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How do you want to be sold to

Journal of Sales Transformation

The following article is PSP's contribution to a full feature on "How you want to be sold to" in the May 2017 edition of the International Journal of Sales Transformation.

Let’s be honest, nobody likes being ‘sold to’. We like to think that we are controlling the buying cycle, whether it’s a personal purchase or a corporate procurement. If we experience ‘blatant’ or ‘clumsy’ sales tactics then we react badly, but if we feel the salesperson is contributing to the process then we can quickly come to respect it. If we think we are being ‘sold to’ our instinct is to be on our guard, to be wary. Somehow being ‘sold to’ doesn’t feel right and yet we experience this every day, and on most occasions, enjoy the benefits. So how do we differentiate between ‘blatant’ and ‘clumsy’ tactics versus something people appreciate?

Having undertaken numerous independent ‘Win/Loss’ reviews and Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) Programmes around the world we have a degree of insight into the mindset of the buying community. During the interviews buyers clearly articulated what they appreciate when buying goods or services and what they find distracting, or even worse, just plain annoying. Whilst we have numerous examples of each they, are neatly summed up by three quotes given during our interviews:

  1. “I expect you to be knowledgeable about my industry”

  2. “I don’t expect you to be my friend”

  3. “Don’t make my life unnecessarily difficult”

These quotes are important to understand in the context of both new business acquisitions and retaining and growing existing clients. there are subtle differences in their meaning and how relevant they are to the sales community. Some might argue they provide a blueprint on how to improve your chances of success, and when we explore each quote in a little more detail it is easy to understand why this might be true.

“I expect you to be knowledgeable about my industry”

Expanding this quote provides further clues about what is important to the buying community – “I value time with people who have researched my industry and market place then present me with something that makes me consider my needs in a different way or challenges my pre-conceptions. I am looking to be challenged by new ideas and concepts”. Whilst this might seem obvious to some there are key messages in this quote, some direct and others that are perhaps subliminal.

The first, and most important is that today’s buyers expect suppliers to have a deep understanding of their business and the challenges they face, and can explain how their solution (goods or services) solves a problem that is specific to them and provides an edge over their competitors (e.g. a reduced cost base, being quicker to market or improving quality). Most sales-led organisations define that as a ‘Value Proposition’, which our research findings identified as the major factor influencing the buyer’s decision, often making or breaking the deal.

Our research highlighted that successful Value Propositions: -

  • Are written or spoken in the buyer’s language

  • Demonstrate clear and credible benefits that are valued by the buyer and their organisation

  • Deliver value for money but are not necessarily the cheapest

  • Are clearly differentiated.

In summary, they speak directly to the buyer.

A secondary point is that whilst a deep understanding of their industry and market is important, buyers are also open to considering new and innovative solutions to their issues. This was highlighted by a senior executive who suggested that they usually searched for tried and tested solutions within their specific industry. They appreciated being offered examples of innovation from different industries which might be positively applied to their business, and went on to suggest that they were prepared to consider a higher level of ‘risk’ based on the potential competitive advantage these innovative solutions could deliver.

Additionally, buyers stated that questions from the sales community were generally viewed as positive if they were relevant and thought provoking. Helping buyers to better understand their needs or surface issues they hadn’t considered was particularly welcomed. On the other hand, asking basic questions that demonstrate a rudimentary lack of industry knowledge simply disqualified many organisations from the procurement process. Buyers require their suppliers to be well versed in their industry, it is what we call ‘table stakes’, and without it you are unlikely to be invited to compete.

There is a distinct difference in the specific industry and client knowledge expectations from an incumbent supplier versus a potential new one. The incumbent is expected to have a more comprehensive understanding of their client’s business, market and competitors. Furthermore, they must demonstrate this throughout the contract lifecycle, delivering innovation to achieve a competitive edge. Potential new suppliers have more leeway to seek further clarification regarding client specific requirements. This could be viewed as giving unfair advantages to a new supplier, however buyers tend to view this as ‘levelling the playing field’ which they hope will produce more competitive offers from all suppliers.

“I don’t expect you to be my friend”

This is an interesting statement given that many training courses encourage sales teams to focus on developing strong relationships, indeed many companies run events and hospitality that are designed to achieve just this. The quote goes on to say “Don’t focus your efforts on being my friend or trying to impress me with social skills and events. Substance, content, knowledge and delivery gains my respect and trust. Later we might become friends”. So, what does this tell us about the buyers view of this strategy?

Many companies are now wise to the effects that ‘close’ relationships can have on their business. This is evidenced by the increasing use of specialists supporting (or in many cases leading) the procurement to negate the influence of ‘relationships’ in the buying criteria. Interestingly it does not exclude developing stronger relationships, simply that they are now based on a different footing. Substance, content and knowledge now being the foremost requirements.

‘Friendships’ are more likely to develop throughout the course of a long-term contract, or at least that is the theory. Does this release the sales community of their responsibility to add value in all business encounters? No, certainly not, although it does change the dynamics and can blur the lines between social and business interactions. It is important to understand when it is appropriate to ask questions, which questions are relevant, and what behaviour is acceptable in a social context. Being an incumbent supplier is not always advantageous, and misreading the strength of a relationship can have serious consequences. Continually meeting (preferably exceeding) buyer expectations can prove very rewarding as long term relationships will naturally form.

“Don’t make my life unnecessarily difficult”

The buying and sales community view the ‘procurement’ life-cycle through very different eyes. From the sales side, it’s too easy to focus on internal process and forget that buyers have their own challenges. If we accept that most procurement's involve competition (possibly a long list of five or six suppliers followed by a short list of two or three) it quickly becomes apparent that the workload for filtering and selection is extensive.

The quote goes on to say “Don’t bury the answers to my requirements within a complicated proposal. I don’t have time to search. Make the summary clear and concise. I need to understand quickly how you are responding. Answer questions directly making sure the most valuable data is most visible”. This is a straightforward plea for help, ‘make my life easy’. Buyers have more than just your document to read and evaluate, the more direct your answers are the quicker they can tick the box confirming you meet their requirements. If they have to go hunting for the answer it is easier to believe you are non-compliant and mark accordingly.

We are all guilty of ‘attention deficit’ to some extent. The amount of data placed in front of us daily requires quickly filtering out what is irrelevant, and if it doesn’t grab our attention immediately we move on. This is certainly true in the context of reading and evaluating multiple proposals, helping the buying community by being clear and concise will pay substantial dividends.

In summary, it is apparent that buyer’s expectations of the sales community have changed. Questions are still welcomed, but they need to be intelligent, probing and demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the client’s business environment. Relationships are still important, but buyers are not looking for friendship and expect insight and value in every interaction. Managing these relationships throughout the duration of the contract life-cycle has also become more difficult. Whilst events can still play a part, much more emphasis is placed on knowledge, content and service delivery. Finally, buyers, much like the rest of us, do not appreciate unnecessary complication. Understand their world, making yourself easier to do business with, or, as was quoted to me recently by a CEO…

“Walk a mile in my shoes, then come and tell me how you can help me”

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