Agility in business has become something of a buzz word in recent years. Increased disruption, spurred on by technology, stronger competition and cost cutting, is driving the need for organisations to become agile in all areas to succeed in this changing landscape. Against this backdrop agility in sales may seem like a new and trendy concept. It’s not the case.
In reality, effective sales professionals have always been more agile than their less successful peers, especially when it comes to winning complex sales. The correlation between sales success and sales agility has been around for decades.
Why? Fundamentally because no two customers are alike. Customers’ needs are wide and varied, influenced by their own goals and those of their department, as well as their contemporaries within the decision-making unit (DMU) and the organisation at large. And the product or service requirements a customer started out with can morph and change as they journey through the Buying Cycle.
To be persuasive and engaging from customer to customer, to be able to create and articulate value – not just for the person in front of you but for everyone involved in the DMU – while all the time keeping tabs on shifting ground, needs skill. And that skill is agility.
Tony Hughes, CEO at sales and negotiation specialists Huthwaite International, sheds light on the crucial attributes of agile selling.
1) Active listening
Every customer’s perception of what agile looks like can be different.
Finding out what this means in each case is essential if the salesperson is to respond effectively. It’s not something that can be asked. And it’s not something most customers would think about in depth either, so may find hard to explain. The sales person has to work it out. The first essential skill in sales agility is therefore listening. That means really digesting the words the customer uses and how they choose to communicate their thoughts.
Years ago a not-for-profit organisation had problems with their fund-raising team. When asked by a specialist at Huthwaite to describe their organisation they talked about having poor performers, average performers and prima-donnas. They used a pejorative term to describe the high performers but not the other two groups. When this was pointed out it started to become clear that the charity had no culture of working with commercially successful people, so had difficulty communicating with their own high performers. That one piece of active listening and the insight it gave was all it took to find the right solution.
2) Flexible verbal behaviour
As well as deeply understanding how the customer is using language, skilled salespeople are equally careful when choosing the words they use.
It’s often unconscious. Many effective salespeople can’t tell you what it is that makes them successful or they ascribe their success to something that, on closer inspection, isn’t actually what they do. It’s what we call the perception gap or unconscious competence and it’s the reason why Huthwaite’s models are based on observational research – not just the consultative approach taken by many of our contemporaries. Research shows us that perception gaps are much narrower for skilled sales people as they are fully aware of the language they use.
The good news is you can train people to become more aware of their language and narrow that gap themselves. Even better, as people become more self-aware, they can make choices and adapt their verbal behaviours to become more effective. We call that flexible verbal behaviour and it’s the key to success in every verbal business interaction.
3) Questioning skills
Salespeople cannot be agile in meeting their customer’s precise needs, priorities, concerns and desired outcomes without an in-depth and complete understanding of what they are. Gaining that understanding needs rigour. When it comes to questioning a seller must develop a systematic, consistent, structured approach. Huthwaite’s SPIN® Selling model is one of the best examples of a questioning methodology; and that’s why it’s used by sales teams around the world including many of the Fortune 100.
Value and risk are important considerations in the decision to buy but they are perceptions first and foremost. The customer’s perception is what counts. They have to work it out and know it for themselves but the seller can help them reach a conclusion by asking insightful questions about the problems they face, the consequences of not solving them, and the benefits of using your solution. That enables the customer to communicate the value of the product or service to the rest of the DMU in a much more compelling way. There’s a huge difference between “the sales person told me we’ll save…” and “I’ve worked out we’ll save…”
Before a sales professional starts asking more questions it’s crucial to know what questions to ask. No matter how well developed their listening and questioning skills are, if they bombard the customer with questions that are irrelevant nothing will move forward.
Knowing the right background information on the customer will help. Information such as the problems the customer may be experiencing that your product can solve, and particularly where you know you can solve it better than the competition, is useful. As are any industry developments or general trends that may be driving the purchase decision.
One of the most powerful tools in the sales person’s repertoire is their confidence. There is little that impresses potential customers more than the calm, assured demeanour of a genuinely confident sales person.
A confident seller develops trust, provides reassurance and enhances their and their company’s reputation as well as the customer’s experience. Confidence enables the sales person to explore the customer’s needs and offer ideas in the most persuasive manner possible. Confidence cannot be learned, it has to be gained, and there is no better way of gaining it than by being fluent in a sales methodology that works. Investing in high quality sales training can be a wise move for any organisation.
6) Understanding the customer’s business strategy
Customer organisations can be complicated things, with any number of challenges that need addressing and almost certainly not enough resources to do it all. Prioritisation is crucial. Doing the important before the urgent is sometimes hard, but it’s an ability all great leaders have.
Whatever is closest to the customer’s strategic direction is what matters most. If the client company has a defined and universally accepted business strategy that lies at the heart of every decision they make – and all good companies do – it’s vital sellers understand it too. They must have the skills and knowledge to uncover and understand their customer’s business strategy. By aligning solutions to strategy, sellers will maximise the chances of their project being prioritised and being allocated the resources to close the deal.
7) Consider the whole customer DMU
It’s a fact of life that corporate buying decisions are rarely made by one single individual. It always involves a team. It may be through a formal buying committee or simply asking for a second opinion over the coffee machine. But be aware that somewhere there is someone influencing the buying decision who you will probably never meet and may never hear of.
Current research suggests, on average, there are 6.8 individuals involved in a B2B buying decision. That’s at least six people, all with different needs, alternate, and possibly conflicting decision criteria and varying degrees of enthusiasm (or apathy) about the project, as well as each of the potential suppliers. How does the sales person manage that? In theory, they just get all the key players to the decision point at the same time and with all of them favouring their solution. In practice it requires a deep understanding of the role each person has in making the decision (which incidentally may have nothing to do with their job title) and a clear strategy to address each one.
So, you invest in sales training, develop your team’s skills, strategies and confidence and give them the knowledge they need to do an outstanding job. And they do; they accurately assess the customer’s view of agility, build both value and clear competitive differentiation, present a persuasive case for your solution and effectively manage the complexities of the buying organisation. You’ve ticked all the boxes – the users love your proposal and your company has signed it off. So that’s it, the deal’s yours, right?
Wrong. Now you have to go and see Procurement – the professional buyer. It’s time to negotiate. It’s Procurement’s job to tell you they like your proposal but they can get the same thing 20% cheaper elsewhere, and what can you do. Of course, what they’ve told you isn’t always true. If they can really get it 20% cheaper, and it really is the same thing, they’d have bought it from someone else. They want to do a deal with you but they want better terms. They claim it’s a buyer’s market and they have all the power but that’s not true either. Unless it’s an entirely frivolous purchase they have to buy from someone. (The clue is in their job title.) But that won’t stop them doing everything they can even to the point of undermining your confidence and devaluing your proposition.
There’s one thing you can be sure of. They are experienced negotiators. Are your sellers equally familiar with the process? If not, they should be. Negotiation skills are the last piece of the jigsaw, the final weapon in the ultimate sales person’s armoury. And don’t think you can cut corners by just training the sales managers to negotiate and sending in the ‘big guns’ at the close. Buyers love it – because the only thing a manager can do that a sales person can’t, is give more concessions.
When used in combination, these attributes unlock a deeper customer intelligence and a clearer understanding of what’s needed to win the business without compromising margin, or undermining the integrity of the product or business behind it.