Oddities That Make Strong Salespeople-Noncompliance

I’ve been assessing salespeople since 2001 which, as you can imagine, has provided some unique experiences.  These experiences have revealed some odd factors that seem to be supportive of sales success.  The oddity is that there seems to be a yin and a yang to abilities…a give and a take.  Here are just a few:

Fearlessness vs. Compliance
This oddity might be the most common.  There is a component to successful selling that involves a fearlessness to adroitly ask difficult questions to qualify prospects.  Many (most) people are uncomfortable asking these questions.

For instance, it is “impolite to discuss money” is one of our social mores.  However, you will not get far in your sales career if you are incapable of accurately qualifying the prospect’s budget.  This ability requires a fearless attitude.

The other side of this coin is compliance which is oddly infrequent among most salespeople.  Sales leaders need a certain level of compliance to maintain some semblance of order within a freewheeling sales department.  Good luck.

My experience has found that most salespeople are noncompliant and I think there is a specific reason.  Compliant styles like to plan a predictive sales call.  They like to almost script the call with expected questions and well-constructed answers…then the call happens.  The compliant salesperson begins the call/meeting based on their anticipated script and the prospect makes a 90 degree turn and the script blows up.  Low compliance, high fearlessness is an advantage to sales success as they are freer to move with the prospect no matter which direction they go.

I’ve encountered other oddities along my assessment travels – I will share those in the near future.

Positive Prospects Are Trouble

Prospects have many moves they learn at prospects’ school, but one of the most lethal is the positive move.  The positive move is when the prospect appears to be eager to purchase your solution, especially early in the sales process.

Don’t get me wrong, there are always “blue birds” that fly in to a salesperson.  Blue birds are minimal qualifying, quick-closing deals that close so fast that they may not even make it onto the forecast.  They are extremely rare…but salespeople are always entranced by them.  Prospects seem to be aware of these blue birds and will sometimes use a mechanism that mimics a blue bird.

The prospect becomes overly positive.  I believe they have a clear motive for doing it.  When prospects go positive, salespeople tend to dial down (or turn off) their qualifying skills.  The salesperson stops asking qualifying questions about money, timing, decision process, etc.  They shorten the meeting and quickly add the prospect to the forecast as a quick close.  It is at this point that the “prospect” can quickly disappear in to the ether, never to be heard from again.

When prospects go positive, the salesperson has to go more positive.  They need to ask questions about what it will take to get a purchase order today.  Also, what is the ideal installation/delivery/solution date?  Notice how this approach takes the prospect further positive…if they are not a blue bird, they will start moving in a negative direction.  This movement is the key.  Now the salesperson can start requalifying the opportunity.  And they need to approach it as a fresh start, new opportunity…that may or may not make it to the forecast based on what the salesperson learns as they start requalifying.

Collaboration Kills Commoditization

There is a trend developing in the sales world that has caught my eye over the past couple years.  This Sales & Marketing Management article opens with a terrific summary of what I have experienced (emphasis mine):

According to Harvard Business Review, “Traditional sales methods are increasingly unproductive. In fact, aggressive sales styles and product-focused selling are now so outdated that some customers are simply refusing to meet with salespeople using these techniques. In this situation, focusing on product features in the sales meeting is a waste of everyone’s time. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that high-performing sales people are those who listen and respond, who are flexible, and who think in terms of developing a solution to an emerging customer problem.”

That entire paragraph is spot on.  The “aggressive sales styles” they reference is the High D (Dominance).  These salespeople have a driven, aggressive, even confrontational style.  This style is often considered the classic sales hunter style, but that stereotype is changing.

Here’s why – the High D style has done well in the past when they were able to control information (product info, tech specs, etc.).  The High D’s were able to leverage that information for meetings and commitments from prospects.  Today, that information is on the web so the need is for salespeople who have the ability to connect with prospects to get in front of them.  This is not the High D’s strength.

So where is it going?  Back to the article:

What customers increasingly want from their vendors are collaborators.

The author goes on to acutely describe the possible definitions of the collaboration.  This collaborative approach will eventually fit in nicely with the upcoming Millennial generation.  That generation, in general terms, has a desire to work on projects/tasks in a completely collaborative way.  As the Millennials move up the proverbial sales ladder, the collaborative culture will become prominent in most sales departments.

