I’ve been fascinated with the feedback I’ve gotten from my post last Thursday, “In Pursuit of the ‘Ah-ha!’” The opening quote has received the most attention, and as I was talking about it with a friend and client of mine, I gained an insight that I’d like to share.
In case you haven’t seen the post, here’s the quote I’m referring to:
Don’t fear the man who has tried 10,000 kicks,
Fear the man who has tried 1 kick 10,000 times. – Bruce Lee
Here’s what happens after the proverbial 1,000th kick — you stop making progress. You stop learning things. If you’re not careful, the entire exercise of learning becomes rote. Even though most people realize they haven’t yet mastered the skill, they get bored by the activity. As a result, they move on.
Those who stick with it and maintain a learning posture gain a breakthrough at some point, say around the 2,500th proverbial kick. It hits them that when they adjust their foot a degree to the left, it has one effect, while a degree to the right has a very different effect. It’s an “ah-ha” of amazing proportions. Here’s the thing, if they had stopped after 2,000 kicks they wouldn’t have gained the insight. That’s why mastery is such a challenge, and why the great ones never – NEVER – stop learning. They never feel as though it’s good enough.
That’s why coaches are so important. They can provide the leadership and the guidance to ensure that your learning doesn’t become rote and to keep you on the path.
Think about this discovery from Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule in his book Outliers. K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music found that what separated the best violinists from the good and average performers was not talent, but rather the amount of time they practiced throughout their life. By the age of 20, the best performers had practiced for a total of 10,000 hours, the good performers practiced a total of 8,000 hours and the average performers practiced only 4,000 hours.
The next time you don’t get the results you want, ask yourself if you spent enough time practicing.
The importance of asking questions in selling is, well, unquestionable. Much (some may say too much) has been written about the what’s, how’s and why’s of asking questions in sales. What has not received much attention, however, is the importance of assessing what level of information salespeople learn from the questions they ask.
In my experience, there are three levels of information (or knowledge) that salespeople get from asking their questions. The deeper you get, the more valuable the knowledge and the greater your selling advantage. To make The Shift to selling results it is necessary that you get to Level 3.
- Level 1 – All about the transaction. You gain surface knowledge only. The questions are all aimed to assess the “need” for the “stuff” you sell.
- Level 2 – Moves below the transaction to the impact your product/service can have. This is a significant improvement from Level 1. The weakness here is that it’s still all about the product/service and not about the customer/client. If you’re involved in a simple sale and/or you are selling something that fits all of the buyers criteria (budget, specs, process, etc.), Level 2 information is often enough.
However, if you’re involved in a complex sale where multiple people play a role on the buyer side and their desires don’t align, you customer is unclear about their needs or yours, and the buyers assessment don’t immediately align (say, you’d like to earn a premium margin), then Level 2 information is not enough.
- Level 3 – Moves beyond the product or service your are selling and is all about the business results, and the barriers to those results, your customer/client is pursuing. Level 3 knowledge is critical if you want to radically differentiate your company and offerings or if you want to be in the “What’s it Worth ?” conversation that allows you to enhance your margins while shortening the sales cycle.
Gaining Level 3 knowledge is not as simple of merely asking a question and writing down the answer. It requires active listening and an reasonable understanding of your customers business and what drives their results. It requires the salesperson engage with the customer in a true dialogue for two primary reasons:
- The salesperson needs to earn “a seat at the table.” Customers are extraordinarily busy today and don’t have the time to spend with most salespeople.
- The bigger and more common reason though is that in the vast majority of situations the customer isn’t clear on the results they’re pursuing or the barriers that are preventing those results. Far more often than not, the customer/client is treating a symptom and not the cause of the problem. If all you, as a salesperson, do is address the issues as your customer understands them, it is unlikely that a) you’ll create any real value or b) gain any type of advantage in the sales process.
So, next time you come back from a sales call debrief your notes and analyze what level your conversation is taking place at. If you’re not spending half your time or more at Level 3, determine what changes you need to make to get there.
