I do some IT consulting work on the side as a hobby/pastime.  Call me a geek.  In that arena, I have a customer who has been battling to get some information from a prospective vendor.  He wants to use their services but has had trouble getting a response.  Finally, today he got a response.  His summation was filled with wisdom:

Coming in obnoxiously late and extraordinarily high priced is not a good place to be.

I couldn’t agree more.  And I’ve been there myself in previous sales roles.

The thought of retiring is going to be a novel idea in the near future, at least according to a new abcnews.com poll.  In a recent survey of Americans (my bold):

Half the population in this new ABC News poll thinks both job security and retirement prospects in the years ahead will remain worse than their pre-recession levels. Four in 10 also see worsened prospects for the availability of jobs and advancement, and, consequently, their own spending power.

No surprise there.  The second aspect regarding worsened prospects for the availability of jobs is phrased in a negative manner.  However, it is only 40%.  This effect occurs in these difficult economic times – times will never be as good as they once were.

I have seen this effect in some candidates recently which is never a good approach to landing a new job.  As a recruiter, I am not looking for a naive optimist – the times are difficult and sales cycles are extended.  Yet there are still deals to be closed and almost every opportunity will be highly competitive.  This economy separates salespeople from pretenders in a fast mode.

My recent sourcing activities have involved finding sales candidates who acknowledge the economy while expanding on the modifications they have made to their sales process.  Increased prospecting, budgetary qualifying, time-frame discussions, etc. are all important adjustments that should be forthcoming from strong candidates in this economy.

I was a psych major in college which seemed to be the perfect preparation for a sales career.  I believe it was.  To this day I am still intrigued by the psychology of selling which could truly be described as persuasion.

That background helps explain why I found this ManageSmarter.com article completely gripping – Mastering the Psychology of Persuasion.  You will have to read the entire article to appreciate the depth of it, but let me pull out a couple of points.

First one of the set-up questions:

• Are left-handed people more prone to some mental illnesses, accidents, or seeking positions of power?

And from later in the article:

And while these questions may at first appear to have clear yes or no answers, in reality, there are no definable correlations to them. All of these questions have exceptions to the rule. “It depends,” is the best practical answer. And yet, all answers you came up with in your head may have value if you’re in the sales and management profession.

Let’s take a look at some of these questions more closely. With regard to left-handed people and power: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama are all lefties. Power hungry? Maybe.

Ok, the left-handed piece hits close to home for me since my wife and son are left-handers.  Yet you see the point – discovering the prospect’s correlation is important for persuading them.

Here are the most recognizable persuasive elements we experience in society:

Habitual patterns. Trigger words or fixed action patterns, automatic behavior patterns, and biases help people organize thoughts and actions.
Consistency and commitment. MacDonald’s hamburgers taste the same from Russia to Denver.
Reciprocation. “I love you. Will you buy my guitar?” The person may be more influenced to buy the guitar as a way to return the gesture of the stated love. Guilt falls under this category.
Likeability. We like people like us. First impressions, and all.
Social proof. Everybody is buying, saying, eating, reading, etc., so I must also.
Authority/power. Law is law and rules are rules.
Scarcity. The more we want something and can’t get it, the more valuable it can appear.
Fear or gain. Research shows fear of loss is stronger than the desire for gain.

The last two are critical to successful selling.  Scarcity is a strong motivator for moving prospects through a qualifying process.  The beauty of it is this – it creates demand in the prospect’s mind in spite of the salesperson.  I have seen some grossly under-developed salespeople thrive based on the perception of scarcity of their solution.

Fear of loss is similar to pain.  The same principle applies here – people move faster to remove pain than to gain pleasure.  The importance of this principle cannot be overstated.  This fact is why features/benefits selling is wasted if the benefit does not remove pain or create the fear of loss.  If your salespeople can combine scarcity with the fear of loss in their qualifying, you will have one highly-developed sales team.

Great title from Justsell.com, don’t you think?  From their monthly newsletter (sorry, no link):

Top 3 activities that can hobble a sales day…

1. Talking with people who can’t move the sales process along

2. Unnecessary research activities

What’s too much? There’s really no definitive answer. It’s particular to your sales world. Many people start to get a gut feel for when they should move on. The key is to act on it and make the call (rather than making sure every little thing is known before the call – fine line, of course). You might be surprised what you can learn by asking a straightforward question of the person who answers the phone or responds to an email.