The closing paragraph from the article wraps it up nicely:

Order taking may make your salesperson’s job easier, but typically what your customer really wants is a trusted partner. Collaborating with your customers builds relationships, adds value, and helps further entrench your key strategic accounts. It helps keep the competition at bay. And, it keeps your offering from being commoditized.

The On-Demand Economy

More and more workers are moving away from traditional jobs and towards the “gig” economy of on-demand roles that have a finite time frame.  Some of the startling trend from the Yahoo article (emphasis mine):

The report said the number of independent workers in America is expected to grow from 30.2 million to roughly 37.9 million in 2020, in part due to businesses seeking flexibility and also because young adults are more comfortable in the lifestyle.

Adding occasional independents, the projected number of US adults working independently will grow to an estimated 54 million or nearly 45 percent of the private, non-farm workforce, the group said.

I’m not sure what this effect will have on sales positions.  Perhaps the distributor/rep model that has been prevalent in certain sales for decades will become a common structure for companies.  I find it difficult to outsource a customer relationship especially if you are in a service sale.  Perhaps the development will be salespeople who have specific relationships with large companies and provide the channel to those decision makers?  Again, this is the distribution model that has been in manufacturing for decades and it would appear this model has the potential to expand in the very near future.

Make Time To Daydream

I’m not kidding.  From the Harvard Business Review:

Thanks to our smartphones, tablets, and laptops, it’s easy to be working all the time. But our devices can actually make us less productive by interfering with an important mental process: daydreaming. To be effective, our brains need opportunities to be “off,” which is hard when we’re constantly taking in new information through our devices. And research has found that letting our minds wander facilitates creativity and long-term thinking. If we’re facing a challenge that needs new ideas, we’re more likely to find some if our minds drift away from the problem for a while. So the next time your mind starts to wander, let it. Don’t check your favorite website or your email. Instead, walk to a window and think about the people and cars going by, close your eyes and notice the sounds around you, or go for a short walk. And remember: leave your device behind.

Cultural Qualifying

I ran into an old coworker, whom I consider a good friend, at a coffee shop this Friday morning.  He is the VP of Sales with 75 or so direct reports.  His company is international with a majority of their revenue occurring in Asia.

He was telling me about sales training he held for the entire sales team.  The focus was on negotiating and, more specifically, how to ask the right questions to qualify the opportunity.  The Asian sales reps balked at some of the questions based solely on their approach to qualifying.  Let’s just say they prefer to take a more passive, unquestioning approach which leads to prayer rug forecasts and lower revenue.

Obviously there are some cultural issues when it comes to qualifying.  Anyone who has been to Japan knows that there are certain formalities you have to follow to honor your counterparts.  However, I would argue that the qualifying issue is an individual issue.  At the risk of sounding overly simple, sales is a difficult profession that requires a skill set that is uncommon to the majority of the population.

The training that my friend provided was not provocative, excessive nor “risky.”  It was simply communication made clear by a sound questioning strategy.  This approach is the essence of qualifying.  It spans cultures.  It leads to the important point that if you are attempting to hire stronger salespeople, you must incorporate an assessment to get an x-ray of the salesperson’s abilities.  Do they have the right mix of talent and motivation to ask the difficult questions required for successful selling?

If you are looking for a solution, we can help.

The Lost Art of Decorum

Maybe I am aging faster than I will admit, but I have seen a trend in the professional workplace that is unsettling.

Decorum.  As defined by Webster, it is “correct or proper behavior that shows respect and good manners.”

One of the things I tell hiring managers is that the initial candidate interview is as good as it will get.  The candidates’ behavior, manners, etiquette, communication, etc. will never exceed their level as observed in that first interview.  Therefore, the candidate’s decorum should be exemplary in that interview to the point where it is memorable.

Sadly, I simply am not seeing this exemplary decorum nearly as much as I used to 15 years ago.  Perhaps as a society we are simply becoming more crass.  Nonetheless, the interview should be treated as hallowed ground and respected in such a way that crassness does not permeate it.

I have noticed this change not only in the younger generation, but also the Boomer generation.  I have observed aging leaders, who have become out of touch with the younger generations, find a connection (earning laughs) by being crassly provocative.

Younger generations communicate in…how shall I say…in an overly casual manner.  Cursing comes to mind and I have experienced it an multiple phone interviews recently.  The expletives have come out in face-to-face interviews also.  I’m not talking about shockingly blue language, but still language that simply does not fit in a high-level sales position interview.

