How much are you relying on your “natural abilities” in selling?
The big question is whether you actually have a process or if you are simply “winging it.” You see, on one hand, I am obsessive about psychology, influence, and all the fun stuff around helping people make decisions. That’s the stuff that gets me pumped up. But to be a winner in selling, or pretty much anything, you need an airtight process – especially during your meetings.
Today, I’m bringing together many of the ideas I’ve shared from the past few months and giving you a process you can follow and have some fun with. There are some other concepts that I will expand on as well, so bookmark this post and come back to it often.
(click here or the play button below to listen to this post)
I’m not saying that you need to be super rigid and robotic during your sales calls, but rather that you can dramatically increase your conversions when you have a process to test, evaluate, and improve. When you have a track to run on, you can quickly see what works, what doesn’t, and you can always get better.
Learn how to facilitate collaborate conversations with your buyers and you’ll find that you will get a ton of clarity on where you can find those conversion tweaks.
Oh, and welcome to many of my new readers! I have had the pleasure of speaking with some of you recently around the world and learning more about your specific challenges. I love it!
Why the Need for Formal Process in Sales Conversations?
Following a formal, documented, and tested process for all steps in the cycle will allow you to quickly find areas for improvement. Too often, without a guiding framework, we get caught chronically “winging it.” This is especially dangerous for seasoned professionals because they “have always just done it that way.” When a framework is not present, the opportunity to create measurable best practices and make improvements in conversions is lost.
And for junior or mid-level reps, a framework gives them a consistent series of activities and conversations that help shape and guide them through each stage of their cycle. Without structure, the temptation is to jump into product pitches, skip qualifying, ask poor questions, or prescribe solutions prematurely.
There is also this phenomenon I like to call “rookie magic” where brand new reps experience great success immediately. You know what I mean? They start selling, are super excited, and just kill it with their numbers!
You wanna know why?
It’s their lack of product knowledge translating to excitement and curiosity, their lack of experience that forces them to ask questions and listen, and not having pre-existing bad habits or excuses. This causes them to appear much more authentic and engaging. They don’t have anything to prove because they don’t have the experience set in. They haven’t become good enough to be dangerous.
But something happens to rookies around the 18 month mark. Something terrible. They become “experts.
They’ve learned all the product knowledge, they have experience, and they’ve had some wins. They begin to anticipate the needs of their customers and they start saying very early in the conversation, “I know exactly what you need.” They fall into the selling black hole of “show up and throw up” and can’t figure out what went wrong.
Formalizing the sales process ensures the teams leave nothing to chance, it gives them a common language, and it provides tangible training opportunities to increase micro-conversions. Additionally, it allows new reps to succeed much faster and experienced reps to still find ways to improve. Without a process, organizations continue to sell by chance. Keep in mind, processes don’t need be complicated or time-consuming, either. They just need to be effective.
People make purchases based on the perception of value. And it is not how they perceive the products or services. The real value is in the salesperson themselves. People buy from people. Especially those they trust.
The major thing that breaks my heart is when I see organizations without a formal process taken hostage by senior reps who have plateaued and have the ultimate control over performance and expectations. These organizations make decisions based on incomplete information.
Remember the A.G.E.N.D.A. for each sales conversation:
The AGENDA program is six stage process that helps you (regardless of experience), guide and facilitate better conversation with prospective customers in a complex sale. It’s comprehensive enough to cover the bases in most situations, and straight-forward enough that you can apply it quickly and easily. It shouldn’t require you to spend more time then you are already. Test this with your teams and with yourself to see where you can squeeze even more out of your conversions.
A – Set the Agenda (easy to remember, right?)
The first stage of the initial meeting is all about framing the process for success and setting both the agenda and the tone. And using the word agenda within AGENDA makes it easy to remember, right? It’s all about ensuring you and your customer are in the same room together for the right reasons. Often, this is overlooked and sales reps just jump right into presenting or probing. The agenda usually involves one of the following:
- Let’s solve a problem here together
- Let’s explore some possibilities
- Let’s uncover why you may be stuck until now
- Let’s talk about your current situation, explore some challenges, and see if we can outline a new direction.