3. “Crafting” or “drafting” a script, email, or letter

Needs to be done, but almost never during the money hours.

Always remember…

A real sales day is made of contact with people.

Number 1 is so important in this bad economy.  The tirekickers are out in force right now so qualifying decision makers is a top priority.  Safe to say that most decision making has been elevated to a higher level so salespeople will have to navigate up within a company.  Mid-level managers are probably upset with their loss of power so it take a tactful salesperson to elevate the discussion.

In talking with sales managers over the past month or so there is one reoccurring statement that I am hearing – their sales cycle has been extended in this economy.  It isn’t that they are not closing sales, it is just taking a bit longer.  Buyers are certainly more deliberate, but as we discussed some of their opportunities, it was clear that their sales people are not asking the difficult questions that lead to a qualified deal. 

I came across this article from Kelley Robertson quite some time ago and passed it on to one of these sales managers – it is worth bringing it up again.  The article provides a few simple questions to ask of clients and prospects to advance the sales cycle.  Kelley makes this point:

Most sales professionals understand that effective qualifying can lead to more sales. Unfortunately, these same salespeople are too often focused only on the outcome of their own process (closing), and as a result they fail to ask effective questions of their prospects and customers.

He also points out that too often sales people focus on quickly closing the sale and lose focus of what matters to the client.  They try to hurry the process along and, in the process tend to cut corners.  Whether your salespeople are cutting corners or they are just afraid to ask the tough questions, here are some effective questions Kelley supplies for your sales people:

  • What are you trying to accomplish this quarter?
  • What challenges do you face right now?
  • If you had a magic wand, and could use it to create the ideal supplier, what would that supplier provide?
  • If there was one thing you could improve about your existing situation, what would it be?

I am not fan of features and benefits selling.  I don’t even think that approach belongs in a retail sales environment.  The better approach is to qualify the prospect for need – What are they looking for?  What is it they need to have/do?  What is their time frame?  You get the idea.

Unfortunately, many features/benefits salespeople exist in the marketplace and they seem to be everywhere.  This approach leads to the negative stereotype salespeople – pushy, talkative, bad listener, etc.

Managesmarter.com provides an excellent tip within an article titled Transcend the Negative Stereotypes of Sales:

Tip No. 3: Understand how your customers market services and generate profit.
Don’t assume your customers are all alike. You cannot truly help your customers until you understand their business models. Instead of selling the features and benefits of your product, ask questions and listen to discover ways your customer faces their competitive challenges. You will then distinguish yourself as a resource who can help them increase profits through better salesmanship.

Here’s what I like about that tip – it is hard to get caught in the features/benefits loop if you are attempting to understand how your prospect’s business model makes money.  The secondary effect is the fact that you do not appear to be the stereotypical salesperson…not small secondary effect!

Have you noticed that the best salespeople are usually subtle?  They have a way of moving through a discussion that is conversational in tone, but focused in purpose.  Some are so good at it that you don’t even notice if you are involved in the discussion.

ManageSmarter.com offers up an article with a direct analogy of sales questioning – comparing it to dating.  What I appreciate is the author’s description of how salespeople are trained to ask leading questions.  This is not a subtle approach as you will see from his example in the article.  The primary issue here is that you lose rapport quickly when you go down this path.

In trying to establish a prospect’s fit with our offering, it’s natural to want to uncover all the details about their situation that can help us make our case. What that often leads to, however, is a stream of questions that focuses only on product areas or applications.

And it’s not just junior sales reps who do this. I once listened to a regional sales manager for a large financial services company grind his prospect into the ground with his questions, each one having been designed to justify the features of his offering. Afterward, he thought he’d done a good job. But judging from the pain that grew in his prospect’s face with each additional question, I think “inquisition” is a much better description.

I sat through some “inquisitions” and it isn’t pretty.  If you have any people-reading ability, you can see the discomfort on the prospect’s face.  Heck, I was uncomfortable and I was with the salesperson.

The author closes with two good points for asking the right question:

1. Find out what their situation is like today—without trying to shape the conversation to fit your offering. Just ask your prospect what’s going on, what’s working, what’s not working, etc. Listen to the answers without trying to make points you’ll use later. Just have a conversation. It works wonders on building trust.
2. Ask where they’d like to be in the future. Ask “What are your big goals?” or “What would a perfect world look like?” Again, don’t frame your question in any way that could be construed as setting up your offering. I realize it takes patience, but spending a few minutes establishing your prospect’s big picture is invaluable.

