Every established sales methodology attracts its own fan base. Some are fans of SPIN®, others Challenger®, Miller-Heiman, Sandler, Solution Selling® and so on – the list goes on for ages. I’m particularly but not exclusively attracted to "value selling" myself.
Some of these methodologies have even seen fit to act as if their approach makes all others redundant. You may remember the Challenger-inspired and mischievously-titled article in the Harvard Business Review that proclaimed the “The End of Solution Sales”. It was a headline that may have sold a few more copies of their book but otherwise hardly justified the hype.
But amidst all these claims and counter-claims, one approach seems to consistently outperform all the others across a wide range of sales environments…
That methodology – if that is indeed the correct term – is “situational selling”. It recognises that there is no such thing as a “standard” sales situation and that, therefore, there can be no one universally perfect approach. To the purist (or the author with a book to sell) it may seem something of a hybrid or mongrel. And yes, there was even a book on "situational selling " dating back to 1985, although it now seems to be out of print.
A situational state of mind
Situational selling is a state of mind. It acknowledges that before we can determine the most effective sales approach, we must first diagnose our customer’s situation and buying style . It recognises that no two sales situations are ever quite the same, so following exactly the same sales approach for all is never going to allow us to achieve the best possible outcome.
It recognises that no one published sales methodology or doctrine is sufficiently complete to be able to address all likely circumstances, and that every formal methodology has strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. It also acknowledges that our sales people need to intelligently adapt their strategy to each customer’s particular circumstances.
The importance of discovery
And it highlights the pivotal importance of discovery in our sales “process”. Rather than pursuing a misguided and often misplaced “one size fits all” approach, it encourages and equips us to learn as much about our customer as we practically can, as early as we can, before we commit to a particular sales strategy or set of tactics.
Sometimes, it will be appropriate to challenge our customer. Under other circumstances, that is likely to be the worst possible approach. Sometimes we will want to disturb the status quo and at other times, we will want to reinforce it.
But the common thread is that the more curious we are, and the more we understand about our prospect’s situation, the smarter choices we will make. Some of the most obvious factors include:
- Where they are in their decision journey ? Are they unconcerned, exploring, defining, selecting, verifying or confirming?
- Are they a new customer, or an existing customer?
- How clear are they about what they want to achieve?
- How clear are they about how they intend to achieve it?
- Do they already have a preferred option in mind?
- Have they already established a clear case for change?
- Have they already established a clear vision of a solution?
- Is the need to take action already widely accepted?
- Has the decision group already been formed?
- Has a source of funds already been identified?
- Are we trying to persuade them to continue an existing course of action (such as a renewal or the expansion of an existing project), or to undertake a new course of action (such as a brand new project or initiative)?
You can probably think of other diagnostic discovery and qualification questions that are specifically relevant to your own sales environment. You can probably recognise how having the answers to these questions will affect your sales strategy and even the desirability of pursuing the opportunity.
And then, following on from your analysis, you can then blend appropriate elements from a range of sales tools and methodologies. Your “sales process” is no longer a rigid cage, but a flexible framework that more accurately reflects how your most effective sales people are probably already working.
Stimulating situational fluency
Top sales people, in my experience, understand and implement this sort of thinking instinctively. They exhibit situational fluency. They don’t feel constrained by or obliged to rigidly follow any one methodology, or even by their organisation’s defined sales process, particularly if they regard the latter as unhelpful, unnecessarily confining or unrealistic.
They intelligently and flexibly blend different approaches and techniques to reflect the realities of the current situation. They do what is necessary, and avoid doing what is unnecessary. They demonstrate a great deal of situational fluency and flexibility.
Of course, this requires a significant amount of intelligence, experience and talent. Your averagely able sales people may not be able to fully emulate the behaviours of their top performing colleagues. But with the appropriate guidance, they are almost certainly able to make smarter decisions than they do today.
Flexible frameworks, not rigid processes
I suggest that your first focus must be to recognise the most common opportunity types and buying styles in your sales environment, and give your sales people simple tools to categorise each opportunity appropriately. Then give them a few simple guidelines as to how to best approach each opportunity type/buying style combination. And equip them with simple discovery tools that enable them to accurately diagnose each customer’s specific circumstances and react accordingly.
Help them to recognise that one size does NOT fit all. Establish your own organisation's “way of selling” as a flexible framework, rather than a rigid process. Guide your salespeople in what they need to know and do. Help them to make smarter choices.
And don’t be surprised when they deliver progressively better results...
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