Don’t fear the man who has tried 10,000 kicks,
Fear the man who has tried 1 kick 10,000 times. – Bruce Lee
I’ve spent the last 20 years working with salespeople and entrepreneurs supporting their journey to do great things. What I’ve learned in that time (often, much to my personal frustration) is that success means doing things that seem small, trivial, and almost irrelevant. Success, or more appropriately the discipline that leads to success, can be quite boring.
We’re all guilty of pursuing the “Ah-ha moment.” “Ah-ha’s” are a lot of fun. They’re exciting and they make us feel good. Whenever you begin to learn something, the ah-ha’s are easy to get. The problem with the early ah-ha’s is that despite the endorphins they release, they don’t lead to significant results. They’re valuable, because they give you confidence while you’re trying something new and that allows you to continue.
The problem is that in due time (often a short time), the frustration of learning and mastering is still there, but the ah-ha’s are fewer and much farther in between. It’s so frustrating, and the ah-ha’s can become so rare that you begin to think that either:
- The task is no longer worth mastering, or
- Worse, that you’ve mastered the task.
I’ve learned that the biggest, most significant difference between the great ones and the average ones is that the great ones deal with the boring tasks of mastery. They get frustrated like everyone else, but they understand that it’s part of the process. As one of my coaches used to tell me, they turn the frustration into inspiration.
Great performers understand that most people won’t slough through the boring, minutiae of mastery. They know that they’ll get frustrated and jump on the next exciting, new idea. But please, please don’t fall for that trap. Stay focused and remember that your ability to get through the boring, frustrating stage of master is your advantage – and great results await!
I was talking with my friend, advisor and client – Gini Dietrich, and it hit me that I’ve been blogging for 5 years now. So, wanting to avoid some work for a few minutes, I thought it would be fun to go back and look at my first few posts.
I have to admit that as I read them, I was surprised by how applicable they still are today. My first content post was titled Commoditization Is The Enemy of Growth. Unfortunately – it still is. For your benefit, I’m posting it again:
How easily can buyers quantify the differences between your offering and your competitors? How easily can your customers make those same distinctions? How can you continuously differentiate your company when market forces are constantly commoditizing you? Think about that question for a moment. It is the greatest challenge facing businesses of all sizes in the 21st century.
Commoditization is the evolutionary process that reduces all offerings to their lowest common denominator. Commoditization is the situation businesses find themselves in when their focus is mainly on their offering instead of the quantifiable difference their offering delivers to their customers. I have asked over 2,000 businesses why people should buy from them. Virtually all of the answers fall into the category of “we are better,” or “we give more value” and virtually all of those answers propel the business into commoditization.
“Value creation” is among the most common buzzwords used in business today. There is only one meaningful definition in business for the word value: something buyers would be willing to pay for. Your company can do great things, but if people aren’t willing to pay more for it, your company is not creating value.
So I ask: What are you doing to break away from commoditization? How are you making value creation a core discipline of your company?
The Conference Board recently released its Measure of CEO Confidence. Taken between mid-May and mid-June, the reading of 62 was flat with the first quarter. The trend has still been positive over the last year (any score over 50 indicates more positive responses than negative). The good news is that nearly 3/4 of respondents expect profit increases over the next year, driven primarily by revenue growth – not cost cutting. As the chart above (from Argus Research) indicates, small business confidence is still very low. Facing tight credit and rising costs the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), June survey took a significant dip. The NFIB’s “Good Time to Expand” measure remains at near multi-year lows. Since the primary engine of job growth is small business, especially small businesses beginning to scale to become big businesses, the survey indicates that more tough times lie ahead. My experience mirrors the chart. I’m seeing quite a bifurcation in CEO outlooks. Some executive teams are really focusing on growth initiatives, basically saying the world is what it is and now is the time to “get on with it.” Other executives are still taking shelter “waiting for normalcy to return.” My concern is that much of the revenue growth I’m seeing is caused by an increase in capacity utilization (thus increasing the commodity value of various products or services). This increase is caused primarily by a decrease in capacity, not by better business management. It’s my feeling that businesses still need to get their demand generation engines running – and those that do will take business from those that are waiting. So, even though the economy isn’t growing at a “hot” pace, doesn’t mean that you can’t. How do you feel? Do you expect growth? Are you hiring? What are you plans?