Of course, this can be made much easier by having a pre-established agenda that both parties have discussed on an initial call. (ie. “Great! When we get together, we’ll take a look at your marketing strategy and see where those hidden opportunities are. I will put some ideas together and we can look at options.”)
At the beginning of the meeting, state the agenda, and then make sure everyone agrees before you move on. It may seem trivial, but it’s not. Framing the meeting correctly may end up taking up to 10% of the total meeting time and that is perfectly fine. It is an excellent way to uncover objections well before they may surface otherwise. But if the agenda is not set, the rest of the meeting could be wasted.
Additionally, setting the tone involves creating the right atmosphere. This includes first impressions, setting of intentions, and creating flow for your meetings. The tone of the agenda is what can separate a first place rep from a second place rep every time.
Winning salespeople understand the importance of a well-structured process including the perception of their guests. Remember that your potential customer may have quite a bit on their mind and be unsure of you or your processes. Put buyers at ease by establishing an agreed upon path – together. It helps to remove perceived risk, makes them more comfortable, and allows them to focus on the discussion. It also gives them the perception of control.
G – Gather Assumptions
The second stage of the sales conversation process is to elicit assumptions from the prospective customer. This is where questioning skills must be practiced and refined and you may want to revisit the SPIN Selling model to help. The ability to ask the best questions will dramatically increase the success of your appointments. Without training and practicing skills in questioning, you run the risk of jumping too quickly into solutions without a deep understanding of the problems.
This is the primary reason sales trainers make a fortune on subjects like “handling objections.”
The purpose here is to make sure that the conversation is around the full issue and not just a piece. Rushing through this is exactly why you may end up back-peddling against objections later on in the conversation. And when that happens, it’s too late. At this point in the dialogue, don’t get caught in a discussion about details, and resist the temptation to make judgments, dominate the conversation, or solve problems. It’s all about getting the facts on the table.
The real goal is to have as much to work with as possible and to ask powerful questions to elicit responses. Examples are:
- What’s happening in your business right now?
- What are the challenges in the way?
- Why are we working on this specific project?
- What happens if you don’t do this?
- What happens if you move this forward and it doesn’t work?
- Who are the important people in the process and what would they say?
- What have you explored in the past?
- If it hasn’t worked, why not?
- What could get in the way of making this successful?
- What are some of the worries?
- What are potential risks?
- Why is now a good time to be considering this?
- What has been holding you back?
- What are your instincts saying?
- How would your business be affected if this went forward and worked?
One major benefit to these kind of questions is that they often open up the chance to ask a disruptive question to then dig deeper into the situation. This could be something like, “You seem nervous when we talk about _____. Am I correct? If so, can I ask what’s on your mind?”
Or perhaps someone else is involved in the buying decision and there needs to be some exploration. A disruptive question could be, “If you suggested this to your team, the most skeptical person was there, and they wanted to throw some roadblocks at this conversation, what do you think they would say?”
A word of caution though…Make sure you practice your questioning skill along with how well you read people. You don’t want to end up just rapid-firing questions at people. That’s a sure way to lose. Don’t make it an interrogation! The easiest way to avoid this is to make sure you set the agenda well in stage one and they agreed to it. They will feel much more comfortable going through questions with you.
E – Explore the Truth
Once all the information is front and center, it’s important to determine the facts behind the assumptions as well as remove any unnecessary or distracting information. The truth should be the best information that meets the goals of the agenda you set in stage one. And the goal is to have an intelligent summary of what’s really important to the prospective buyer.
Your role at this point in the sales conversation is to probe deeper into the assumptions by clarifying what has been said:
- Is this assumption indeed true?
- Is this really the most important point to consider?
- How do we know that this is true?
- Do we have any proof to support this?
- Is there anyone we need to speak to that has more data we should explore?
When you take the time to help your buyers work through information in this way, you also help create clarity for them. By boiling down all the ideas into a few key points of truth, you’re better able to steer the meeting and ease the worries of your potential customer. This further demonstrates your value and a presents a nice way to move forward.
N – Nods of Understanding (Paraphrase)
Great salespeople are masters at questioning, listening, and paraphrasing. But the most effective ones take this skill to a new level by making the buyer the hero and replaying their story.
At this stage, you should have done a great job of outlining the situation and challenges, and have a pretty good idea of the direction of a solution. The caution here is still to avoid jumping into sharing that solution outright. The key is helping connect the dots for the person in front of you and to do so in a way that resonates. This is the power of paraphrasing with a story.