Professional salespeople need to possess an impressive level of professionalism, or decorum, when approaching prospects in today’s business world.  A lack of this decorum being exhibited in the initial interview, when they are allegedly at their best, is a big red flag for me when considering whom to move to the next level in the hiring process.

Silence Kills Deals?

My mouth is still agape after reading this article in the MSP Business Journal – How to close a sales more effectively.

The first howler:

Anyone involved in sales knows silence can kill deals. If you present your best recommendations to a prospect and stop talking, he might say, “That’s food for thought. Let me think about it. I’ll get back to you.”

What?  No, not true.  The problem the vast majority of salespeople have is the inability to use silence.  A pregnant pause is a powerful tool that helps bring forth information.  It is important to remember that the person asking the questions is actually the person controlling the conversation.

The second howler:

They are all closed-end questions. When faced with a “yes or no” choice, the uncomfortable answer is “no.” Read the questions, answer “no” and see how you feel. It’s likely a negative answer requires justification and you can’t immediately think of reasons.

These suggestions come from the financial world which is predominantly based on selling to “consumers.”  Maybe things are different there, but in the B2B world open-ended questions are necessity.  It has been my experience that prospects are comfortable and adept at saying no.  My experience has been that close-ended questions quickly move you to the “think it over” response from the prospect.

The author clearly has a different approach to selling and perhaps it works well for him.  My take is that these tips would lead to atrocious results in the B2B world.

If you want to close more effectively, invest all, and I mean all, of your time in developing your qualifying skills.  At the end of the day, qualified deals close themselves.

4 Social Age Selling Skills

I don’t consider myself old, but I am starting to waver on that belief after reading this Selling Power article.  I started selling back in the days before cell phones and Internet, when the fax machine was viewed as such a timesaver.  Frightening by today’s standards.

The article identifies 4 selling skills you need in today’s socially-connected world.  Here are the first 3:

    1. Social Listening
    2. Social Researching
    3. Social Networking

Those 3 are critical and hopefully most salespeople are aware of these needed skills.  However, the 4th point is most interesting:

4. Social Engaging

This is the newest skill for sellers.  Consequently, it holds the biggest competitive advantage for sellers who master it quickly.  There are two types of social-engagement actions:

    1. Commenting on someone else’s post
    2. Initiating a post

I agree with the Social Engaging activity – the majority of sales that I encounter are relationship-based.  The transactional sales have moved to more automated channels.  The relationship sale is difficult to initiate by phone or email.  But an online conversation…that is a back door to initiate the relationship.  I also appreciate the thought-leader aspect of it.  If you are able to provide some value-add to the conversation, you instantly frame the relationship in a favorable (for the salesperson) light.

Interrogating A Prospect

Questions are the backbone of qualifying any sales opportunity.  Yet, many salespeople seem to flounder with this approach and I believe it comes from over coaching/training.  Ask this series of questions, use this linguistic trick, turn the tables on them…improper use of these “moves” stands out to every prospect.

To that point, here is an excellent excerpt from a recent Eye on Sales article:

We’ve all been taught the difference between closed-end and open-ended questions. We’ve been given instructions on when to use which type question.  Some trainers have given us formulas; others have given us specific questions to ask.

It’s these detailed guidelines that seem to get many sellers in trouble–that gets their questions to resemble Gestapo tactics rather than a discussion with a prospect.

So how do you use questions without intimidating or badgering?

The answer is actually quite simple—don’t interrogate your prospects.  Instead, of trying to figure out whether to ask an open-end or closed-end question here or which specific question to ask now, just ask the natural questions you’d ask your friends if you were trying to understand their problems.

I know, it sounds simplistic, but it is crucial to successful qualifying.  I have seen far too many salespeople use questions and questioning tactics in a clumsy, impersonal way.  When you experience this approach, the salesperson seems to be pulling tools out of a toolbox and using them with little to no rapport.  This approach is embarrassing to witness as it does put the prospect into the interrogation chair.

Much of selling comes down to one simple approach – having a conversation.  Forget about the toolbox, tricks and techniques for a minute and start a conversation with a purpose to learn what you need to learn to qualify them.  The most effective salespeople are the ones who can maintain this conversational approach while still acquiring the information they need.