Let me be clear:
If you’ve got a viable business you’ve got competition.
I often hear executives claim that they don’t have any competition. I even catch myself saying it about Imagine, sometimes. The reality is, no matter how “unique” your products/services are, your customers and prospects still have alternatives. You may (and I emphasize “may”) not have any direct competition, but you certainly have:
- indirect competitors, and
- the toughest competitor of all, the status quo.
People don’t buy products and services so much as they “hire” a product or service to do “a job.” This means that if some doesn’t have a problem (a job to be done) there is no opportunity for [a sale]. The only offerings that can have no competition are the ones that do a job that nobody wants. To be accepted in the market, you must be able to define the job that you are asking people to hire your product/service to do.
This is an important distinction, because a critical strategic decision for any business is how you define your competition. The brain of your customers/prospects requires contrast to understand and act. Your definition of competition is what makes it possible to radically differentiate your company (think about it – how can you contrast with nothing?).
When I started Imagine, I thought I had an approach that was so unique that no one did what we do. So when asked who my competitors are, I brazenly responded: “We don’t really have competition. No one does what we do.” That, of course, got me nowhere. I was so focused on getting people to understand what we weren’t (we weren’t Sandler, we weren’t Miller Hieman, no we weren’t a marketing agency, and so on) that no one could understand what we were.
I realized that I needed to define my competition. The easiest way to do that was do compare us to “sales trainers.” But, I knew that sales training was a highly commoditized, highly competitive market and that it would be virtually impossible to stand out or to earn the fees we needed to deliver the results we promise.
Stuck (because I could define what we weren’t, but not what we were) I asked myself, what is the job that someone is hiring us for?
My first thought was that people were hiring us to do sales training. But I knew that didn’t do us justice. So I pondered it more and I realized that no one wants sales training – what they want is more sales. More, profitable sales and faster sales. That was our job – to enable companies to get more sales, faster sales and more profit per sale.
Now defining my competition was easy – we compete (and cooperate) with virtually any product or service designed to help companies with their go-to-market strategy. This completely changed the focus of my company, enabled us to attract some great clients that would never of hired us to merely do sales training, and it gave us a track for successful innovation. Today, we continue to pursue that journey.
Now it’s your turn. What “job” do people hire your products/services to do? What else is competing for that job?
Let me share what, in hindsight, is an obvious lesson. People work to solve their problems with or without you. Further, people (and customers) don’t typically think that much about you (or sellers) when figuring out what to do.
I was reminded of this lesson recently while conducting a sales briefing for a client’s sales team. We were introducing a new tool designed to support deeper conversation and problem discovery. We asked for some examples of how the reps could use it and one brought up how he’d asked a question related to the tool that he thought was pretty obvious.
He was surprised to learn that the customer had just begun an initiative that he could support. He’d become aware of it just in time to be able to enter into discussion about how his company could support the initiative (which will lead to a meaningful increase in both volume and margin). Had he not asked, the customer would have proceeded with their idea and he would have had no chance to get the additional business (and it would have caused his existing business to become vulnerable to competitors). The rep mentioned to me that he had no idea that such initiatives were even being discussed, let alone acted upon.
There’s an old phrase about assuming that I don’t need to repeat. A great salesperson is always asking “obvious” questions of customers to assure that nothing is taking place that they don’t know about. Because they’ve made The Shift to selling results, they’ve got the ability to ask revealing questions and, more importantly, to get them answered.
Great sellers realize that it is the sellers’ job to understand the customer and the customer’s needs better than anyone – even the customer themselves; not the customer’s job to understand what the seller is capable of doing. Great sellers realize that the key to radical differentiation is their expertise in the customer’s problems (rather than the seller’s solution) and their ability to diagnose those problems in such a way that the seller’s solution becomes the obvious cure.
So, the next time you hesitate to ask a question that seems obvious, remember that the failure to ask that question can cost you your indispensability.
