HBR: Sales Reps, Stop Asking Leading Questions

What is your approach to selling? Do you use a consultative sales approach? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Scott Edinger.

Sales Reps, Stop Asking Leading Questions

Most executives recognize a need for their sales team to act as consultants and sell “solutions.” But many CEOs would be shocked at how poorly their sales teams execute on the strategy of consultative selling. I recently had a conversation about this with the director of purchasing at one of my client companies who told me: “I can always tell when a rep has been through sales training, because instead of launching in to a pitch, they launch into a list of questions.” Too often, sales teams trying to “do” consultative selling don’t move beyond the rudimentary application of solution-sales principles: “Get the team to ask questions, and then match our capabilities to what the client has said.” So the sales force sits down and makes a list of questions designed to extract information from their prospective clients, in a kind of interrogation. I’ve sat through many sales calls like this, and trust me it isn’t pretty.

To maximize the power of consultative selling, we have to move beyond a simplistic view of solution selling. It’s not about grilling the buyer but rather engaging in a give-and-take as the seller and buyer explore the client’s priorities, examine what is in the business’s best interests, and evaluate the seller’s solutions. Asking questions is part of this engagement process, but there’s a right way to do it. Here are some important pitfalls to avoid:

Avoid checklist-style questioning. A few years ago I was working with a financial services firm that hadn’t seen much success in adopting a solution sales approach. When I watched a few meetings it was easy to see why. The sellers I traveled with did a decent job of asking questions and getting answers, but it felt more to me (and to the prospects, based on their responses and disposition) like they were going through a checklist. As a result, their sales calls felt mechanical and staid. While they gleaned some good information about clients’ needs, allowing them to dovetail the products they were selling into the conversation, there was little buy-in from the prospects they were talking to. There was no sense of shared understanding or that the client had confidence that the seller would be able to help them grow their business. I’ve observed this scenario with both beginner and experienced sellers, as well as senior partners in Big Four consulting firms: when they focus solely on asking questions, they rarely get the information they really need.

Avoid asking leading questions. Nothing falls flatter in a sales call than a question that is clearly self-interested, or makes the seller the master of the obvious. I joke about this in speeches using the example: “If I could show you something interesting, would you be interested?” The kind of questions sales professionals are taught to ask typically focus on drawing attention to client problems, pain points, and sources of dissatisfaction, so the client will then view the seller’s offerings as a solution. It can be useful to explore the buyer’s challenges, but when a seller asks a ridiculous question with an obvious answer such as, “What’s the implication of data center failure?” it can backfire. It’s counterproductive to ask patently manipulative questions because buyers immediately put up their defenses and will be skeptical of the seller’s intentions – and intelligence. Instead, ask questions that demonstrate genuine curiosity, empathy, and a desire to understand. Try to go deeper than uncovering a list of problems to be solved: ask what the buyer hopes to achieve with your product or service, and why this is a priority now.

Avoid negative conversational behaviors. When sellers are myopically focused on persuading a prospect or winning a piece of business, it creates a negative vibe in the relationship. In fact, when we look at what happens in the brain during this kind of one-sided selling interaction, we find that buyers may experience that negativity at a chemical level. In her article, “The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations,” Judith Glaser highlights specific behaviors that contribute to negative chemical, or “cortisol-producing,” and positive chemical “oxytocin-producing” reactions in others. Among the behaviors that create significant negative impacts are being focused on convincing others and behaving like others don’t understand. Precisely the stereotypical behaviors that give sellers a bad name: being too aggressive, not listening, and going on and on about their offerings. Conversely, the behaviors that create a positive chemical impact include being concerned about others, stimulating discussions with genuine curiosity, and painting a picture of mutual success. Masters of the consultative sales approach apply these conversational techniques to their discussions with prospects and clients to create a collaborative dynamic with positive outcomes.


The consultative sales approach may seem simple, but it isn’t easy to execute well. Sales people cannot just go to training for a few days and gain mastery of this skill set, any more than an accountant going to a week-long course can emerge with the skills of a CFO. Consultative selling is a fundamental business strategy centered on creating value through insight and perspective that paves the way toward long-term relationships and genuine solutions for your customers. When sellers do it right, that strategy comes to life.


Want Success In Your Sales Org? Look to the Middle

Below is a blog post from the Harvard Business Review by Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer. Is your Sales Manager weak?  This will help strengthen your sales manager and team.

