Traditional Sales Approach: Time To Retire!

This is a blog post in two parts. The first one is asking you to reflect on your current sales approach when talking to your customers and prospects. What is working well, and what is not? If it would be up to you, what would you change and why? I am curious to your comments. Next week the blog will continue discussing a future sales approach.

The Structured Sales Approach was designed as a linear process to follow when engaging with customers and prospects. Its function was to guide you of the best guess at what you need to do throughout the sales conversations. In particular in the Discovery Phase it recommends to follow a “discovery structure” where, through questioning techniques, you will get a good understanding of the customer’s Situation and the challenges and obstacles (Problem) your customer is facing in achieving their objectives. Many companies around the world have created their own Sales Approach as an offspring from SPIN SELLING (Situation, Problem, Impact, Need for Solution) originally thought up by Neil Rackham in 1988.

The structure guides you on how to make the customer realize what the Impact would be if they do not achieve their objectives and what ideally the possible solution to their challenges and issues should look like (Need for solution). After summarizing the conversation and checking if you have something missed, you would move on to the Persuasion Phase. Here you convince the customer that your solution (Features, Advantages and Benefits) is a great fit for the needs identified.

This structured approach guiding salespeople during the conversation with a customer worked very well…for two decades! But over the last three to five years the effectiveness have worn off. Customers do not react that well to the questions you ask, as before. Many times the conversation get stuck and you hear an eerie silence.

Here are the main reasons why this structured sales approach does not work any longer that well:

  • The traditional sales approach starts with the idea that you ask the prospect questions in an attempt to identify and agree that they have some problems they need to solve. This worked in the past well, because the salesperson was a great source of information and had possible solutions to their issues, the customer did not or could not know. Identifying dissatisfaction was a prerequisite to sharing their solution. But things have changed. Access to the internet has enabled customers to do extensive research themselves without the input from salespeople and are now well informed on products, services and solutions salespeople sell. Your consultative questions do not land that well as before. Digging for dissatisfaction and marrying that with your solution is less effective. Your approach is recognized by buyers, they are less interested to spend time with you going over so many questions that lead to your solution, which in their view they already know.
  • And, what if the customer is not dissatisfied but satisfied with their current set-up of suppliers and solutions? How would you handle that? You need to take into account that the bigger and more complex the customer’s business is, in their view, the more risky changing suppliers becomes. They know what they have, and do not know what they will get. Companies prefer to work close with their partner suppliers and solve issues and challenges with them rather than making a drastic change. The status quo often seems safer than a decision to do something different in a world of constant, accelerating, disruptive change.
  • The biggest change however that salespeople have to deal with, is the increased number of stakeholders involved in the buying process. We live in an age of constant, accelerating change. Businesses have realized to stay on top of all these changes they need to consult more people in their organization. Their organizational structures are flatter. More key stakeholders of multiple functions are involved in the buying process. Instead of dealing with one or two stakeholders you now are depending on the opinions of six to seven, each armed with four or five pieces of information they’ve gathered independently and must de-conflict with their peers.

This has made the buying process super dynamic. There is no one buying journey, there are journeys. To illustrate this: imagine you are talking to a contact at the prospect’s organization. The meeting goes well and you are asked to put some ideas and presentations together for a next meeting. Several things can happen here: a next meeting is not taking place because, after your call, your contact talks to his/her manager only to find resistance. The manager has other priorities and find it distracting to talk about a potential change right now.  Your next meeting is canceled or postponed. Another option is that a next meeting is taking place but now all of a sudden you find three or four people attending the meeting. You need to start all of again, back to your Discovery Phase for each individual stakeholder. Although you find that there is appetite for further exploration, you also hear that the key stakeholder at the senior management team does not agree that there is anything wrong with the results. On top of that you find out that the owner of the company is very close to the incumbent competitor, they even have a close personal relationship. The scenarios you can encounter can go on forever.

The misalignment, disagreements and opinions of who is right and who is wrong when it comes to deciding on the next best strategy for a company make it a difficult challenge for salespeople—and also for stakeholders within companies who do want to explore change.

All the above makes you think…if the buying process is not one linear journey but super dynamic journeys of multiple stakeholders with different ideas of the current situation and future situation – how can we approach the customer conversation following a linear process? The answer is: you cannot. Your Discovery Approach is transforming to a non-linear journey too.

What is your experience with your current sales approach? If it it is not as successful as before, what does it need to change into? Do you have an opinion about this? Discuss with your colleagues and team. Talk to you next week!

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