If I had but one wish I could grant to anyone selling, it would be the ability to recognize whether they are having a conversation about a problem or a conversation about a solution.
- A conversation about a solution is highly commoditized and causes the focus to be on what’s it cost.
- A conversation about a problem creates value and causes the focus to be on what’s it worth.
At Imagine, we define a problem as something important to someone not performing the way they want it to. By that definition, there are two types of problems; what we call opportunity problems (sort of like good problems) and trouble problems. The key to getting your product/service properly valued is to ensure that the context of your sales effort is focused on the problem the customer has and the consequences of not addressing it.
The problem with the vast, vast majority of salespeople (defined as anyone selling) is that even when they think they’re focused on the problem, they’re really focused on the solution. Until they become aware of that, they can’t do anything about it.
The first step in getting from a left-side (commodity/cost) focus to the right side (differentiating/worth) focus is to identify a clear gap in performance.
You help people reduce the costs of their operation by implementing a technology that enhances workflow processes.
If the conversation is focused on your ability to enhance workflow processes and its impact, then you are having a solution-oriented conversation and in all likelihood you will be commoditized. That means lower closing rates and tighter margins.
If the conversation is focused on the customer/prospects costs, cost structure, and their efforts to control and reduce costs – you are on your way to a radically different sales conversation that creates value.
If, further, you are discussing the gaps and shortfalls in the customer/prospects approach and the total impact those gaps are causing – you’re having a problem-focused conversation and will be rewarded with dramatically higher closing rates and enhanced margins.
Next time you’re having a sales conversation, be certain which type you are having.
A friend of mine pointed me to an article in Entreprenuer Magazine by business consultant and self-purported turnaround expert George Cloutier. In it he writes, “I’m a big proponent of the “just view me as God” school of management.”
I first became aware of Cloutier when I was asked by his PR firm to review his book: Profits Aren’t Everything, They’re the Only Thing. Cloutier promises to share the “real truth” with small business owners. I didn’t review the book because I thought his ideas were a bit too over-the-top or caricatured for my tastes.
Over the last few months, I’ve heard his name and/or been pointed to his stuff several times. So I’ve decided to add my thoughts.
Cloutier says that small business owners focus far too much on being liked and don’t provide the necessary leadership. Now, let me be clear – I completely, 100% agree with this. My problem – and it’s a big problem – is with his solution.
His prescription (in both the column and the book) include gems like these:
- Be a dictator.
- Tell your employees: “Don’t think–obey.”
- Forget your likability score.
- Be a feared general.
- Fear is the best motivator.
If Cloutier is giving this advice in a situation where catastrophe and bankruptcy are the next step, I can certainly understand. However, as best I can tell, Coutier is advising small business owners to run their businesses like this all of the time. His advice is like an intense diet – you’ll lose weight (turn things around) fast, but there is simply no way you can sustain the approach.
Business is far too complex, chaotic and fast moving today. Autocratic approaches like these aren’t just unpopular, they’re ineffective. As Cloutier himself writes, “many small-business owners forget one important thing: They have to execute their battle plans with as few flaws as possible.” Today, anyone not thinking kills your ability to execute.
Frankly, his opinion IMHO falls into the category of lazy thinking. Just as it’s easier to go on a strict diet to lose weight than it is to adjust your life to a healthy lifestyle, it’s far easier to be a dictator than it is to create the processes that enable your business to succeed.
Look, I used to oversee the people who worked for me like a dictator. I excused by obnoxious, narcissistic behavior by saying things like, “we all have a job to do,” or “my focus is on the customer and if I have to break a few eggs to make the customer happy, then so be it.” What I learned was that if I didn’t let people own their jobs, and allow them to think, they’d never be able to do the great things I needed them to do. I also learned that once I gave my people the freedom they needed to perform, they became much smarter than me.
If you want to own a job rather than a business, Cloutier’s approach may work. Just remember that if you take his approach, don’t complain that your people don’t show initiative, don’t show empathy to the customer, or simply don’t care.