Want Success In Your Sales Org? Look to the Middlesuccessful sales management

To build a great company, it’s important to have strong executives leading the sales organization. But just as in the military, talented top officers can’t make up for weakness in the ranks of frontline leaders, the mid-level managers who are vital in driving day-to-day sales performance. “In any sales force, you can get along without the vice president of sales, the regional sales directors, and the training manager,” a sales leader once told us. “But you cannot get along without first-line sales managers.”

First-line sales managers (FLM) are the most critical players in a sales organization because they serve three important management roles — and successful ones excel at all three.

People manager: They select, build, manage, lead, and reward a team of salespeople.
Customer manager: They participate appropriately in the sales process to drive success with key customers.
Business manager: They act as a conduit for information flowing between headquarters and the field to keep sales force activity aligned with company goals.

Here are some common mistakes that FLMs make in each of these roles, and what sales leaders can do to avoid these mistakes.

As people managers, weak FLMs:

•Hire the wrong salespeople.
•”Feed the chickens but starve the eagles” by spending too much time with low performers.
•Manage by results only and demand improvement without coaching on how to get there.
•Take credit for the team’s success rather than giving others the recognition they deserve.

As customer managers, weak FLMs:

•Fail to put customer needs first.
•Take over customer relationships themselves and undermine salespeople’s motivation and confidence in the process.

As business managers, weak FLMs:

•Spend too much time on low value activities just because they are urgent or within their comfort zone.
•Put off important tasks that keep headquarters and the field aligned.

Sales leaders can strengthen the FLM team and its activities by improving the management support, tools, and training they provide. For example, leaders can enable FLMs in a people manager role by providing coaching tools and training, setting performance standards for how much time to spend coaching high and low performers, and creating a salesperson hiring process with screening tools (e.g. case studies and behavioral interview questions) and training on how to use them. Leaders can also enable FLMs in a business manager role by providing tools and support to make administrative tasks easier.

But most of the mistakes that FLMs make aren’t corrected through better management support, tools, and training. Rather, the mistakes are the result of selecting the wrong person for the FLM job – usually someone who was a great salesperson but who doesn’t have the characteristics to succeed as a manager. Most successful salespeople, even after they are promoted to manager, are driven by a strong motivation for personal achievement. Unfortunately, this can impede their willingness to:

•Let others take the lead with customers, especially when it comes to closing sales
•Show discipline and patience when it comes to dealing with headquarters
•Take a backseat while giving team members credit for success

As a salesperson, you win through your activities; as a sales manager you with through the activities of your people.

Excellent managers are a must if you want to consistently recruit the best sales talent. Remember the aphorism: “First-class hires first-class; second-class hires third-class.” It’s hard to recover from bad hiring, which is why it’s so important to make hiring (or promoting) the right front line managers who’ll oversee so many hiring decisions such a priority.

The post Want Success In Your Sales Org? Look to the Middle appeared first on Harvard Business Review.

Silver Bullets Won’t Fix Your Sales Force

Below is a blog post from the Harvard Business Review by Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer. Can you drive sustained sales force effectiveness along with top- and bottom-line performance?

Silver Bullets Won’t Fix Your Sales ForceSilver bullet Sales force

When it comes to enhancing sales force productivity and performance, it’s tempting to look for silver bullets. Is customer retention declining? Okay, let’s roll out a new sales training program that teaches salespeople how to be more customer-focused. Is sales growth lagging? Let’s implement a more aggressive incentive plan to motivate the sales force. Is sales productivity decreasing? Let’s build a Big Data solution that enables salespeople to glean insights so they can sell smarter.

One-dimensional solutions like these are rarely enough to create permanent improvements in sales force effectiveness. A sales force is complex, with many moving parts and interdependencies. Achieving sales force excellence, or addressing a sales opportunity or challenge (such as revitalizing growth or enhancing customer retention), typically requires improving upon a mixture of several sales force effectiveness drivers.

Instead of simplistic, one-note fixes, smart managers consider broader improvement plans, such as these:

Set a cohesive sales strategy that focuses sales effort on the right customer segments with a compelling value proposition.

Design a high-impact sales process for communicating and delivering value to customers.
Size the sales organization at a profitable investment level that provides ideal customer coverage.

Define a sales structure and sales roles that enable effectiveness (high sales for the effort) as well as efficiency (low cost for the effort).
Assign accounts to salespeople to enable good customer coverage and give all salespeople a fair chance to succeed.

Hire sales talent by identifying and attracting salespeople with the characteristics (innate capabilities and values) that drive success.

Train and coach that talent to continually develop the competencies (learned skills and knowledge) that salespeople need to add value for customers.

Provide data, tools and resources for enhancing sales force insight about customers and supporting the sales process.

