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If your sales conversations with buyers seem too focused on price, they probably are. Why is that happening? Because the buyer only sees what you’re selling as a commodity, meaning interchangeable goods indistinguishable from the competition’s.

In a buyer-seller relationship, the verb commoditize often applies. It’s what the buyer tries to do to you during a sales cycle, to make you think that your product or service is interchangeable with other brands so they can beat you up on price.

Does that sound familiar? Probably! No matter what you’re selling, at some point in the sales cycle, usually near the end after the deal is forecast to close at “the end of this quarter,” the buyer starts treating your product or service and even YOU as a commodity. You will suddenly hear them say things like, “I can get the same thing elsewhere for a lower price.” They would happily replace you too as well with a different salesperson. That is unless, of course, you’ll admit that they are right by discounting the price.

How Buyers Get the Seller to Only Talk About Price

You know that your products or services aren’t the same as the competition’s, but you probably find yourself in this price-focused situation more often than you would like. And now you’re “buying in” to the idea that yes, it is just a commodity you’re selling. Buyers repeatedly tell you that the criterion for product or service selection in your industry is based on “best price,” so you’ve become convinced that you have to discount in order to win business. And now you too are price-focused.

Here’s what typically happens: You meet with a potential customer, anxious to describe or demonstrate the high-quality, amazing, customer-friendly, popular, easy-to-use, etc. capabilities and benefits of your offering. The customer seems interested and asks you for a price quote. Back at the office, you convince your manager that you could “win this” if she’d just discount a little bit.

What has happened? You let the buyer make it about price and you fell for the idea that you’re only selling a commodity. You were guilty of prescribing your products or services without first diagnosing the unique needs of the person you were talking to. And that’s a form of selling malpractice. You accepted the product or service and even yourself as a “me-too” solution, allowing commoditization to occur.nAt Flannery Sales Systems, we’ve heard stories like these for years, in every industry we have worked in.

You set yourself up as a commodity by failing to position the unique capabilities of your offering in order to differentiate your product or service within a competitive environment. Your customers didn’t have the experience to know what separated you from your competitor. It was your job to assist them in making a valuable connection between their needs and your unique selling proposition so they could see that your organization could provide them with something that the competition couldn’t. You missed the opportunity to win.

Differentiation Takes the Conversation Away from Price

Flannery Sales Systems helps organizations develop a process for diagnosing the potential needs and objectives of target customers, and providing those customers with specific objectives that they should be focused on in their industry. In doing so, we can help you position your unique products or services in a way that a potential customer will see your differentiator as a “must have,” avoiding the “It’s all the same to me” scenario. You have the option: position your own goods, or your competition will do it for you, and you’ll end up with the limited options of discount or be dismissed.

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If you ask just about anybody, “What makes a good salesperson?,” you’ll probably get similar answers across the board. People will usually tell you a good salesperson is energetic and driven with good communication skills. But they will rarely mention that how one sells matters too. And it does.

Here’s a story to illustrate our point…

A salesperson was in the lobby with other salespeople from competing companies, waiting for her first meeting with a buyer who represented a very large piece of revenue. This was the biggest “fish” our salesperson had ever tried to catch and her meeting was scheduled for only 30 minutes. Time was short. Nerves were high. You could feel the tension in the room among the salespeople.

Finally, it was our salesperson’s turn to meet with the buyer.

When she got into her 30-miute meeting, she began to ask questions. She didn’t start with a sales pitch. She didn’t start out by pointing out how her company differed from those represented by the other salespeople who were waiting. Instead, she started out by asking questions. She asked business questions and questions about how the buyer operated and ran his business. Her questions engaged the buyer, but they were also strategic: She knew the questions to ask to position her product properly.

However, the buyer was surprised by her approach. After answering the first few questions, he stopped her and said, “Why are you asking me these questions? No salesperson has ever asked me these questions.” Our salesperson was standing out. The way she was selling was differentiating her not just from the other salespeople in the lobby, but also from all the salespeople this buyer was used to.

When she explained why the answers to her questions were important for them to discuss, his whole demeanor towards her changed. He settled into his chair and started taking her questions seriously, giving them thoughtful answers. He spent an hour and 15 minutes with her, going well over the allotted 30 minutes.

