What happens when you talk to customers when they're not buying

By George Brontén - Aug 10, 2016

George Brontén

An interview with Dave Stein: How much time is your sales team spending with customers who are not actively buying? According to Dave, it’s probably not enough.

Sales organizations often value pipeline opportunities based on the size of the deal, whether it’s active, and how quickly it can be closed. Stein and his co-author Steve Andersen turn that logic on its head, arguing that sales teams that pay attention to the customer only when the customer is actively buying, are missing the biggest opportunities.

We had a chance recently to sit down with Stein and talk about his latest book, Beyond the Sales Process, which was published this past May. Here are a few choice insights we think every sales organization should know.

Q: This isn’t the first book you’ve co-authored with Steve Andersen. What makes this one different?

DS: Our first two books were based on Steve’s and my personal experience, and those books sold very well. But this time, Steve and I decided that we would talk to hundreds of customers, clients, salespeople, managers, and senior executives, and look at the problem of sales process through their glasses, their experiences. So it’s not the Dave and Steve story, it’s the story of the most important person in the room: The customer.

Q: What were you looking for in those interviews?

DS: We wanted to know, what does it take for them to buy from a salesperson? And the related question, what does it take for a salesperson to drive sustainable success over time. So it’s not about closing a deal, but more about how to build long-term success. Out of those interviews, we gained a clear view and identified 12 proven strategies that drive sales success .

If you want to create opportunities and have influence when they arise, you have to cultivate them before they are live.
Dave Stein

Q: There was something unexpected about those 12 strategies, wasn’t there?

DS: Well, we confirmed many of our suspicions about good sales process, but the most interesting thing we found was that if salespeople only pay attention to the customer when the customer is actively buying, then they’re missing out on the most important opportunities to build credibility and trust, and therefore to gain competitive advantage.

Q: Which are?

DS: The first thing is that if you wait until the customer is ready to buy, it’s too late to engage in four of the twelve strategies. Then, we learned that many companies fail to continue the relationship effectively after the sale. Let me give you an example. I was recently involved in a deal that was valued at a billion dollars. When you sell a customer a billion dollars worth of something, somebody had better be there to make sure the customer gets that value, beyond the sales process. That’s what drives the next engagement, and the opportunity to expand the account. If you mess that up, the customer looks for someone else.

Jack Malcolm (editor’s note: Author of Bottom Line Selling: The Sales Professional’s Guide to Improving Customer Profits) wrote a very nice review of the book on his blog, and he said something interesting. He said if you only go after deals that are live and active, you’re like someone who’s had too many drinks at the bar looking for his keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light is. The odds of finding them there are remote, so you’ve got to either not drop your keys, or find a flashlight. In other words, if you want to create opportunities and have influence when the opportunity arises, you have to cultivate the opportunity before it’s a live one.

Q: Can you walk us through the “before the sale” strategies?

DS: It starts with researching the organization. The assumption is that most salespeople only find out about an opportunity when it’s already been announced. Many companies don’t make that announcement until they’re already 50-70% of the way into their buying process. So what salespeople want to do is target certain companies in their niche and establish relationships before they’re even thinking about buying anything. Become a student of that future potential customer. Now you’ll be in a position to be a part of their buying process right from the beginning.

Strategy two, explore the possibilities, means having a conversation where you explore what the customer cares about and what’s important to them.

In strategy three, vision success, you find out what it would mean to their business if they could successfully accomplish something you can help them with. Would it reduce costs or drive innovation or increase competitive advantage? You help them vision their future success.

Finally, in strategy four, elevate the conversation, you talk to them about introducing you to the people they report to, those running the business unit. In this stage, you want them to escort you into the executive office, because they trust you will not try to sell them something.

If all goes well, when the customer decides to move on a project, they’ll ask you: What should I be asking potential vendors? Now you get to define the criteria by which they choose the vendors. If they use an RFP process, the RFP will naturally favor your organization. Now you’re at the steering wheel instead of in the trunk of the car.

Q: But your book doesn’t completely ignore the process during the sale. Can you talk about that?

DS: Once there’s a sales opportunity, we start to see how the “before the sale” work plays out. Because the salesperson is in a trusted position, they have an opportunity to discover the drivers, and align the teams—which means matching up your own sales team members with their buying process team, and introducing key members of each team to one another over time. Positioning the fit means matching your products, resources, expertise, services, and experience with the customer’s needs. Finally, you differentiate the value—create customer preference for your product by differentiating against the competition, with your ability to meet or exceed requirements against the six areas of fit.

Q: And what about after the sale?

DS: What we found out in our interviews is that after the sale, the customer starts to worry. They’ve just spent a billion dollars, and they’re thinking, “This thing better work.” As the seller, we have to make sure that the customer begins to realize the value right away. That’s the “realize the value” strategy. In the less successful way of doing it, once the sale is made, the salesperson moves on—they pass the customer over the brick wall to another department. In successful sales organizations, the salesperson’s job is to meet and exceed expectations, and understand that the future value of the customer relies on the ability to do so.

Validating the impact, the next strategy, means measuring and demonstrating success. Don’t be afraid to be held accountable.

Then you adapt the approach by looking at how you fit into the customer’s long-term picture, which leads naturally to expanding the relationship. Align members of your team with the customer’s team, maintain the ongoing relationship, and look for opportunities in their department, or other departments, to make introductions and solve more problems.

Q: Do you recommend pairing these strategies with a particular process or methodology?

DS: No. It doesn’t matter what process or methodology you use—we don’t care. We just want to make sure that you’re wrapping the whole thing around these twelve strategies.

Q: Are there particular technologies you recommend be implemented alongside the strategies?

DS: No, not a specific software. But whatever technology you’re going to use, there has to be something in it for the salesperson. If they’re not getting anything from it, or only use it when threatened, they’re never going to stick with it.

Also, in order to successfully employ the technology, the company has to have the processes, strategies, and approaches in place and then use a software model that is proven to work and to support the process. If you install Sales Force, or Zoho, or Membrain or anything else, and those steps have not been taken, all you’re going to do is automate the chaos that already exists.

But as for which technology, I don’t care, as long as it supports a proven, valid, auditable process that wins deals and sustains relationships. In regard to Membrain, I believe it supports that. It helps companies track where they are and what the salesperson has to do next. It’s a good choice.

Q: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

DS: And you as well. Thank you.

dave-stein.jpgAbout Dave Stein

Dave Stein is a sales consultant and strategist whose expertise has been featured in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and Forbes and an advisor to Sales and Marketing Management magazine.

More about the book "Beyond the Sales Process" can be found here.

George Brontén
Published August 10, 2016, written by

George Brontén

George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the world's 1st Sales Effectiveness Platform that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills and processes.

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