One of Cloutier’s favorite analogies shows just how flawed his thinking is. He likens his approach to the feared general. Yet, even the U.S. military has learned just how important collaboration is. They’ve learned that in war (as in business), sh*t happens and if the people responsible for executing the tactics aren’t a part of developing the tactics, the approach will blow up.
What’s unfortunate is that I think Cloutier has some good ideas. His hard talk about the need for owners to understand they own the business, and therefore they own the results is often heard, but not adequately understood. His advice that the “nicest” thing you can do for the people who work at the company is to make sure that everyone in their job owns their results and executes maniacally needs to be understood.
I just wish he’d talk about how to do it sustainably. Of course, if he really believes everything he’s writing, we’d all be better off just ignore him.
This book review originally appeared in Baltimore and Washington SmartCEO Magazine July 2010 issue.
One of the major points that I make to CEOs and salespeople whenever I speak with them (and a point you may want to make note of) is: NOBODY WANTS YOUR STUFF!! Nobody wants to buy anything from you. Early in my sales career, I had a coach who told me that everyone woke up in the morning with the same goal in mind. When I asked him what that goal was, he told me: “They don’t want to meet you.”
I’ve spent more than 20 years immersed in the world of selling, sales training, and sales leadership. Over that time, I’ve gotten more and more discouraged with the vast majority of approaches to selling. It’s not that the approaches, per se, are wrong or bad. The issue is much more nuanced than that. The fundamental problem with the vast majority of traditional, solutions-oriented sales approaches is that they all presume the prospect’s interest and/or awareness of their need for the product or service being sold.
This approach is fine for markets that have abundant demand, limited supply, and clear differences between one product/service and another. However, in busy, hectic, and complex markets where sellers are aggressive and everyone claims superiority, this approach leads to an ever-accelerating rate of commoditization.
On my blog, I’ve written a lot about The Drought that virtually every seller is experiencing. Today:
- There are fewer buyers and the buyers that are left have lower budgets.
- Despite the decrease in demand, competition and choice is as plentiful as ever.
- Buyers have less time and that means they have less attention to give to sellers or to understand a seller’s offerings.
The Drought is a double-edged sword for sellers. Fewer buyers and greater competition is a major obstacle in its own right. But, the bigger barrier is that solutions today are more complex than ever (especially if you are providing any type of superior offering), and the differences between your offerings and your competition are more nuanced than ever. Be honest for a moment. While you may provide the best alternative for your prospects (I certainly hope you think you do), they are more than enough adequate alternatives. The fact that prospects and customers have less attention to give you, creates an extreme barrier that enables them to understand the complexity of your offerings.
Selling organizations and salespeople must fundamentally change their approach in order to be successful tomorrow. Merely mastering sales techniques and being persistent are no longer enough to survive in the competitive jungle.
Jill Konrath, author and selling consultant, echoes this in her new book SNAP Selling: Speed Up Sales and Win More Business With Today’s Frazzled Customers. I became aware of Jill’s book and she was kind enough to send me a copy to review. Jill is a superstar saleswoman and has been helping small and mid-market businesses successfully sell to big companies for years.
She shares her story of how these changes virtually killed her business and the adjustments she had to make in order to thrive. Luckily for us, she shares these insights openly. SNAP Selling is one of the few books (or articles) that I’ve come across that accurately reflects just how customers really view salespeople today. The reality check she provides makes it worth the read itself.
While I’m not a fan of manufactured anagrams, SNAP Selling does address four critical success factors in selling today.
- Simple – Sellers today must eliminate complexity from the decision making process. Too often sellers, in the efforts to demonstrate just how great they are, make the process seem even more complicated than it is. This is proved by a recent survey of buyers that revealed that more than 40% of buy processes are ending in a no-decision.
- Invaluable – The only viable success strategy when there are so many adequate alternatives is to become absolutely indispensable to your customers. This is also true for salespeople. To succeed, salespeople need to be critical resources for their customer, not merely peddlers.
- Aligned – You must be customer centric today. The single, most important action a salesperson can take is to view the purchasing process from their buyer’s eyes. This will ensure that you stay relevant through the entire buying process and will speed up the process as well.