When our salesperson walked out at the end of the meeting, some of her competitors who had been waiting were rescheduling their appointments because the buyer had spent so much time with her. And because she had the extra time with the buyer and therefore extra insight, she had a definite competitive edge over her competition.

When it comes to sales, it’s about how you sell too.

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Workers in the developed nations of the world spend anywhere from 35 to 60 hours per week at their jobs. Of the time spent, there are many different components that comprise the total work week. For the companies that we work with, the 4 most important hours in each week are the sacred hours spent developing new customers (four is a minimum; startup companies and new reps will need more).

Many organizations do not have the correct structure, process or tools in place to facilitate new business development efforts. And while almost all companies will commit extensive resources to attract and keep new customers, some fail to get their customer facing representatives to commit to a set standard of time, with procedures and tools, for new business development every week. Call reluctance, or the fear of making contact with prospects is one of the many reasons that some shy away. In reality, that fear can be mitigated with the tools and skills to maximize the time spent.

We have helped hundreds of salespeople to develop and execute new business development campaigns. The key tool that we build with our clients is designed to conduct targeted conversations. This allows the seller to pinpoint goals and relevant business issues of a specific title in a prospect organization through diagnostic questions in a conversational format. The skills needed to execute the tool are also honed in our engagements, and first line managers are given coaching sessions to reinforce and correct selling behavior.

The American Marketing Association stated that “The conversations field salespeople have with prospects and customers may be the last bastion of competitive differentiation in today’s rapidly commoditizing markets.” To get your organization in the right environment to grow requires that customer facing representatives commit to new business development activities, and have a platform to work from that helps them to get into a relevant conversation as quickly as possible.

Today’s CEO has a lot to keep him or her up at night: regulations, compliance, automation, globalization, trade wars and talent management are only a handful of the pressing issues CEOs must contend with, although the highest priorities change with the times. One issue is always present on a CEO’s mind, however: sales.

What do CEOs really think about the sales arm of their organization? Even when the economy is strong and sales are up year over year, the CEO will have concerns. Here are the top four sales issues CEOs worry about, whether sales are up or sales are down, and how you can address them:

  1. The sales team is too slow. When the sales team is lagging 12 to 18 months behind the corporate strategy, opportunities are lost and goals are not met. If this is the case at your organization, take a look at how your sales team is or isn’t using technology to streamline and speed up the sales process. Technology enables agility. Put it to use.
  1. The sales team is calling too low. When the sales team fails to get to the right level in customer-prospect organizations, the sales process is slowed (see concern #1) or stalled altogether. If this is the case at your organization, make sure the team is doing the research necessary to reach out to the right person or position from the start. And remember, you’re referred to whom you sound like. So talk the talk and walk the walk of your ideal prospects.
  1. The sales team can’t diagnose business problems. The inability to diagnose business problems may be the reason salespeople are calling too low (see concern #2). The answer to this is coaching, coaching and more coaching. Harvard Business Review says effective coaching can improve sales productivity by 19%.
  1. The sales team can’t tell the story. Only a handful of CEOs think a typical salesperson can demonstrate an understanding of a prospect’s business issues and articulate how to solve the problem. This ties directly into concern #3. If this is an issue at your organization, start training your team to know the story and tell the story.

Did you notice that three out of four of these concerns have to do with knowing what to talk about, and not just whom to talk to? That means sales training is needed and processes put in place. Having a defined and customized sales process within your organization will help alleviate many of your CEO’s concerns about the sales team.

Every spring, I get calls from friends with children who are graduating from college. It’s an exciting time for the parents and the graduates. During these calls, after we complete the small talk of catching up, the parent will usually tell me that their son or daughter is “good at working with people” and therefore would be a good fit for a career in sales. While being good with people may be one characteristic that can help in sales, a solid sales career requires much more than being an interested extrovert.

There are three key pieces required to success in sales. These concepts were important when I started my career cold calling for Pitney Bowes in 1987, but the collective notion was solidified by my colleague, mentor and friend Gerhard Gschwandtner at a conference he conducted in 2015 in San Francisco. The three are skills set, tool set and mindset.

A leader in the sales industry and the CEO of Selling Power, Gschwandtner says, “It’s all about creating the right mindset, building the right skills set and selecting the right tool set.”

