“All our dreams can come true - if we have the courage to pursue them.” Walt Disney said so.
Article by Clive Miller
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