Humans communicate through story and make decisions based on emotions. Using stories effectively in selling is what winning reps do best. When looking at the structure of all great stories, there are four common phases:
- The Situation: Where the audience connects with the person and environment of the story
- The Complication(s): The problems the hero is facing. Also a great place for YOU to be vulnerable
- The Turning Point: This is the AH-HA moment
- The Resolution: What the future holds, a new way forward, and a vision of success
Note: There is too much to cover on story telling and persuasion for this post, so I will put that in one most likely next week.
Essentially, I look at this stage as your opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of the buyers situation and create a hypothesis around what has been discussed. But STILL not to provide the solution. I also use the term, “conceptual agreement.” Your goal is to restate what you have heard, use a story format, make them the hero, and show them a new way forward.
All you want to get here is an agreement that they need A solution, not necessarily your solution. (This is important in how you frame your language)
Here is an example:
“Before we move forward, I want to make sure that I understand your story. Is that okay with you? Great. Right now, you’ve built a successful business that has been steadily growing year after. And you have some awesome staff that have been a big part of the success. But, right now you are starting to see that the growth has created more complexity in your business and things have begun to slip – especially in sales. Your team has reached a bit of a plateau and in some cases, performance has deteriorated. And don’t feel bad, it happens to all of us. You wonder whether it is just your reps becoming complacent, if it is a change in the way people buy, or if it’s just how the market is. Plus, you have some seasoned reps who tell you all sorts of reasons why it’s not working. Does that sound right so far? Good. What we have uncovered in our discussion today is that you currently don’t have a formalized process and it’s been increasingly difficult understanding the exact areas where performance has suffered, therefore it’s hard to find what to do next. If you could create a system of repeatable best practices where you can then see where the real performance leaks are, you would give yourself the ability to make more strategic decisions, better forecast your revenue, and ensure you have the right team operating at peak performance. And if you were able to make that happen, and soon, you would be in a position to start pursuing some of those new opportunities you have been nervous about. This time next year, with a finely tuned sales machine, you could be in a completely different world. Have I missed anything?”
This is the only time in selling where hearing the word “NO” is awesome.
When you practice this conceptual agreement style, you are watching for nods. Nods mean that what you are saying is resonating with your audience. Always work towards earning nods – in any presentation. Bonus tip: Use conceptual agreement as an email prior to the proposal you send. That way, you open up any last minute objection discussions and ensure you are 100% on point with your solution.
D – Discuss Solutions
If you’re here, the stage is yours. You get to say, “Awesome, let me tell you about how I think we can make that happen for you.” This is where you get to demonstrate your insights, provide information about your company, products, services, and pricing.
It is important to note that people make buying decisions in a predictable order. They are:
- YOUR COMPANY
- YOUR PRODUCT
- YOUR PRICE
- TIME TO BUY
But where does the buyer usually start? Of course they ask, “What is it and how much?” By following the process in the first stages, you have been essentially selling YOU. You are the ultimate value, so make sure you focus on this. Avoid the temptation to dump your product and company info too early. You will lose them.
As long as you deliver a solution here that meets their needs and is within the oscillation of their acceptable price range, you’re good to go! Price is NEVER the objection. Unless it is the only thing you try and sell.
A – Actions and Next Steps
Of all the steps, this is probably the most important. Not just in the sales conversation itself, but in your entire process. Are you asking for commitment to a next step? Are you asking them to take action without pushing them too far out of their comfort zone? Are you setting multiple commitment objectives to allow them to move the process forward in various ways?
Or are you simply allowing them to tell you, “Let me go home and think about it?” (And then bombarding them with useless follow up)
If you do a great job of all the steps above, the buyer will love to move forward, but it’s up to you to guide them.
- A – Set the Agenda (easy to remember, right?)
- G – Gather Assumptions
- E – Explore the Truth
- N – Nods of Understanding (Paraphrase)
- D – Discuss Solutions
- A – Actions and Next Steps
Okay, That’s it for this one today. Again, I wanted to make sure you got a ton out of this and give you something you can apply to your process. Test this out and give it a few months to see how it really works. Let me know how it goes!