This video from Selling Power discusses a unique look at the traditional sales funnel.  The author in the video states that the sales funnel has to be thrown out and redesigned based on the prospect’s process.  The 4 minute video is an excellent discussion on this topic:

If you have trouble with the video, here is the link to watch it on the Selling Power website.

Selling Power.com’s Sales Management newsletter provides an excellent article that addresses a common issue in sales management – how do you move from salesperson to sales manager?  One important aspect of this move is becoming a coach for your sales team.

The suggestions in the article are worth the read, but this one is especially remarkable:

Keep questions open. Most managers know they should ask open-ended questions in a coaching situation, but closed questions still crop up far too often. Closed questions can be answered in one or two words – yes, no, good, okay. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, require the responder to think and elaborate and help paint a more complete picture of a situation. Starting questions with “will,” “did,” and “have” will likely lead you into a closed question, warn the authors. Rephrase those questions using words like “what,” “who,” “which,” and “how.” For example, instead of, “Did you check all the requirements?” try, “Which of the requirements most concerns you?”

That advice is applicable to sales qualifying, coaching, candidate screening and more.  Yes/no, or closed questions, lead you into a box where you are forced to ask another question.  Open-ended questions also lead to more detail in the answer.  As a sales manager, this detail is needed to be an effective, efficient coach to your team.

One other piece of advice from the article:

Keep questions forward focused. It’s all too easy for an employee to get caught up in rehashing a meeting or event that went poorly. And while a certain amount of emotional venting may be helpful to that person, your job is to help them avoid getting stuck there. One of the best ways you can keep the conversation forward focused is to avoid asking questions that begin with “why.” If you’re asking, “Why did that happen?” or “Why did you say that?” you put your employee on the defensive and keep the conversation focused on the past. Rephrase your questions in a way that encourages a look to the future. So instead of, “Why didn’t you contact IT?” ask, “What are the things you need to do to bring the project back on track?”

Exactly.  We tell sales managers to avoid using “why” in their questions with their direct reports and with prospects.  As effective as why is, it often carries a negative emotional aspect. Imagine in your youth hearing an upset parent ask, “Why did you do that?”  Or maybe it was, “Why didn’t you…”  Be careful with your use of this adverb, especially with your sales team.

Successful selling is far more than being a smooth talker.  It requires the ability to listen attentively and move within the conversation.  This principle is discussed in a ManageSmarter.com commentary titled Build Sales Relationships: Consultative Questioning.

The opening recollection of the author’s first sales position is excellent:

I marched into orientation, ready to close like a champion. That’s when my real learning began. My manager opened training with a startling insight:
“Want to be successful in sales? Keep your mouth shut and your ears open.” His approach contradicted everything I read: He stressed dialogue instead of dominance and questioning in place of presenting. And he always customized his approach based on what the other party shared. In his world, sales was not a game of breaking down a prospect’s barriers. It was a means to identify a solution and determine whether forging a partnership had value to either party.

Consultative selling is a buzzword you hear often in today’s sales world.  I’m not sure what that term encapsulates, but the approach is sound.  Good questions are the backbone of good qualifying.  The ability to listen to the prospect’s answers is the second phase that leads to success.

Listen. Let your prospects open up. Identify what they value in a solution and a business relationship. Listen for what isn’t being said and probe. Your prospects won’t always share the most accurate or pertinent information. Their narrative will naturally be compromised by a lack of exposure to a problem, a discomfort with revealing specifics or even personal biases and agendas. That’s why patience and guidance are so key: the more your prospects talk, the sharper the picture that emerges.

Pre-canned presentations are a thing of the past.  It is uncomfortable to watch a salesperson prematurely click into presentation mode.  When this happens,  you can watch the prospect’s eyes glaze over right in front of you.

Listening to the prospect allows the salesperson to move within the discussion.  The author’s point is an important one – typically, prospects do not start the discussion by saying, “Thank goodness you are here.  What dollar amount should I write on the check and when can you start?”  In fact, they are usually coy about the real problem, depth of a problem or even that they have a problem.

The ability to dig out this information through questions is the key differentiation between average salespeople and superstars.  Keep this fact in mind when you are hiring salespeople.  Their questions will reveal much about their abilities.