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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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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.  

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.

The use of stories to transfer information has been around as long as humans have walked upright and used language to communicate. Even before we had a written language, humans have used stories to teach, to entertain and to track their histories. We are innately drawn to stories as a result, even in the digital age. That makes storytelling a compelling method for the sales person to master, both the engage prospects and discover opportunities.  

Using Stories in Sales 

The use of storytelling in sales can help a sales person enter into a dialogue with a prospect to connect with them before going into a questioning sequence. There should be some situational fluency exercised by the seller to get to the primary business objectives that the prospect or customer would like to discuss.  

We encourage our customers to enable their sales people to be ready to share a story at any point in early opportunity development, as it is a powerful way to introduce ideas, and then get the prospect to speak. However, it’s not enough to simply tell your sales people to tell stories. They need to be trained in an approach in order to be effective.  

The STAR Story 

We suggest using a storytelling format called the STAR Story. STAR is an acronym for Situation, Trial, Ah-ha, and Result. Each element is explained below:  

  • The Situation helps to set the stage for the rest of the information you will share as part of your story. It describes the environment that another customer was in when you first met them as a prospect. This narrative should be described in a way that the person you are speaking to can relate to in a similar capacity, by job title or the role that they play in their organization, or by the business environment that was unfolding.  
  • The Trial part of the story describes the challenges(s) that your other customer was facing during the situation described above.  
  • The “Ah-ha” moment is the part of the story when your customer made the connection to the capabilities or solution that you offered as a way to solve their challenges.  
  • The Result is the positive outcome that you helped your customer to accomplish. Be specific in your description of the quantifiable outcomes that resulted, whether it was monetary, a percentage increase, a numeric value improvement or a morale lift. 

Stories are told to transfer information. They demonstrate to the prospect that you have insight into their industry, and have helped others to meet their primary business objectives. But they also generate interest because stories appeal to people. A story can make possible a dialog that you might not otherwise be able to enter into with a prospect.  

Ask to Hear Their Story too 

Conversely, you should also try to have the prospect share their story with you. In this way, you can learn more about their business objectives and challenges, and the capabilities they are looking for to improve their results. And since we all like stories—both telling them and listening to them—this exchange should do a lot to move your relationship with the prospect forward, either closer to a sale or closer to realizing this is not a solid lead after all.  

Ideally, when you’re involved in a sales call, you will get into conversations with buyers that allow you to discuss primary business objectives (PBOs), challenges and capabilities. However, in many circumstances, you won’t get to all parts of the Discovery Map in one call, as time may have been limited. And this can be an opening for you to keep the process moving forward even if you ran out of time during the first meeting.  

If after that initial call you think there’s an opportunity to go back at another time and deliver a capabilities presentation, speak to another key player, or in some other keep the prospect engaged and the sales process moving along, write and submit a meeting summary. Include only the parts covered in your initial meeting and leave the open items as next steps. 

Setting the Stage for the Summary 

Before you finish with the face-to-face meetings or telephone calls with any of the sales leaders you are engaging, let them know that you will send them a summary of your discussion, and that you want their feedback on the summary as well as a time to meet to discuss next steps. This not only lets them know to expect the summary, but also engages them by asking for their input and paves the way for a follow-up meeting.  

How to Write Your Meeting Summary 

A typical outline for a meeting summary includes the following core parts, although this is determined by how much information you learned during the first meeting:  

  • Salutation 
  • An expression of gratitude for their time 
  • Identification of Primary Business Objective(s) 
  • Challenges they are facing in reaching the objective and the impact of those challenges (financial and others) 
  • Capabilities that would address the challenges (meaning your solutions or offerings) and the value that the capabilities would provide 
  • The timeline for the implementation of a solution 
  • Other key players who would be involved 
  • The budget that has been established for the project 
  • A clear request to schedule the next meeting  
  • A request that the recipient respond in writing to the meeting summary 

Make it a habit to follow up after each important sales call or meeting with a meeting summary. It will let your prospects know that you clearly understand their needs—or clarify if you don’t—and it will keep the sales momentum going. If you’re concerned that writing these meeting summaries will be time-consuming, create several different templates that consist of a standard format and content that you could re-purpose and re-use for similar meeting summaries for other clients.