Two of these are easily attained. For the skills set, a fledgling salesperson can get training to learn the skills needed. Sales skills might include negotiating, communication, active listening or closing skills. For the tool set, sales tools can be bought or acquired. Sales tools can include a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, marketing automation, or video conferencing.

But the mindset cannot be learned or purchased. And the mindset has to come first. As the saying goes, your attitude determines your altitude.

You need the right mindset to achieve peak performance. In an article published on LinkedIn, Gschwandtner says happy salespeople sell 38% more, and that people with a positive mindset live on average 7.5 years longer. The right mindset can boost your confidence, change your negative thinking into positive thoughts, increase your energy level, and reduce your stress. With the right mindset, you have a much better chance of achieving your sales goals and you can make better use of your learned skills and purchased tools.

If you want to succeed in sales, get the right mindset. You can learn the skills. You can get the tools. But without the right mindset, neither the skills nor the tools will do you much good.

If you’re investing in sales training, make sure your time and money are well spent. Plenty of service providers promise to take your team to the next level and hey, they’re in sales so they’re convincing. But you don’t have time to waste. So use the criteria below when choosing a service provider, to make sure you’ll get training that’s comprehensive, actionable and long-lasting. 

  1. Instruction: Look for sales training that includes stages, tools, skills, and how the sales process is reflected in the CRM. Try to avoid sales training that relies on an instructor doing all the talking and instead look for training that is interactive. Training that includes role playing and a participative format will help attendees learn, practice and share with one another before deployment in the field.   
  2. Accountability: For success, there needs to be clear direction from the managers to the reps on what’s expected, what’s to be accomplished, and the metrics that will be the window into achievement. If this is lacking in your organization, look for a service provider that can provide training in accountability.  
  3. Measurement/Metrics: What are the reportable pieces of data that will help in the new commercial strategy to get the most qualified customers into the pipeline? Training should also teach that the metrics must be clearly defined and realistic to achieving goals—as well as how to make that happen.  
  4. Reinforce and Reassess Through Coaching: Rather than send your sales team through training and leave it at that, look for a service provider that offers follow-up coaching to make sure lessons stick and to answer any questions that come up later when the sales team is implementing the new process and training. 
  5.  Online Learning Platform (OLP): Repetition is the key to success in learning new skills and modifying sales behavior. An OLP gives your team the opportunity to revisit lessons as needed after the training is over. 
  6. Sales Managers’ Development and Accountability: Sales managers should also receive training to prepare them to act as coaches for the sales team members.  

A lot depends on the effectiveness of your sales team. Make sure the training they get is effective too by using these criteria when choosing a service provider.  

Negotiations are part of the sales process, but they aren’t necessarily straightforward, especially because there is a buyer on the other end with his or her own motivations and needs. And sometimes that buyer has done some homework and is ready to make your job harder. But you can go into a negotiation with an upper hand simply by preparing ahead of time using these tips to turn the tide.

1. Do your research. Know as much information about the company you’re negotiating with as well as the individuals involved in the process. Information is power. Know what’s at stake for all parties. When you know the other side’s needs and intentions, you gain an upper hand in negotiations and might walk out with a better deal. In fact, you’re not prepared to negotiate until you thoroughly understand the other side, and why they’re “in it.” Do your research ahead of time to learn:

  • The company’s goals, pressures, options during negotiations
  • The negotiators’ personal goals, pressures, options
  • Their bottom line
  • What will happen if they decide to walk away from the negotiations?
  • What are they willing to concede?

2. Know your position. In addition to understand the buyer, understand where you’re coming from. Why are you involved in the negotiation and what do you expect to achieve? Be absolutely certain what your stance would be in the following scenarios:

  • Best-case scenario. What does your ideal outcome look like? Is it acceptable to the other parties involved? This may be a pipedream, but you could also get lucky.
  • Worstcase scenario. What is the worst possible circumstance in which you will still sign the deal and do business? In other words, what is your bottom line?
  • Anticipated/expected scenario. What is the most probable result? What conditions/concessions might be involved to achieve this result?
  • Break point. At what point will you get up and leave the negotiations? This point is important because it distinguishes what is a good deal vs. a bad deal for your organization. It is an absolute limit on what you’re willing to accept as a reasonable deal.
  • Backup plan. What’s your alternative to signing a deal? What will you do if you can’t reach an agreement? Having a backup plan is a powerful mechanism that will alleviate the pressure to make a deal.

