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.

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.

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.

I have been swamped in sourcing activities recently and have decided to push some random thoughts up to the blog.  Here they are:

-Selling for modern-day monopolies (like utilities) is far different than selling in the highly competitive, cost conscious marketplace.  Sales candidates with these backgrounds must be screened for their ability to qualify money.  I have found that skill set lacking in these candidates.

-Why are candidates turning into stalkers?  I realize the job market is still incredibly tight, but I have come across many candidates who simply overdo it.  Sense of timing is an aptitude we assess and I am convinced it is more important now then ever.

-First impressions cannot be overstated.  I try to coach clients to let an interview run its entire course before coming to conclusions.  Still, you can tell this is simply difficult for all of us.

-Slick sells, but earthy makes better salespeople.  Some slick salespeople say the right things, have the right look, present the right topics and can’t sell anything but themselves landing on your payroll.  The longer I do this, the more I am impressed by earthy, sincere salespeople.  The recent shift to relationship-intensive sales has made these salespeople more valuable.

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.

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.

Yes, the title is a bit quirky, but it is true.  A significant portion of successful hiring involves being a good detective.  I have always taken that approach when helping our customers find the right salesperson for their position.  To be a good detective, you need to be a bit skeptical.

Sales candidates blow sunshine.  Few have ever missed quota, most state their primary weakness is being a workaholic and all have earned everything they have accomplished.  Right.  In reality, most have missed their sales quota at some point, many have real weaknesses discussing money and handling rejection and most have benefited from somewhere be it marketing, territory, company market share, etc.

Sales hiring is the most difficult hiring in which to succeed in that the candidates have interpersonal skills that disarm hiring managers.  In a way, this is a good thing since you want your salespeople to have this ability when qualifying prospects.  However, the hiring manager needs to focus like a detective during the hiring process.

I’m an old Hill Street Blues fan.  I watched almost every episode of NYPD Blue (it got weird at the end).  Even Magnum PI had some interesting tips.  Here are a few tips based on techniques incorporated by these detectives:

Drill down – do not accept the candidate’s first answer as the complete answer.  Too often I see hiring managers accept theoretical answers to direct questions.  Ask for specific examples and then ask follow-up questions that require more detail from the candidate.  This approach will be most enlightening in regards to understanding if the candidate is being truthful or not.

Interrupt – ok, don’t be a jerk, but interrupt the candidate gently.  The goal here is to shake them out of a canned, memorized response.  Prospects do this in sales calls.  I always do this in an interview.  Interviews should not be easy for sales candidates because selling isn’t easy.  This approach will show you how quick the candidate is on their feet.

Wait – there is nothing quite like an awkward, pregnant pause to add some pressure to a discussion.  Silence is fine as it forces the candidate to work.  Their job is to impress you enough to continue in the hiring process.  Your job is not to make them completely comfortable.  At ease, yes; comfortable, no.  Use silence at times to force the candidate into a longer answer.  This approach will reveal how disciplined they are at controlling a conversation.

These are just a few techniques I incorporate.  Of course, one great tool for guiding you through an interview is a sales assessment.  If you aren’t using any such tool today, please contact us at your earliest convenience.  We’ll show you just what you are missing in making your hiring decision.

I have recently come across the Social motivation when assessing some sales candidates for a couple different customers and now I just heard a sales rep on the radio revealing his motivation.  Here is what the salesperson said on the radio:

I just met with a company yesterday who was paying almost twice as much to our competitor for the same service.  They were getting ripped off and it isn’t right.

I don’t deny the nobility of his position, but the reality is that very few services are exactly the same (despite prospect’s claims).  A strong salesperson will define their value to the prospect who will make a decision about that value.  It may be that the prospect simply sees something in that company’s product/service that they require/need/value.

My concern for the salesperson on the radio is that he is unconsciously removing any differentiating value from his service.  He is turning the decision into one based solely on price.  That is a prospect move!

Here is where the Social motivation undermines salespeople.  Their natural desire to help others without expecting anything in return undermines their selling ability.  Again, it is a noble motivation and I personally wouldn’t want to live in a world without many Social motivations.  However, sales is not for the feint of heart.  Strong salespeople are consistently assessing the return on their investment of time, resources, money, effort, etc.  Salespeople need to determine if they have a strong prospect…and the faster they can make that determination, the more they can sell.

To be fair, there are a few sales positions where a Social motivation can thrive.  We once assessed a flourishing sales team at a company that provided a product for young mothers.  The team was successful and almost every salesperson was a Social.

But if you are hiring for sales, your best avenue is to hire strong Utilitarians.  If you are uncertain of your candidates’ motivations, we can help.

This is from the crew – it is a description of things salespeople do to upset prospects.  I found it quite comprehensive:

They (Ed.-prospects) don’t like it when…

  • we’re pushy
  • we call too much
  • we’re “just checking in”
  • we’re unprepared
  • we’re disrespectful of their time
  • we keep calling if they say they’re not interested
  • we don’t respond fast enough
  • we appear not to understand them, their industry, their situations, and their challenges
  • we don’t work in their interest
  • we don’t listen
  • we don’t know about our own products/ services
  • we’re rude, arrogant, or inattentive
  • we’re vague or unclear
  • they’re made to feel like they’re interrupting us
  • we seem like we’re “just trying to sell them something”

I’ve noticed in some companies a casualness regarding sales forecasts from their sales team.  Heck, I’ve worked for some companies that shared that casualness.  Some companies view it as an exercise in Excel gymnastics.  Others view it as a coffee klatch activity.  One customer of ours had multipliers (<1.0) for certain sales reps since they knew those sales reps’ forecasts were inflated…greatly.

Here is a news story about a local company and a significant change to their forecast.  The setup:

Digital River Inc. shares plunged Monday after the e-commerce services provider announced it will lose its largest customer.

Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp. (NASDAQ: SYMC) notified Digital River on Oct. 9 that it will not extend its e-commerce agreement. That deal, under which Digital River provides a variety of e-commerce-related services to Symantec, expires on June 30, 2010.

Ouch.  Most people know that Symantec owns Norton Anti-Virus so that is a big loss.  How big?

In 2008, sales of products for Symantec accounted for 24.3 percent of Digital River revenue and sales derived from proprietary Digital River services sold to Symantec consumers accounted for 9.4 percent of Digital River revenue.

Over one-third of their revenue gone.  I’ve never been a fan of companies having one customer be so dominant in their revenue stream.  And now that one company won’t be!  Here is a pristine example of when a sales forecast can be a lifesaver for a company.

Here is the CEO’s explanation to the street (emphasis mine):

“Our company is financially strong, our new business pipeline remains healthy, and sales activity in the software, consumer electronics and business-to-business sectors continues to grow,” he said.

As an investor, I would sure like to know what measurements constitute “healthy.”  This scenario, losing a large customer, plays out often in the sales world.  The companies that can absorb such loses are the ones that know how to secure new (i.e. replacement) revenue from new customers.  An accurate sales forecast is the tool that will guide the Chief Revenue Officer to the quickest path for revenue replacement.  If I were in that role, I would be doubling efforts on the best short-term prospects on the forecast.  If my forecast was little more than notes on a napkin, I would be updating my resume.