Offer incentive compensation and recognition programs that encourage salespeople to work hard in pursuit of personal goals that align with company goals.

Set sales force goals that are challenging, fair, and well-understood by the sales force.

Manage performance by engaging a team of first line sales managers who can effectively direct sales activity and keep the sales force on course.

Create and sustain a sales culture of accountability, achievement and ethics.

These sales force effectiveness drivers are the spokes of a wheel that powers the sales force. Breakage in any single spoke creates weakness in the wheel, leading to suboptimal results. Excellent sales forces continuously improve capability around every sales force effectiveness driver through “kaizen.” They devote organizational resources to making every sales force efficiency driver excellent — from formulating the right sales strategy, to hiring and developing talent, to providing the best tools, programs, and resources for motivating and enhancing sales team performance.
Excellent sales forces also ensure compatibility across these types of programs. For example, if sales strategy calls for penetrating a new market segment, they enable the strategy with the right sales process, an appropriate sales force size and structure, training and coaching programs, and data and tools that facilitate salespeople’s success. If salespeople have unequal market potential, they design performance management and incentive programs that account for territory differences, or they realign territories to give all salespeople a fair opportunity to succeed.
As sales leaders face an ever-changing market, this laundry list of drivers of sales force efficiency — a list of activities that require constant attention and improvement — can look daunting. That’s where a clear head and a purposeful prioritization process come in handy. We suggest that you rethink a few key of these drivers at any point in time.
Some drivers can be changed fairly easily without significant disruption to the sales force — for example, performance management, data and tools, training, and incentives. But if you are rethinking your sales model, you’ll likely need to plan for some disruption to salespeople and customers as you redefine some of the more strategic drivers, such as sales strategy, sales process, structure, size and even the profile of people you need to hire.
There are no silver bullets in building and sustaining a high-performance sales force. Rather, it’s a lot of blocking and tackling. Only by managing the entire portfolio of sales force efficiency drivers and building capability and compatibility throughout the system, can you drive sustained sales force effectiveness and top- and bottom-line performance

Customer Focus

Is your company Customer Focused?  Are you asking the right questions to improve your focus. Below is a blog post from Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog by John Hunter.

Customer Focus

Customer Focus is at the core of a well managed company. Sadly many companies fail to serve their customers well. To serve customers, a thorough understanding of what problem you solve for customers is needed. The decisions at many companies, unfortunately, are far removed from this understanding.

It is hard to imagine, as you are forced to wind your way through the processes many companies squeeze you through that they have paid any attention to what it is like to be a customer of their processes. When you see companies that have put some effort into customer focus it is startling how refreshing it is (which is a sad statement for how poorly many companies are doing).

If the decision makers in a company are not experiencing the companies products and services as a customer would that is a big weakness. You need to correct that or put a great amount of energy into overcoming that problems.

Another critical area of customer focus is to know how your customers use your products. It isn’t enough to know how you want your products to be used. Or to know the problems you intended people to use your products for. You need to know how people are actually using them. You need to know what they love, what they expect, what they hate, and what they wish for. This knowledge can help offset experiencing the products and services yourselves (in some cases getting that experience can be quite difficult – in which case you need to put extra effort into learning the actual experience of your customers).

You cannot rely on what people tell you in surveys. You need to have a deep understanding of customers use of the products. Innovation springs from this deep understanding and your expertise in the practice of delivering services and building products.

One of my favorite improvement tips is to: ask customers what 1 thing could we do better. It is very simple and gives you an easy way to capture what customers really care about. You shouldn’t rely only on this, but it is an extremely powerful tactic to use to aid continual improvement (with customer focus).

Related: Delighting Customers – The Customer is the Purpose of Our Work – Customer Focus and Internet Travel Search
One, of many, ways to know if company cares about customer focus is how they handle customer support. Do they outsource support (telephone and email)? That is a bad sign. Do they try to drive down those costs? Another bad sign. Do they have a very solid program to mine the customer experience information they could learn from these encounters? That is a very good sign. And extremely rare. Do they make improvements weekly, monthly, daily based upon feedback from customers calls?

For front line employees, how much emphasis is placed on helping the organization learn from what those employees see customers doing? This is a huge potential source of information. Making effective use of it is often determined by the strength of management system. High turnover makes this hard. It is hard to optimize this with dis-repected employees. If managers are driven by cost reduction pressures instead of optimizing the system this will also make customer focus difficult (reducing waste is good, but cost reduction plans are often extremely poorly conceived – if you care about customer focus).