3. Set the tone of the negotiation by speaking first. You can set the tone for the meeting even before it happens by using a meeting agreement to establish the structure for the meeting. The meeting agreement should include the time, the agenda and the outcome that you want to manage the meeting to. Then when the meeting starts, speak first. “When we’re through today, what would be a great result for you?” would be a good question to start with.

4. Ask more questions. By asking the more questions than the buyer, you’ll determine the content and direction of the negotiation.You control the negotiation by asking questions and listening, not by monopolizing the conversation. Try to get the prospect to complete a shopping list of his or her personal and organizational needs and understand exactly what he or she wants. Remember that information is power.

5. Don’t argue. Even when you believe you are right, it’s not appropriate to argue with the other players. An argument will hurt any rapport you might have developed and sow the seeds for failure. Negotiating successfully depends on a collaborative effort to share information, not on trying to prove who is right or wrong.

Just as you’re entering the negotiations with a set goal, so is the buyer. The more you can know about that buyer and your own motivations, the stronger your position. And you can maintain that upper hand by setting the tone and asking the questions.

They called you and asked for a quote. Or information, and a reference. And you had not spoken with them before, whether it was a customer (with a new key player), prospect or suspect.

What did you ask for in return? And what did you then receive?

The dynamic is so basic in sales that it is often skipped. Buyers ask sellers for something in the beginning, middle and end of the buying process, and what do we ask for in return?

Are we asking?

I know what you (the seller) wants. The business, be it the order, the opportunity, the account and/or the whole enchilada.

But it starts in the beginning; the negotiation that is. And how well do you set yourself up for success by staying on par with your buyer?

And what did you get in return?

Lack of Preparation, aka “Winging It”

A few years ago my family and I experienced an amazing day snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in Australia. It ended as a day we will never forget, but it did not start out that way. We took a day trip out to The Reef from Cairns.  Anxious to get away from the other people on the catamaran, we hurried off to find our own “secret spot”.

There was no real preparation on our part.  We didn’t ask any of the crew where we should go.  We decided to literally  “dive into it”…. but what a mistake!  We snorkeled for a while on what was largely a sandy, barren bottom beach.  About an hour into it, a wild rain storm forced us out of the water, and scrambling for cover.  This was not what we had hoped for, but that’s what happened without proper planning.

When developing your own selling skills, or coaching the skills of those who work for you, do you have a plan going in to make sure you’re working on the right skills?  Is your coaching regiment one that allows the seller to self-discover where they need to improve, and understand HOW to do so?  Jumping right in without a plan may leave both your seller and you with a washed out feeling that not much was accomplished in your coaching session.

 

A Good Plan and the Right Coach Makes All the Difference

Walking back to the boat on the pontoon pier where we started from, my 12 year old son, at the time, said dejectedly, “so much for snorkeling on the GBR”. I didn’t want to say it, but I was disappointed too, and said to Shane “We will get some ideas from the crew on where to go, and hopefully the weather will clear”.

We did. And it did.

During the busy lunch rush on the ship, I sought out  the Captain who was greeting the guests. I told him the challenges we faced on our morning snorkeling experience.  As all good coaches would do, he asked some diagnostic questions before suggesting a recommendation for our next dive.   He asked about our experience with snorkeling and what type of things we were looking to see.  Captain Peter said something that later made all the difference; he said “look for the small things and then the larger ones will appear”.

How do you or your sales manager pinpoint the skills needed to further develop your effectiveness? And once challenges are identified, is there a plan in place to advance those skills?  Having a specific plan, practiced on a regular basis, is the key to any skill development. Try to keep the development focused on one skill at a time, building on the “small things” that will then allow “the big things to appear”.

Here is a quick checklist to use when coaching selling skills:

  1. Identify what skill(s) you want to improve.
  2. Get the help of a Coach (Peter the Captain), and put a plan in place.
  3. Focus on the smaller items, THEN the big ones will appear.
  4. Breathe slowly, pause as needed and generally slow down.
  5. Document your success for others on the team to learn from.

It’s amazing what one can learn on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia!  Preparation is key to success!

This month John was fortunate enough to see the Rolling Stones in concert at Lincoln Financial Center in Philadelphia. He originally saw them here 38 years ago and has seen them 27 times since. Take a listen to what he has to share.