- Priority – Here’s the paradox: buyers have always been swayed by the tyranny of the urgent. Sellers, by helping buyers get a picture of the long-term, could overcome by clearly demonstrating importance. Today, your offering must be important and urgent.
Only by understanding the mindset, life, and needs of your buyers will you be able to position your offerings and your sales process to be successful. SNAP Selling provides a great place to start that understanding.
I had an interesting thought when I heard about the postal service’s request to increase the price of first class postage by 2 cents to 46 cents. Readers of this blog know that most of the time I’m advocating raising prices, but in this case I’m wondering if the postal service is getting it all wrong.
I’ve been hearing the postal service complain more and more that since there is not enough volume of mail they need to raise prices. Yet, if I remember my economics, if all you do is raise prices (without creating additional value) demand will decrease. What’s worse, every time the price of postage goes up the attractiveness of digital alternatives increases as well – putting even more pressure on postal volume.
So here’s my advice to the postal service:
- Cut the price of postage across the board and allow people to pre-pay for postage to get an even bigger discount. Mail needs to become more competitive with other distribution forms, not less.
- Don’t just cut the price of postage, invest in teaching people – especially businesses – how to use mail. I’ve got a friend in Canada who helps Canada Post (their postal service) do this and he’s told me how well it’s worked.
The postal service is like every business – it must focus on creating value and being competitive. Anything else will just hasten its demise (and add costs to the taxpayer).
Today’s The Demand Creator Minute was a lot of fun to do. I got my new iPhone 4 this weekend, so this video was recorded, produced and edited all of the iPhone 4.
In the video, I answer the question: “What steps can we take to STOP providing answers and START provoking questions?” I share:
- 3 steps to get out of the giving information game into the provoking game
- How to dig deeper and break free from commoditization
- An example of how to ask provocative questions
In the video, I refer to the “We Do’s,” if you’d like to read more about that click on the link.
As I was preparing for our webinar today on Building High Performance Sales Teams, I was reminded just how difficult the task is. In the webinar, I dispel several myths:
- Great talent = great success: The idea that all you need to do is hire a superstar salesperson and your sales problems will be solved is probably the biggest myth of all. While there are a few (far, far fewer than you most people think) true superstars who can come into virtually any sales situation and succeed, the reality is they are virtually impossible to find and so expensive that while they may be successful, often times they are not profitable. An effective sales process will have far more impact on your business.
- If you can sell one thing, you can sell anything: This myth manifests itself in several ways. The most common is the effort to “hire away” one of your competitor’s salespeople. The reality is there are many contributors to a salesperson’s success and/or struggles. Unless you can recreate the environment where the salesperson was successful, there is no guarantee.
- The only measurement for salespeople is closing: This myth also manifests itself in many ways. The most common manifestation is the time companies take until they determine whether the rep is successful. The single, biggest and most costly mistake I see in building successful sales teams is taking too long to make the judgment on salespeople. A high-performance sales team understands what causes sales and is able to judge a salesperson’s performance within 90 – 180 days.
- Sales is different from other business disciplines: The number one reason companies fail to implement effective sales processes (well, actually number two behind the difficulty of creating effective sales processes) is the misbegotten belief that salespeople are different. That it’s more creative and salespeople need to be freer to do what they do. The reality is that just because sales is difficult to understand does not mean that it’s different than any other business discipline.
- Predictable Sales is an Oxymoron: The problem with most sales organizations is that they play the equivalent game of pool without having to call their shots. It’s like they’re constantly breaking, they hit their cue ball as hard as they can and then take credit for the balls that go in. That worked (barely) in the past when demand was growing exponentially and money was free, but in the future, successful sales organizations and salespeople will need to call their shots. One of the advantages great sales organizations have is the predictability of their sales forecasts.
The Bottom Line
Everyone of these myths is supported by the desire to find a shortcut. The reality is that great salespeople are made – they are not born. This is true for great selling organizations as well. Going forward good is no longer good enough, and the only sustainable strategy is to be great at what you do. The sooner you give up on finding the shortcuts, the sooner you’ll get to experience the rewards of great.