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.

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 In fact, aggressive sales styles and product-focused selling are now so outdated that some customers are simply refusing to meet with salespeople using these techniques.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.

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.

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.

3 Ways The Brain Handles Info

This article is from Eye on Sales with some key points about how our brains handle information (emphasis mine):

It all goes back to how your brain is wired to work. Despite how advanced our technology has become, the brain inside your head is brilliantly primitive.

There are really only three ways that our brain handles any information that it receives:

If it’s boring or expected, the brain ignores it.

If it’s too complex, the brain dramatically summarizes it.

If it’s threatening, the brain makes you fight or run.

So what you’re saying doesn’t really matter.

Especially if the brain in the person listening to you is feeling threatened or fatigued or flat-out bored. You lose.

So how do you change this? How do you say what needs to be said in a way that gets the right people to listen without their brain killing your sales speak a few millisecond after it leaves your lips?

(It’s certainly not easy. And it probably feels awkward at first.)

But here are a few ideas to help you manage brain parts and conquer better;

  1. Ask more questions than you make statements.
  2. Don’t pretend to be somebody that you’re not.
  3. If things “don’t make sense”, say so.
  4. Talk about the “elephant in the room” first.
  5. Look between the lines for personal issues.
  6. Care on the inside.

In terms of successful selling, you cannot overstate the importance of the first bullet listed above.

A Not So Amazing Stat

Just read a resume that boldly stated, “Made over 500 cold calls in 1 year.”

One year.

In my younger days, I was in sales jobs that required at least 50 cold calls a day so cranking out 500 in a year is…underwhelming.

Emotional Decision Making

This excerpt is from the Herman Trend Alert and it highlights a very important fact for all salespeople (emphasis mine):

"Loyalty will focus more on emotions than on rational, incentive-based initiatives." According to behavioral economists, economic decision-making is 70 percent emotional and 30 percent rational. Thus, the loyalty programs that touch us emotionally will work the best; those that focus on the emotional side of the decision making process will create connected, passionate, and engaged customers. Expect to see more emotional appeals that involve our families, relationships, those in need, etc.

I’m going to breeze right past the “behavioral economists” title (sounds like a great description for a salesperson) and hit that decision-making statement.  It is true.  We shorten it up to stating that people make decisions emotionally and they justify them later intellectually.

This is an important truth in selling.  This being the case, intellectual data dumps like feature/benefits will be less effective than probing for pain in the prospect’s world.  Too often I see salespeople in the field go intellectual, especially in tech-related sales, which neutralizes, or even inhibits, their sales effectiveness.

ROE Over ROI

Here is a somewhat ethereal concept I have been encountering in this present economy.  It starts with this – return on investment (ROI).  ROI has been the backbone of sales since time immortal.  This is the basis of sales in that customers pay the money to receive the solution.  As long as the customer views the return on their investment as greater than the investment, they will make the purchase (generally speaking).

The top-performing salespeople possess this motivation pattern (called Utilitarian).  They view prospects in terms of ROI – how much return ($) will I receive if I invest time to close them.  This principle has changed in the present economy.

Salespeople know that spending is tight – deals are difficult to close.  I am seeing a change in the salesperson’s approach:  they are measuring prospects based on Return On Effort (ROE).  This approach is akin to taking the long road and it is a wise strategy in these recessionary times.

Salespeople are realizing that extended sales cycles are the norm so they have to focus their effort in the most strategic prospects.  Yes, you could argue the effort is their investment and that would be accurate.  However, I talk to more salespeople who speak in specific terms of their effort to close the prospect.  Is it the deal worth it?

I think this approach is born out of the lack of deals closing.  What I mean is this – salespeople are working on qualifying and closing deals, but deals are closing slowly (if at all).  So now the salesperson is stuck with fewer closes.  Instead, they have to keep their effort level elevated even though they are not receiving the return/reward they are accustomed to receiving (a sale).  The salesperson must change the metric and focus on their effort and what they will receive for it.

As a sales manager, it is important to keep the salesperson focused on keeping their effort level elevated.  A bad economy has a way of derailing salespeople, even good ones.  There will be a payoff in the long term for their effort.  Do not let the discouragement of extended sales cycles affect their Utilitarian motivation.

Selling Through Cycles

A thought I had about sales approaches based on economic conditions:

Booming Economy – Salespeople should focus their message (value proposition) on efficiency and velocity.  Their solution should essentially provide an improvement in productivity.

Recessionary Economy – Salespeople should focus their message on reducing waste/improving profits.  Their solution should provide a method for getting more out of what the customer has today.

Perhaps I am oversimplifying things, but I think this approach has merit.

Getting Back To The Basics

I’ve been assessing many existing salespeople over the past couple weeks and have seen many different levels of abilities.  The ones that stick in my mind are the salespeople who are presently struggling with their revenue production.  Sales is one of, if not the most stressful positions within any company.  The overt issue with a lack of sales performance is that everyone in the company can see it.  The numbers are very visible.

One underperforming salesperson I talked to recently has hit a true low point.  He’s not certain where to start.  I thought about that discussion for quite some time afterwards.

The lack of performance becomes a spiraling nose dive like those old WWII videos of planes with one wing shot up.  The salesperson senses the spiral and over adjusts.  This is the pattern I have seen – the salesperson starts attempting to be someone they are not.

Generally, here is what I have seen in these salespeople:

-Less aggressive
-Less empathetic
-More data-driven
-More pessimistic
-More uncertain

These salespeople become unsure to the point where they do not move like they used to when qualifying prospects.  Instead, the salesperson requires larger amounts of data to make decisions.  They become uncertain in areas where they used to be decisive.  They tend to be less empathetic – they switch off their ability to read others as they become more robotic in attempting to close quickly.  They lose the natural aggressiveness that comes from being successful.

The key here is to get the salesperson back to their natural state.  This activity is supported by assessments.  In each of the instances I encountered recently, the salesperson’s assessments revealed a highly stressed state.  None of them were operating in their natural state.  This overshift was causing large amounts of stress and gross underperformance.

Each of the salespeople are operating well outside of their natural style which is neutralizing their abilities.  They are using energy to be someone they are not in an attempt to preserve their job.  Unfortunately, that approach is counterproductive to success in most cases.  My recommendation to each of these salespeople was specific actions to move them back to their natural style.  This has to be the first step in rejuvenating an ailing salesperson.